Monday, March 15, 2010

Women in Folklore: Marian Roalfe Cox

I have to admit that Marian Roalfe Cox (1860-1916) is one of my personal heroes. She would be surprised more than anyone else by that statement. She receives more recognition today, but is still mostly neglected in fairy tale reference books that have entries on much less influential personages. Part of the problem is that little is known about her personal life. I am still trying to obtain a copy of her obituaries but decided not to delay this post any longer so I can move forward with writing others.

From Pat Schaefer's "Unknown Cinderella: The Contribution of Marian Roalfe Cox to the Study of Fairy Tale" in A Companion to the Fairy Tale edited by Hilda Ellis Davidson and Anna Chaudhri.

Born in 1860, Marian Emily Roalfe Cox was a Londoner. She became a reclusive, unassuming person who was home-educated; an industrious individual, yet always hampered by delicate health. At a time when the education of women was ill provided for, the knowledge she attained was truly remarkable. She spoke modern Greek and read the classics in the original. She was familiar with several European languages. Literature, music and science were also of great interest to her, yet she spent most of her life looking after her parents, or they after her. Charlotte Burne remembered in her Folk-Lore Obituary for Miss Cox (1916: 434-5): ‘the pale, fragile-looking girl, who, closely chaperoned by her dignified early Victorian mother, was a regular attendant at the [Folk-Lore Society] meetings’.

Miss Cox joined the Society in 1888, and immediately let it be known that she wanted to be involved in work on its behalf. At first she began writing tabulations of folktales accompanied by extensive bibliographical information. The thoroughness with which she did these must have set a formidable example for others to follow. Her first tabulations appeared in the Folk-Lore Journal (1889: 1-57): eighteen tales which covered fifty-seven pages, far more than her colleagues were to produce. In the 1890 volume of Folk-Lore (1890: 123-8), Cox more than laid the groundwork for what was to come. Her tabulation of ‘Cinderella’ or ‘Aschenputtel’ from Grimms’ Household Tales, translated by Margaret Hunt (1894: 93-100), was exceptional. Under the heading ‘Remarks by the Tabulator’, she listed numerous variants, perhaps the initial collection of material for inclusion in the book which was to come.

After a short time the Society Council asked if she would undertake a project of classifying and analysing variants of the story of ‘Cinderella’. It was then that she began the first major investigation of a single folktale. She recorded the 345 variants in 535 pages, and completed the work in under four years.

From what I can tell, she did all of this work with almost no financial compensation, fueled primarily by her passion for the material and her drive to perform meticulous, detailed work.

Several years ago, I scanned and texted her seminal work, Cinderella: 345 Variants for SurLaLune. It is still the most complicated book I have scanned and made available. As I went through the tabulations and other materials, I was amazed at what she accomplished through letter writing and library work. No email, no computers, nothing to simplify the work except for the helpful input from other eager scholars. On top of that, no one had done this before. There was no format or guide to follow. Yes, she had written tabulations before, but writing and organizing over 345 while including extra information was a formidable task.

I've also relied on her equally meticulous tabulations for Folk-Lore Journal as I've searched for variants of tales. I am always disappointed when Cox didn't tabulate a tale, for she did the job better than anyone else I've found. Few others even attempted what she did regularly. Much of her work is available for reading at Google Books which has made many of the older Folk-Lore Journals available but hard-to-find without mad search engine skills.

Cox also wrote An Introduction to Folk-Lore (London: David Nutt, 1895) which is available online. It's not as important a text as her Cinderella, but still shows her dedication to scholarship, impressive since she was mostly self-educated.

Finally, while I admire Andrew Lang, his introduction to Cox's Cinderella is the one piece of his writing that annoys me whenever I think of it. He is almost insulting in his references to the book and then spends most of the time continuing an argument with fellow folklorists that has nothing to do with introducing this seminal work. He comes across as an egomaniac by his misuse and abuse of the space given him. I wonder what Cox thought of his introduction. She certainly never attempted a similar work again. Neither did anyone else in her lifetime.

Later scholars have built upon her work though, finally recognizing her feat, including The Cinderella Cycle by Anna Birgitta Rooth (1951) and Cinderella Story: The Origins and Variations of the Story Known as Cinderella by Neil Philip and Cinderella: A Casebook edited by Alan Dundes.

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