Joanne Harris’ The Ugly Sister is a short story from Jig & Reels, a collection of stories which combine the magical and the everyday in myriad unsettling ways, whether it’s the school reunion of a class of witches, or a role-playing game which descends into a killing spree.
The Ugly Sister presents the Cinderella story from the perspective of one of the step-sisters. To complicate matters somewhat, the ugly step-sister in question is currently playing the character in a pantomime, yet she is not merely an actress; the reader is required to follow the fantastical logic of the story’s world and accept that our narrator truly is the ugly step-sister. In this way, the story plays with the conventions of both realist and fantasy writing; it grants too much attention to the mundane to fully transcend into a fantasy realm, yet to view the narrator as delusional actress is far too reductive a reading.
The narrator has existed ever since the story of Cinderella came into being, and has evolved alongside it throughout its various reincarnations. Joanne Harris astutely notes the ways in which fairy tales evolve to match the mood of the time, from the cruelty of the Grimm Brothers’ vision (‘the old days were savage, with crows to peck out our eyes’) to the triviality of the pantomime villain. Modern cinema, too, fashioned another angle on the story:
Nowadays, of course, we have trial by Disney, which is almost as bad: evil becomes ridiculous faced with so many pratfalls and flour bombs. There’s no dignity left in being a villain.
Granting a voice to an otherwise marginalised character enables the reader to appreciate a very familiar tale in an entirely new light. Cinderella is presented as irritatingly perfect (‘Mistress Smuggerella was toned, sleek, a perfect size eight’) while the sisters are ordinary, not the hideous caricatures they have become in the popular mindset. It is easier to perceive them as villains, and, by extension, the blonde, petite Cinderella as the downtrodden, oppressed heroine, by rendering them monstrously ugly.
The narrator uses her own treatment at the hands of her biographers to raise a slightly unsettling point about history: that it ‘favours the lookers’. Throughout human history, an association has been made between beauty and virtue; to be ugly is to have your sins written across your face. The theory of Physiognomy, for example, may appear out-dated and pseudo-scientific to us, yet have we truly moved on from believing we can read people’s characters in their faces? Although the story of Cinderella has been rewritten countless times throughout the ages, our attitudes towards ugliness seem to have remained static. In The Ugly Sister, Joanne Harris draws upon the reader’s knowledge of a conventional fairy-tale to probe our understandings of the connections between internal virtue and exterior appearance.