One of the most highly anticipated literary novels released so far this year, The Queen of the Night is the story of a woman who is trying to take control of her own voice and her own destiny. And to tell that story, it pulls from a long tradition of silenced women in fairy tales.
The Queen of the Night is Alexander Chee’s second book. (His first, Edinburgh, won a Whiting Award in 2001.) Sweeping, historical, and baroque, the story is told by a woman whose real name we never learn — but she takes on the pseudonym Lilliet Berne early in the novel and never looks back.
The Queen of the Night’s protagonist struggles to control her destiny by controlling her voice
Lilliet is an opera singer, a soprano with a Falcon range; her voice sounds "at first as if it did not have the capacity for high notes, until they emerged, surprising, with great force. A voice for expressing sorrow, fear, and despair." Her story takes her from a bleak Minnesota farm to a circus to the Paris opera, and Lilliet by turns is a diva, courtesan, servant, and spy.
It's a glittering, overwrought story, driven by the plot mechanics of the opera: Lilliet is constantly betrayed by her lovers, or betraying them in turn, serving and then turning on empresses and countesses, starving in a war-stricken Paris or dazzling the ballrooms of the Second Empire.
Throughout everything, she struggles to survive and to control her own destiny, and she knows that to control her destiny she must control her own voice. As a child she is gagged by her mother to teach her not to be prideful; as an adult she spends months gagging herself to pose as a mute. She refuses to speak out loud in public in order to preserve her fragile singing voice. She longs for a voice that would "sing open graves, ransack Hell of my dead friends … bring my family back to life — a voice that could change the course of Fate."
But instead, Lilliet’s voice dictates her fate for her. She has the voice of a tragic soprano, and so she must sing tragic operas, no matter how tired she is of dying onstage. What she really wants is to be the powerful Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The Queen, of course, dies just like the heroines Lilliet is so tired of playing, sent straight to hell by the hero — but that’s not what you remember about her. You remember how powerful and how strong she is.
"What a joy it would be," Lilliet muses, "to summon her spectral power, to appear out of the air before my captors and have the power to force them to cower before me." But she can’t do it: It’s not a part suited to her voice. Her voice is suited only to tragedy, to suffering and death.
The novel is filled with fairy tale tropes
The choice of The Magic Flute as the central opera around which the book is organized is a significant one: It’s an opera that’s also a fairy tale, and when Lilliet says she wants to be the Queen of the Night, she’s asking to switch roles from passive fairy tale princess to active fairy tale witch.
And it’s not the only fairy tale motif in the book. "I wanted it to have some of the feeling of a fairy tale," said Chee in an interview, "but also some of the feeling of the autobiography of a celebrity from that time. … Like a story from Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber if it ran off to hide in the autobiography section."
And so Lilliet worries that her voice has been cursed; she recounts rumors that she bought it from a witch. She stands over her mother’s coffin with ashes falling from her clothes like Cinderella making wishes at her mother’s grave, and the coffin shines like glass. Every time she changes her identity, another benefactor shows up like a fairy godmother to dress her in ever-more-elaborate ball gowns.
It’s a strange choice for a story about a woman trying to control her voice and, by extension, her destiny. The opera thing makes sense — operas are literally created through voices, so, sure, if you’re going to talk about taking control of your voice, opera’s a good subject — but why fairy tales? After all, aren’t fairy tale heroines famously passive; don’t they always leave their destinies in the hands of their princes? If you’re telling a story about a woman who wants to control her own story, the focus on fairy tales seems a bit counterintuitive.
But fairy tales have been about women wrestling for control over their voices on one level or another ever since the Brothers Grimm published their first edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales in 1812.
The Queen of the Night continues a literary tradition started by Grimm's Fairy Tales: a history of women losing their voices
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm originally intended for their collection of stories to be scholarly, a patriotic attempt to study and reclaim German folk culture. They recorded the folk tales they heard with minimal edits. But after the first edition was greeted with a lukewarm reception, they decided to revise. And revise again.
Between 1812 and 1864 they published 17 editions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, working diligently to make the stories ever more appropriate for children. That meant the book had to reflect the Grimms’ particular 19th-century German bourgeois family values. And so wicked parents became wicked mothers acting on their own, and then wicked stepmothers; fathers were rewritten to be either virtuous but ineffectual or absent; trickster children were erased entirely. And virtuous women, ever so slowly and gradually, lost their voices.
Take, for instance, the case of Cinderella. Fairy tale scholar Ruth B. Bottigheimer has found that in the Grimms’ 1812 edition of Cinderella, Cinderella speaks out loud 14 times. By 1864 she’s down to six lines. Where she protests her poor treatment in 1812, she obeys unquestioningly in 1864; where she lies to her stepmother in 1812, she is silent in 1864.
By the time the Grimms finished their final revision, almost all of Cinderella’s speech was gone, except for her rhyming invocations to the birds who help her pass her stepmother’s tests, or to the tree at her mother’s grave that gives her a ball gown. Like The Queen of the Night's Lilliet, the Grimms’ final Cinderella is silent unless she is singing.
As Lilliet struggles to control her voice and manage her own fate, she’s a kind of Cinderella battling her author, trying to break away from passive silence and obedience. To be Queen of the Night, for Lilliet, might mean coming to yet another tragic end — but it would be an end she created, not one that was forced upon her.