Introducing Mary de Morgan

This article written by Kate Forsyth was first published on and is reproduced here with permission because it relates to one of the stories featured in Vasilisa the Wise (‘The Toy Princess’).

Ask anyone for the names of the great fairy tale tellers, and most people will answer Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen.  A few may summon up the names Andrew Lang, Oscar Wilde or George Macdonald.  But hardly anyone will mention Mary de Morgan, Pre-Raphaelite, suffragette, and one of England’s first feminist fairy tale writers, even though her literary fairy tales were as beautiful, strange and eerie as any told by the famous meabove.

‘Help me, sweet Love!’ she cried, and then began to weep.
‘Poor Queen Blanchelys!’ said Love. ‘Your rose-tree is dead then.’
‘My tree is dead,’ sobbed Queen Blanchelys, ‘and the King loves me no more. Ah, tell me who has killed my tree?’
‘Your cousin Zaire has killed it,’ said Love. ‘She asked Envy to help her, and Envy has given her a viper, which she laid at the tree’s roots, and it has spat its deadly venom on to the red heart (of the rose) … and killed it.’
‘Tell me, then, how to make it live again,’ gasped the Queen.
‘There is only one thing in the world that can do that!’ said Love.
‘And what is that?’ asked the Queen.
The blood from your own heart,’ said Love.
— ‘Seeds of Love’, On A Pincushion & Other Fairy Tales (1877), Mary de Morgan

Mary de Morgan was born in London in February 1850, a month of wild storms in which windows were broken by hail, slates were torn off roofs, chimneys were blown down, and ships were wrecked upon the shore. She was the youngest daughter of the brilliant mathematician Augustus de Morgan and his wife Sophia, who was tutor to Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron and an accomplished mathematician herself.

When Mary was three years old, her sister Alice died from measles at the age of 15. This great sorrow drew her mother into spiritualism, and she began to hold séances in her home and to attend lectures and demonstrations by mediums. At the age of six, Mary began to dream about Alice, seeing her playing in a garden attended by doves and haloed with gold. Her mother Sophia began to record Mary’s dreams and other psychic occurrences (including Mary’s uncanny ability to tell people’s futures from reading their palms). Sophia de Morgan’s book, From Matter to Spirit: The Result of Ten Years’ Experience in Spirit Manifestation, was published in 1862, when Mary was thirteen. It is one of the seminal work on spiritualism in Victorian times.

A year or so later, Mary and her favourite brother, William de Morgan, met William Morris and were drawn into the circle of Pre-Raphaelites. William de Morgan eagerly adopted the principles and philosophies of this group of free-thinking bohemians, and became a famous potter, designer and novelist.  Mary and her brother were frequent guests at the Morris home, and were well acquainted with Edward Burne-Jones and his family, and with Christina Rossetti and her artist-brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Mary was known for her boldness and outspokenness. She once told the landscape artist Henry Holiday: ‘All artists are fools! Look at yourself and Mr. Solomon.’  Agnes Poynter, Georgiana Burne-Jones’s sister, wrote of her at the time: ‘She chattered awfully, and Louie, she is only just fifteen. I believe a judicious course of snubbing would do her good!’

Mary’s mother Sophia was an early campaigner for women’s rights, attending meetings and marches, and signing the famous petition of 1866. From the age of sixteen, Mary was active in the suffragette movement too, and was also involved with her mother in the fight against animal cruelty.

Her family were sadly riddled with consumption, and in Mary’s late teens she lost her brother George, her sister Chrissie and her father. Sophia and Mary moved in with William in his rather ramshackle artist’s lodging, and Mary began to write stories of her own. Her first publication was in 1873, a collection of stories co-authored with a female friend, Edith Helen Dixon, and entitled Six by Two: Stories of Old Schoolfellows.

In 1873, at a Christmas party at the Burne-Jones’s house in Kensington, Mary entertained the children by telling them fairy tales. Her audience included Jenny and May Morris, Philip and Margaret Burne-Jones, and their cousins, Rudyard and Alice Kipling, and Angela and Denis Mackail.  The children were enchanted and kept begging her for more. Mary wrote down the stories she told them, and these were published in 1877 under the title On A Pin-Cushion, when she was just twenty-seven.


Illustration by Walter Crane, from the literary fairy tale ‘The Wise Princess’ by Mary de Morgan Source

Some of the tales in this collection are just extraordinary. There’s ‘The Story of Vain Lamorna’, a pretty girl who is badly scarred in her quest for beauty and only then realises the emptiness of vanity; ‘The Seeds of Love’, a tragic tale of love gone wrong; and ‘The Toy Princess’, a subversive tale about a princess whose fairy godmother rescued her from the stifling etiquette of the royal court and replaced her with a robot-princess who only spoke a few stock polite phrases. The real princess is brought up by a fisherman and his family and learns the value of hard work and true love.  I love this last story of Mary de Morgan’s in particular, and retold it for my collection of feminist fairy tales, Vasilisa the Wise & Other Tales of Brave Young Women, (illustrated by Lorena Carrington & published by Serenity Press).

Another fairy tale collection, Necklace of Princess Florimonde, was published in 1880. The stories show her strong liberal philosophies, with tales like ‘The Bread of Discontent’ illuminating the evils of poor-quality mass-produced goods, in contrast to the loving work of artisans and craftspeople.

In 1887, Mary’s brother William married another artist, Evelyn Pickering, who (under her married name, Evelyn de Morgan) became one of the most accomplished (and mystical) painters of the later Pre-Raphaelite movement. Mary had to move out and live on her own, supporting herself as a typist while she continued to write. Her tragic novel of social realism, A Choice of Chance, was published in that same year.  Her friendship with William Morris continued to deepen, and she became involved with his activities with the early British socialists. She undertook social work in East End slums, attended suffragette rallies, and in 1899, joined Emmeline Pankhurst’s ‘Women’s League’.

In 1898, she was one of the few people admitted to William Morris’s bedchamber as he lay dying of tuberculosis. She helped nurse him and told him stories to keep him entertained, and helped his wife Jane and daughter May embroider the famous bed-hangings which can now be seen at Kelmscott Manor.  In 1900, Mary’s last book The Wind Fairies and Other Tales was published, and five years later she went to Egypt to run a reformatory school for girls. She died in Cairo in 1907, of tuberculosis.


Illustration by Walter Crane, from the literary fairy tale ‘The Wise Princess’ by Mary de Morgan Source

In 1963, Victor Gollanz published The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde – The Complete Fairy Stories of Mary de Morgan, with an introduction by Roger Lancelyn Green. Mary is quoted as saying: I am so thankful I have only a small income – it is so delightful planning things and deciding what one can afford. It would bore me to death to be rich!’

I find the life and work of Mary de Morgan utterly fascinating. I badly wanted to tell her story in my novel, Beauty in Thorns, inspired by the lives of the Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood, but in the end her chapters ended up on the cutting-room floor. Maybe one day I will turn them into a novel!

It has been suggested that Mary de Morgan’s stories have been forgotten because she was a woman, and certainly her feminism was radical and confronting for the times in which she lived.  It may also be because many of her tales ended tragically, eschewing the traditional ‘happy ever after’ denouements of classic fairy tales.  Not all stories end happily, however, and there is something so powerful and sorrowful about Mary de Morgan’s struggle to change the world through her storytelling.

‘Then she kissed him softly thrice, and bid him adieu, and went out of the palace to her dear rose-tree in the garden. It was nothing now but a bare black stump. So Queen Blanchelys lay down on the ground, and put her arms round the trunk, and from the dead branch she tore a long smooth thorn, and pierced her heart with it, and the drops of blood trickled to the roots of the tree, and at once the serpent at the roots shrivelled and died, and the tree again began to bud and sprout.

When the King awoke in the morning the first thing he saw was the Queen’s letter, and he took it and read it at once, and as he read his cheeks turned pale, and he sighed bitterly, and then he called his courtiers, and told them what had happened, and they all went out into the garden to the rose-tree, under which lay dead poor Queen Blanchelys.

But the tree which before was only a piece of dead wood was covered with green leaves and rose-buds.

The King kissed the Queen’s pale face, and ordered that there should be a grand funeral, and that she should be buried under the rose-tree, and from that day forth the King thought of no-one but Queen Blanchelys … but Zaire was stripped of all her fine dresses and jewels … and was banished from the land, and had to beg her bread for door to door.

But when the rose-tree burst into bloom, the roses which were white before were as red as the blood which sprang from the Queen’s heart …’

— ‘Seeds of Love’, On A Pincushion & Other Fairy Tales (1877), Mary de Morgan

To read a  story from Kate Forsyth, ‘Dreams of the Dead’, a secret chapter from her novel Beauty in Thorns, shared exclusively with Folklore Thursday, click here.

The Making of a Dress

I spent much of last week making a dress. The best thing? I didn’t even need a sewing machine. The worst? I can never wear it, and I really want to!

Kate and I are working on the follow-up to Vasilisa the Wise, and I’m in the wonderful phase of dreaming up new illustrations. I couldn’t resist throwing myself into the most complicated one I’ve thought up so far. It requires a dress, embroidered all over with blue roses.

My first task was to visit my mum. My parents live in her family home, which has been passed down through several generations, through the maternal line. I grew up in that house, as did my mother (and her sister) and her mother before her. It was knocked down and rebuilt into its current incarnation in 1946 after my grandparents were married – so my grandmother grew up in the old house, but the ‘new’ one reused the old window and door frames. We all went to the same primary school, walked the path down to the shops, and looked out over the same valley of lights at night.

So, with all that history, I knew I’d find a treasure trove of lace and embroidered linens. I needed roses, so we pulled great piles of linen out of the hallway cupboard. I sorted through them and found 20 or so pieces that would work for what I needed. Aren’t they lovely?


The stories behind many of them are lost to time, but they are a lovely connection to my family’s history.

When I brought them home, I photographed them all, in their entirely and in detail.


Then into Photoshop we go… I started by isolating the design and removing the background, which is more complicated than it looks, especially when working on pieces with a deep fabric weave. Several of them required a steady hand, as I drew around the stitched design. Once they were selected out and put against a clean white background, I converted them to black and white, and changed to colour balance to turn them all a different shade of blue.

There was a lot of lace too. I photographed those on a black background, darkened the exposure and dialled up the blue.

As I went, I placed each one onto a silhouetted photograph one of my own dresses. To make it clearer, I recorded a screen cast of some of the process. This is taken from a few sessions of the digital process, sped up by 20,000%! If only I worked this fast.

It took me two full days to get this far. The illustration is far from finished, but just making the dress feels like a good achievement. The dress itself may change a little for the final illustration, but here it is for now: several generations of everyday history rewoven into a new life.

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The history of Vasilisa


This week Vasilisa the Wise & Other Tales of Brave Young Women is finally launched into the world.

To celebrate I thought I would explore the history of the titular tale, which is one of the best-known and best-loved Russian fairy-tales. An old oral tale, it was transcribed by Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev between 1855-67 and first published in his collection, Russian Fairy Tales.

There are many different versions of the story, many of which are called ‘Vasilisa (or Vassilisa) the Beautiful’. I deliberately chose the title which did not focus on the heroine’s beauty but rather on her wit and wisdom.

In nearly all of the tales, a young woman is sent by her cruel step-mother to fetch fire from Baba-Yaga, a terrifying witch who lives in the midst of a dark forest and rides about in a giant iron mortar (a bowl for grinding food), which she steers with a pestle (the grinding tool).

Baba-Yaga lives in a house with chicken legs and is known to eat children. The hut has a life of its own. It walks about, spins in circles, and emits bloodcurdling screeches. A fence made of human bones surrounds the hut, topped with skulls whose blazing eye sockets light up the forest.

There are many stories about Baba-Yaga in Slavic myths. The very earliest ones refer to her as ‘Snake-Baba’. In pre-Christian mythology, snakes were not seen as evil. They were instead powerful emblems of rebirth and transformation, since they shed their old skins for new. Snakes was therefore seen as wise and powerful beings that had much to teach about the natural cycles of time and the seasons.

It is thought that the term ‘yaga’ is a corruption of the Russian words ‘uzkii’ which means ‘narrow’ or ‘snakelike’, and ‘uzh’ which means ‘grass-snake’, both developing from the Old Slavic word ‘ужь’.

The same old Slavic word led to the Latin words ‘anguis’ (snake), ‘anguinus’ (pertaining to a snake), and ‘angustus’ (meaning to squeeze or tighten like a snake), which interestingly enough also led eventually to the English word ‘anguish’.

The word ‘baba’ is linked to ‘babushka’, which means grandmother, but in its shorter form means simply any woman, young or old.

So in the earliest tales, Baba-Yaga is not a figure of evil, but rather a wild, dark, wise figure whose role is to help the heroine change and grow.

Once upon a time, older women were seen as ‘crones’, the keepers of wisdom and tradition for the family or clan. These wise women were thought to understood the mysteries of birth, life and death. Often they were healers and midwives, who brought babies into the world and cared for those who were dying.

Baba-Yaga contains within her these wise old women, as well as later ideas of witches as ugly and evil.

Her links to nature and the cycle of time are emphasised by her servants, the White Horseman, the Red Horseman and the Black Horseman, who she calls, ‘My Bright Dawn, my Red Sun and my Dark Midnight’ because they control daybreak, sunrise, and nightfall.

Vasilisa comes to her hut searching for fire, which symbolically means the light of wisdom. She has to endure a series of trials and tribulations, but is helped in her quest by the little wooden doll given to her by her dead mother. The doll symbolises the ancient maternal wisdom of the crone, but is also Vasilia’s own intuition, helping her find her way.

Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estés interprets the story of Baba-Yaga in her seminal work on fairy-tales, Women who Run with the Wolves. She wrote:

To my mind, the old Russian tale “Vasalisa” is a woman’s initiation story with few essential bones astray. It is about the realization that most things are not as they seem. As women we call upon our intuition and instincts in order to sniff things out. We use all our senses to wring the truth from things, to extract nourishment from our own ideas, to see what there is to see to know what there is to know, to be the keepers of our own creative fires, and to have intimate knowing about the Life/Death/ Life cycles of all nature – that is an initiated woman.

Stories with Vasalisa as a central character are told in Russia, Romania, Yugoslavia, Poland and throughout all the Baltic countries. In some instances, the tale is commonly called “Wassilissa the Wise.” I find evidence of its archetypal roots dating back at least to the old horse-Goddess cults which predate classical Greek culture. This tale carries ages-old psychic mapping about induction into the underworld of the wild female.’

I certainly see the tale as one of female liberation. Vasilisa journeys from a position of childlike submission to one of strength, wisdom and independence. The little wooden doll advises and supports her, but Vasilisa herself must choose what actions to take.

Step by slow step, she turns from a girl into a woman. She sheds her old skin and is reborn.

Castlemaine Launch

Last Thursday, Castlemaine Library hosted the first launch of Vasilisa the Wise and Other Tales of Brave Young Women. About seventy people came along and shared the celebration, one that’s been several years in the making.

The wonderful Carmel Bird gave the launch speech and began:

Once in a kingdom far far away there lived a kind and wonderful witch. In her generous witchy heart she nurtured a deep desire – she longed for a great book of stories, a book that recognised and celebrated the courage and cleverness and power of young women. The wonderful witch mixed a potion, stirred it in her cauldron, and watched the blue and green mist as it rose mysteriously from the pot. It was perfumed with lavender and honeysuckle, eucalypt and wattle, and it wove in and out of the treetops until it began to form into words that hung like spider webs on the branches. And the message was:

By Light and By Dark; By Night and By Day:

Summon Lorena Carrington; Summon Kate Forsyth; Search the wilds of Western Australia for Serenity Press.

And so she did. And lo – you now have before you the self-same book that the good witch desired.

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Many of you will know Carmel’s work. She’s a true literary genius, so I was rather pleased to keep my (relative) cool on stage next to her. She was incredibly gracious and clever and wise, and spoke deeply about the book and its place in the world.

This book comes at a time when women across the world are suddenly speaking out very loudly about the violence and oppression that have been accepted as a normal expectation in western society. Fairy tales, for all their pleasures, are a subtle and powerful way of speaking out. The term ‘sisterhood’ became current, I think, in the seventies, and what is being heard now is the voice of the sisterhood united and enabled by current technology. This book adds its voice in a dramatic and sometimes subversive way.

I spoke afterwards about the power of social media. How one well-timed tweet affected the course of several professional lives, and triggered the creation of a book (and more to come)! I also garbled a lot of thank yous and tried not to go wobbly in front of a theatre of friends and strangers. I also pulled a lot of weird faces.

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We had originally planned to hold the launch in the foyer connected to the library, but had to move the formal proceedings to the attached theatre due to large numbers (yay!). Here is some of the crowd milling about in the foyer afterwards.

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I’m so grateful to our local bookstore Stoneman’s Bookroom, and especially the dedicated people who work there. Here’s the incredible Katherine – oh and look, a pile of books!


Castlemaine Library went above and beyond in their hosting of the launch, and I can’t thank them enough – just look at these lanterns they made!

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While it felt more than a little strange to have this first launch without Kate and Serenity Press (the pitfalls of geography and time…) they were certainly here in spirit, and there will be more launches to come! It was also a fantastic reminder of the wonderful community here in Castlemaine; filled with fellow creatives and supporters of the arts.

You can order Vasilisa the Wise from the Serenity Press website. Or win a free copy over at Goodreads! The giveaway is open until Jan 10th.

Or support your local bookseller: if they don’t have any in stock, ask them! They will be happy to order it for you, and it helps us too.

Thank you so much to all who came last Thursday. It was an incredible turn-out for a week day evening in a country town. And for those who live elsewhere, do keep an ear to the ground for launches in select capital cities early next year. We can’t wait to see you all!

Listen carefully, Vasilisa

As publication date nears, Serenity Press has recorded a short excerpt of Vasilisa the Wise & Other Tales of Brave Young Girls. Have a listen – turn the sound up.

The video was voiced by Monique Mulligan, with music called “Low Horizon” by Kai Engel providing a marvellous soundtrack.

The next step is to create a Spotify playlist! What would you include on it? Add your selections in the comments and we’ll check them out.


Don’t forget, you can order your copy of Vasilisa here. It’s shipped worldwide!

Trailer: Vasilisa the Wise

“Morning is wiser than the evening.” Vasilisa, Russian fairy tale

Our proofs are at the printer and should soon be on the ship, ready for despatch to Australia – we are so thrilled. We’re also thrilled to announce that Kate and Lorena will be working together on a follow-up book, Mollie Whuppie & Other Tales of Brave Young Women, due early 2019.

Here’s a short book trailer highlighting some of the brilliant images you’ll see when Vasilisa the Wise & Tales of Other Brave Women is released – thanks to Lorena for her hard work in making it.

If you  haven’t already pre-ordered your copy, you can do this here.

Proof of a dream

The creation of a book is often likened to the birth of a baby – it’s a simile that works well, because really, that’s exactly what it is. When authors call their books their “book baby”, they are likening their creation to something they have nurtured from conception to birth, and has a deep connection to their heart.

That moment of conception – the idea – is a gift that, if accepted, is carried through various stages of growth – drafting and redrafting, and shaped into a manuscript of sorts. And then labour begins – the editing and reshaping, culling and rewriting – and the manuscript goes out into the world, searching for its place. During that search, there is more shaping and refining until the book makes its debut.

It’s an emotive process for the writer, the parent, who wants the best for their child, their book.

As a writer myself, I understand this. Birthing a book can be a tumultuous, nerve-wracking, thrilling experience. As a small publisher, the process is no less thrilling, but perhaps the publisher is more the grandparent than the parent.

Last week, Serenity Press had the pleasure of seeing the proofs of Vasilisa the Wise and Other Tales of Brave Young Women. I’ve worked with Kate and Lorena since the beginning, since Kate first asked if someone would be interested in publishing her collection. To see this book, the one I said “Yes” to, knowing deep inside there was a reason for this, brought tears to my eyes.

It’s beautiful. And I am beyond thrilled for Kate and Lorena who deserve their hard work and dreams to come to life like this.


A few days later Kate and Lorena’s emailed their responses:

  • Lorena: “It’s all my bookish dreams come true.”
  • Kate: ” What a glorious book we have created” and “It is so beautiful it
    makes my heart ache”

So, now we’ve all proofed the copy and it’s been sent back for final changes … and soon … BIRTH!


Serenity Press, Kate and Lorena cannot wait to share this book with you. And the best thing is … there are more fairy tale books like this to come, with authors like Jane Talbot (The Faerie Thorn) and Sharon Blackie (If Women Rose Rooted) now on our lists.

If you  haven’t already pre-ordered, you can do this here.