Cinderella #326 Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (Maguire, G., 1999)
Once upon a time, there lived two sisters. One was skinny and one was fat, and their names were Iris and Ruth. This is the story of what they found when they fled England one awful night in the year 1652. We see them now, two big girls and their mother, Margarethe,, who "is bad-tempered because she is terrified". She has traded her last valuables for passage and gnawed scraps of bread. They three stand in Haarlem, Holland,bound desperately for the home of Grandfather, a wealthy man. Surely he will take them in, feed them, and give them shelter? But now, 'the sun rolls westward, the light falls lengthwise, the foreigners step into their shadows." Picking their way through ice cold puddles, they reach Grandfather's at last. That's when they find out that "he has died a few years ago, and those who live inside are not family and and have no obligation to take in the hungry strangers." Yet their path does cross with someone who will play a role in their future. She's a girl who "has hair as fine as winter wheat" and eyes that are "the blue of lapis lazuli or the strongest cornflower". Her name is Clara, and she will, of course, become stepdaughter to wiley Margarethe. First, however, mysterious Master Schoonmaker, the painter, gets involved, when he takes the trio in as housekeepers. He is a man who paints religious iconography for pay, but his private works are a a catalogue of "God's mistakes". One day a dwarf man comes to the door, and it is Iris who answers the knock. She is appalled to hear him declare to the Master, "For half a loaf of bread, I'll remove my smalls and and show you how the barber tickled my gangrenous limbs with his knives." Schoonmaker responds curtly by saying, "Get out. I'm interested in the varieties of the fallen, to be sure, but right now I'm busy with flowers. And I don't like you uncivil tongue when there's a girl present." As time passes, Iris will become tutor to mysterious Clara of the white-blond hair, which leads to the family moving into the girl's stately home. And that is how Master Schoonmaker meets Clara, and how he comes to paint her portrait. It is this magnificent painting which will provide Margarethe and her girls an introduction to the Dowager Queen of France some years later. But Clara is as enigmatic as she is beautiful, claiming to be a changeling. The girl refuses to leave her home, and her mother colludes in her seclusion from the world. When Clara's mother dies and Margarethe jumps at the chance to marry the wealthy widower she leaves behind. Papa Cornelius, as he is now known by Iris and Ruth, agrees with his new wife that Clara's circumstances must be changed, and orders her to venture forth. But after some disastrous excursions outside, Clara retreats to the kitchen hearth. She declares herself happy in this "private place" and commands her stepsisters to "call me Ashgirl, Cinderella, I don't care. I am safe in the kitchen." Thus begins the series of events that lead to the Dowager Queen's interest in the reclusive Clara. Meanwhile, Margarethe is settling in comfortably as wealthy matron. She has extravagant clothing made for herself, and a special pair of shoes. They are of "leather pounded so smooth as to fit like a skin" which "shines with an oil so it's like looking at shoes of porcelain or cloudy glass." These are the very shoes that Clara will later wear to a ball hosted by the Dowager Queen. Gossip has it that the reason for the ball is "to introduce one of her relatives or godchildren to Dutch society". Perhaps this relative "may even be looking for a bride among the assembled ranks of young women." With such high stakes, it is no wonder that Iris, Ruth and Clara are thrust into the limelight of the ball by Margarethe. But something goes horribly awry, quite suddenly, with Papa Cornelius' fortunes, tied as they are to the tulip trade. Nonetheless, "the great evening arrives at last. The girls at the door of the house, caught in a sweep of updraft that makes an airy rustle of silks." As they skim along the road in their carriage, "the stars shimmer in their fastenings and a moon releases a bruising pinkness upon the world.". They arrive at the ball's location, the private home of the Pruyn family. It is made of stone, which "is a golden pink,lit by several well-trimmed torches, giving an ample, even light. Servants suited up in French fashion stand in two ranks, one on either side of the door." They enter without notice. But later, when Clara strides through the door, "a small but palpable gasp rises from the crowd." The prince cannot take his eyes off of her, and the rest, as they say, is history, though twisted and distorted by angle.
From: Magquire, G. (1999) Confessions of An Ugly Stepsister. (368 pages) New York: Harper