The blurb on the back on the Panther edition promises titillation in rather 1970s Observer fashion: ‘Perhaps you’d better find out what those fairies are up to at the bottom of your garden …’, assuming (a) that you have a garden, and (b) supervision of it is something you will be held to account for. But this 1972 book is really not what the title, and blurb, suggest: it’s a literary-historical study of how love, romance and sex (very mildly described) were presented through British folklore, myth and the supernatural, weighed down with a lot of clunky Freudianism. The amount of Freudian interpretation in this book, even of Shakespeare’s plays and Paradise Lost, made me suspect, possibly unfairly, that this was a project of Freudian analysis looking for a subject, but it is avoidable, if you’re not that interested in penis envy.
Let us consider the good bits: Duffy on Arthuriana and the Church’s co-opting of fairy roles and the figure of the Elfin Knight; a lengthy chapter on traditional folk beliefs about fairies; Spenser and the Fairie Queene. Although I think Duffy goes awry when she plunges into Shakespearean criticism, she makes a fascinating case for arguing exactly when fairies began to be given wings, and what Inigo Jones’ staging in the masque had to do with it.
I don’t really buy the idea that Swift’s Lilliput has anything to do with fairies, but the rest of her eighteenth-century chapter, on Ariel and the Sylphs in The Rape of the Lock, is very persuasive. I don’t think she’s read enough on Scottish witch-hunts for her arguments that James I and VI’s British witch-hunting campaign was short-lived. And then she zooms off to psychanalyse Keats, at length, with too much cherry-picking from his biography to round out her arguments. She deals vigorously with Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, hurtles through Peter Pan, and ends by arguing (this was just after the British New Wave) that science fiction would be the new fairy home, among the stars.
The Erotic World of Faery is dated, and it’s very long (I haven’t posted any reviews recently due to wading through this). I do think that the Freudianism can be skipped without much of interest being lost. But Duffy is very good on human sexuality as reflected through fairy-tales, and the displacement activities that creating fairy mythologies can resolve. She’s an excellent literary historian, and writes persuasively throyghout. I think it likely that this was an influential text in its day: I’ve been editing Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin for publication in October, and Duffy’s book, which came out a year or two before Warner began writing her stories, includes many background details that also appear in Warner’s stories. Angela Carter may also have read it. It’s certainly worth getting hold of if you’re interested in the fairy world.
7 thoughts on “Maureen Duffy, The Erotic World of Faery”
Um, Defoe’s Lilliput?
Argh, yes. I constantly confuse the two. I did this in a lecture once and had students writing to me about it for days. Fixed now, thanks.
Have just finished this fascinating book (relevant to my current research into the mid-nineteenth century, but actually she covers such a vast field that it’s relevant to everything!) and have been looking around to see if others, like me, felt the Freudianism too heavy-handed. It seems you did; I’ll be interested to see the reactions of other folklorists. But I totally agree with you that she is an excellent literary historian and an excellent writer.
Yes, though I think the period in which she was writing would have influenced the sheer amount of Freudianism here. Might be worth checking to see if Jungianism was also present (though I didn’t notice it, and it is quite unmistakeable), as this too was big in the 1970s.
Sounds as if she isn’t keen on Jung. Speaking of the desire to escape from the difficulties of life in the earlier twentieth century, she writes: “It led too to the perversion of the observed, clinical insights of Freud into the neo-mysticism of Jungian pseudo-psychology.” (end of the chapter “Do You Believe in fairies?”, p 200 in the paperback edition I have.)
Reading this book has interested me in her other work as novelist and poet—I think I tried one of her novels once and for some reason didn’t get into it, but they are very well-regarded.
I’m now going to read a recent book on fairy stories, ‘Seven Miles of Steel Thistles,’ by Katherine Langrish. Then of course there’s Marina Warner…
I would like to try Langrish, that book is very well regarded. But Warner – she’s like Robert Macfarlane, or he is like her: lofty writing about essential verities, masses of facts and concepts, but a feeling of no rigour, no connecting tissue, just nothing there, underneath the show. I tried one of her books (think it might have been Signs and Wonders) and was so disappointed.
Yes, I’m sure the Langrish book is excellent. Very interesting what you say about Warner, and about Robert Macfarlane—actually I heard Macfarlane speak and loved his presentation, and I have a couple of his books, though haven’t yet read them properly….I admire what I know of him so far, so I am interested in this verdict of “no rigour, no connecting tissue…” As I say, haven’t yet read him thoroughly and so will see if I find the same….. I do support his Lost Words project though. Warner has recently come out with a new book…