Exploring the Lore Behind Fairy Tales

Faculty Spotlight: Molly Clark Hillard (English)

Written by Tina Potterf
Photography by Gordon Inouye
September 25, 2014
When most think of fairy tales, their minds wander to classic stories passed down through generations and popularized through vivid children’s books that tell the tale of Cinderella and her wicked stepsisters or Rapunzel and her long, golden hair. Others think of fairy tales in terms of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong or distinctive characters that come alive on TV and in film, from Peter Pan and Snow White to Little Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty.

Many may not know the true origins of these beloved fairy tales or the underlying meanings and messages that imbue them.

“We tend to think of fairy tales as quaint, idealized and ahistorical,” says Assistant Professor Molly Clark Hillard, who joined the College of Arts and Sciences English department in 2013. “In reality though, these are potent narratives that served and continue to serve as cultural allegories.”

As a teacher and scholar, Hillard is an expert in matters of the Victorian period and fairy tales—both the stories themselves and the writers behind them. At SU she teaches courses primarily in 19th-century literature and culture. She has taught or will teach such special topics courses as “Victorian Childhood,” “Victorian Monsters,” and “Victorian Detectives.” An upcoming course, “Victorian Afterlives,” will explore how 19th-century authors have influenced contemporary literature.

Years of scholarly research, including combing through countless archival records and books on fairy tales in United Kingdom and the United States, helped shape Hillard’s latest book, Spellbound: The Fairy Tale and the Victorians, released earlier this year. Spellbound explores the Victorian era’s fascination with and use of fairy tales and investigates novels by Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte; the poetry of Lord Alfred Tennyson and Christina Rossetti; visual artistry; and popular theatricals of dramatists including James Planché and Leicester Buckingham.

“Fairy tales were written as way to talk about subjects that were uncomfortable,” she says, such as the hardships of working class families and the impact on their children or the effect of industrialization on cities and communities. “When I did the research, I found that the earliest versions of fairy tales were stranger, more sexualized than you might expect. They could be put to various uses, like describing the change that came with industrialization.”

In grad school Hillard sharpened her focus on studying Victorian scholars following a class taught by an expert on the subject. “I became a convert.”

“I’ve always had a special interest in Victorian history and literature. I have abiding love of the fantastic,” she says. “Victorian literature can be very radical in subtle ways. As a feminist scholar as well as a historical scholar, that appeals to me, to find the subversive elements that show how literature can be used for human rights purposes as well.”

As a professor, her approach to teaching is to serve as “an active facilitator,” with students leading and driving the discussion.
“I feel extremely fortunate to do what I love at a place that I love,” she says. “And being with students both in the moment of collaboration and when they a ‘aha’ moment or an epiphany gives me goose bumps.”
Hillard likes to mix literature with art that exemplifies Victorian visual culture. The connection between the visual arts and the written word is driven home through experiential learning that extends outside of the classroom, with visits to museums and historical sites in and around the city where vestiges of the Victorian era are present.

Soon Hillard will embark on her next book, which will center on the intersection of Victorian and contemporary literature.
Molly Clark Hillard joined the College of Arts and Sciences in 2013.