Reading about food always makes me hungry, but do you share my appetite for fairytale objects?
It’s hardly news that reading about lusciously described comestibles makes you want to eat them. I still long for the lobster soufflé, worthy of the Montgolfier brothers, made by the protagonist’s mum in Angela Carter’s The Kitchen Child – I’ve never eaten a lobster soufflé, and doubt I ever will, but I want one every time I read the story. What is less discussed, however, are the other, odder cravings which reading triggers, at least in me: the hopeless longings for the gorgeous, shiny baubles writers imbue with unearthly desirability, which can never be found in the utilitarian, workaday world.
My hankerings started early. After reading the tale of Catskin aged about seven, I secretly and passionately wished for a dress made from “the feathers of all the birds of the air”. To this day I’m drawn to extravagantly feathered dresses, stroking them covetously before thinking “Pah! These are the feathers of but one bird. I want them ALL.”
Fairy and folk tales, with their panoply of magical and enticing quest objects or enchanted gifts, have proved a bit of a minefield for me in this respect – and not only as a child. A couple of years ago I drove my partner to despair by ransacking the internet for a silver saucer and a transparent apple, after rereading Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales for possibly the thousandth time and going a little bit funny. Alas, the apple and saucer I eventually procured don’t show the Tzar and the Volga, trading ships and basking sturgeons, but the apple does look like a bit like a “little misty whirlpool” when spun. That’s good enough for me.
A more extravagant yearning, to which, thankfully, I haven’t succumbed, is for the jewel Dr Prunesquallor gives to the Earl’s daughter in the first book of Gormenghast. Passionate, sullen Fuchsia, upset by the appearance of an attention-usurping baby brother, is presented by kindly Dr Prune with “a ruby like a lump of anger”, leaving her too overwhelmed to thank him with more than a smile of “such dark, sweet loveliness” that he is also left uncharacteristically speechless. This smouldering gem, embodying Fuchsia’s wrath and frustration and her elusive beauty as well as the colour of her clothes and name, is not to be found in any Hatton Garden jeweller’s window.
My cravings aren’t limited to the worlds of fairytale or baroque fantasy, although I have a weakness for the good-luck gifts handed out to tormented heroines. But they do tend to be romantic. The inimitable Mary Wesley’s Not That Sort Of Girl stars middle-class Rose, who, like many Wesley heroines, marries stuffy Ned for stability but carries on a sensational affair with half-French, artistic, scruffy Mylo. During the war, Ned sends Rose four sets of exquisite French camiknickers, enabling her to replicate the tender pose of a Bonnard engraving given to her by her lover. Everything about those fictional camiknickers – the luxurious scarcity of French silk in wartime, their delicate shoulder-straps, their understated glamour – makes them impossible to replicate in the real world, especially as camiknickers in the 21st-century have been largely replaced by the godawful teddy, apparently a cheesewire/string-bag hybrid made of 100% crackling polyester.
These days, I’m reluctantly resigned to the fact that I can’t have a necklace of raindrops, a weirdstone, or a wardrobe like the young bride’s in The Bloody Chamber, all Parisian tailor-mades and Poiret gowns. But am I alone in developing these odd longings? Or do you also secretly cherish wishlists it would take a fairy godmother to grant? Tell me if you’ve ever fixated on a fictional object, especially if you’ve tried to track it down in reality.