Ever been to the Alabama Museum of Health Sciences? Neither had I. I’d never even heard of it until an invitation to its current exhibit, “The Charm Was Broken: Illness and Injury in the Fairy Tales of Mary de Morgan,” landed in my inbox last week. As it turns out, the grotesquely disfigured heads and hands, floating in their specimen jars, and centuries-old anatomical models, especially a selection of meticulously carved ivory miniatures, created the perfect setting for an otherworldly contemplation of magic, madness, disease, death and science.
These days, we tend to think of fairy tales as light and airy entertainments. Princesses as virtuous as they are beautiful, and their noble, handsome princes making it through evil painlessly vanquished or redeemed, to land in their obligatory happy endings. But once upon a time these were much darker tales. Goldilocks doesn’t escape from the three bears after all. No woodsman comes to Little Red Riding’s rescue. Sleeping Beauty’s stupor doesn’t stop her already-married Prince Charming from getting her pregnant, with twins, no less. Punishments are swift and brutal — eyes pecked out by birds, feet forced into red hot iron slippers. Not so much the stuff of sweet dreams after all.
The best of Mary de Morgan’s tales are mindful of their origins. Happy endings, when they come, are hard-earned and may not match our expectations. The clear line we seek between good and evil is nowhere to be found. The familiar ground on which we think we’re standing slips and slides beneath our feet into something else entirely — something scarier, and much more interesting.
De Morgan herself quite fails to live up to our expectations of a Victorian authoress. She was kind of a badass, by the standards of her day. An outspoken, unmarried suffragist, she wasn’t one to back down from an argument, never learned to value etiquette over honesty, and counted artists and radical socialists as friends. Their influence can be seen in some of her stories, as she questions gender roles, and challenges a strict class structure. So too can be the shadow of consumption that made its way through her family, before killing her in 1907.
Science and storytelling spring from the same impulse, our desire to explain the inexplicable, find some order in the chaos of our lives, rendering the world a bit less randomly terrifying. But tension between the two persists. Even now, in the enlightened, data-saturated 21st century, some prefer stories to science. They insist vaccines caused their children’s autism, all evidence to the contrary, or claim they suffer symptoms of diseases such as Morgellon’s Syndrome, for whose existence no scrap of evidence has been found.
Valerie Gribben came to the UAB School of Medicine with an unusually literary background, having already written the first two volumes of her now completed Fairytale Trilogy. She began her medical studies with the assumption she’d have to keep her dual interests compartmentalized, maintain a strict separation between magic and science. Instead she found science offered her a new way into the stories she loved, showing her the parallels between the stories’ magical transformations and real-world diseases.
A look at Gribben’s own writing makes the appeal of De Morgan’s tales obvious. Fairytale Trilogy is the story of Marianne, a girl as likely to be rescuer as rescued, and her adventures as she searches for her true identity. Along the way she finds love, of course, as well as the strength to create her own destiny, rather than accepting any conventional happy ending. Marianne is an avid reader of fairy tales herself. She cannot resist the thrilling stories, but recognizes ridiculous romanticism when she sees it. They could be called her guilty pleasure, yet they are emblematic of her character, a fairy tale heroine whose feet are firmly planted on the metaphorical, if not always literal, ground. Her relationship to them is not entirely unlike my own to the hard work of keeping up with all those crazy Kardashians. I know it’s wrong, but in the moment it feels oh-so-right. Ultimately, Marianne’s love of fantasy delivers her into her true love’s arms, while the prospect of Kim and company doing the same for me is horrible beyond my worst imaginings.
In De Morgan’s tales, Gribben found portraits of depression, hysteria, tuberculosis and syphilis, among other pathologies. The exhibit she conceived of works its magic by juxtaposing passages of text and illustrations drawn from first editions of De Morgan’s works with her contemporaries’ descriptions of illness and their own accompanying illustrations. Illustrations from other, older tales provide historical context, and handy instructions for performing surgery upon a giant, because, well, one never knows. This approach neatly elides any tension between fact and fancy. Instead of pressing visitors to chose one over the other, the exhibit creates a space in which the two can coexist, each strengthened by proximity to the other.
“The Charm Was Broken: Illness and Injury in the Fairy Tales of Mary de Morgan,” is on display at the Alabama Museum of the Health Sciences, 1700 University Blvd., Ste. 300, through May 31. Hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. To learn more, call (205) 934-4475 or www.uab.edu/amhs.