Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 19 (1988)
At the beginning of chapter 15 of Silas Marner (1861), there is a reference to a well-known fairy tale. The paragraph is as follows:
That famous ring that pricked its owner when he forgot duty and followed desire - - I wonder if it pricked very hard when he set out on the chase, or whether it pricked but lightly then, and only pierced to the quick when the chase had long been ended, and hope, folding her wings, looked backward and became regret? (Penguin ed., p. 191)
Joseph Wiesenfarth has identified the fairy tale as 'Prince Darling.' He quotes from the first of Andrew Lang's anthologies, The Blue Fairy Book (1889), which gives its source simply as the Cabinet des foes. After briefly summarizing the story, he concludes, 'Fairyland paraphernalia removed, Darling's story is Godfrey's' ('Demythologizing SM' ELH 37,1970,226-244; p.231). My intention is not to elaborate on this parallel, but to propose where and when George Eliot is most likely to have read the story, and to suggest that its author may have been an important influence on her.
George Eliot could well have read 'Prince Darling' recently, for example in Four and Twenty Fairy Tales, edited by J. R. Planché. (London, 1858), but there is no copy of this book in her library. It is much more probable that she read the story as a child - i.e. between 1826 and 1829. I doubt if she read it in the Cabinet des fles, a vast 41-volume collection of fairytales edited by M. de Mayer (Amsterdam, 1785-89). 'Le Prince Chéri' (Prince Darling) is found in volume 35, which contains ten fairy-tales by MME Le Prince de Beaumont. There are two other possibilities. She may have come across it in a children's anthology: 'Prince Cheri' (often corrupted into 'Prince Cherry') was a favourite story during the early nineteenth century (see Planché, pp. 547-8). But the most likely hypothesis is that she read the work in which the story originally appeared: The Young Misses Magazine (London, 1756/57) by MME Le Prince de Beaumont, an enormously popular educational work which was frequently reprinted until well into the nineteenth century.