18.07.2015 by Andrew Nixon
A History of Culture in 100 Items of Furniture - 13. The Princess and the Pea bed
The fairytale bed piled with twenty mattresses and twenty eiderdowns that makes a Princess 'black and blue' is one of the most memorable items of furniture in culture. But what does it all mean? In the latest instalment in our History of Culture in 100 Sofas, culture editor Andrew Nixon looks at The Princess and the Pea...
It’s the old story: Boy meets girl. Boy’s mother is suspicious of girl. Boy’s mother insists girl sleeps on ludicrous quantity of bedding. Girl complains about miniscule bump, girl and boy marry and live happily every after.
The story of The Princess and the Pea was penned by Hans Christian Anderson in 1853, but as with all the best fairytales, it (a) feels like it is much older than that, (b) is really rather strange, and (c) was most likely introduced to you, if you are British, via the Ladybird book.
A Well Loved Tale
The Princess and the Pea was one of Ladybird’s Well Loved Tales series - a phenomenally popular set of fairytale books with illustrations that are lodged in the minds of every Briton aged between about 30 and 50. Grown men still have nightmares about the cackling dwarf Rumpelstiltskin, while I’m reliably informed that many young girls got their first idea of female beauty from the series of outrageous frilly frocks worn by Cinderella.
Most of the best-known fairytales have clear moral messages, of course. The Three Billy Goats Gruff indicates the dangers of being too greedy (especially if you are a troll), The Enormous Turnip is about pulling together as a team, Red Riding Hood is about not trusting strangers with outsize canine teeth, and so on. However, I’m never been quite sure what the lesson of The Princess and the Pea is supposed to be.
Here’s Anderson’s tale in full:
ONCE upon a time there was a prince who wanted to marry a princess; but she would have to be a real princess. He travelled all over the world to find one, but nowhere could he get what he wanted. There were princesses enough, but it was difficult to find out whether they were real ones. There was always something about them that was not as it should be. So he came home again and was sad, for he would have liked very much to have a real princess
One evening a terrible storm came on; there was thunder and lightning, and the rain poured down in torrents. Suddenly a knocking was heard at the city gate, and the old king went to open it.
It was a princess standing out there in front of the gate. But, good gracious! what a sight the rain and the wind had made her look. The water ran down from her hair and clothes; it ran down into the toes of her shoes and out again at the heels. And yet she said that she was a real princess.
“Well, we’ll soon find that out,” thought the old queen. But she said nothing, went into the bedroom, took all the bedding off the bedstead, and laid a pea on the bottom; then she took twenty mattresses and laid them on the pea, and then twenty eider-down beds on top of the mattresses.
On this the princess had to lie all night. In the morning she was asked how she had slept.
“Oh, very badly!” said she. “I have scarcely closed my eyes all night. Heaven only knows what was in the bed, but I was lying on something hard, so that I am black and blue all over my body. It’s horrible!”
Now they knew that she was a real princess because she had felt the pea right through the twenty mattresses and the twenty eider-down beds.
Nobody but a real princess could be as sensitive as that.
So the prince took her for his wife, for now he knew that he had a real princess; and the pea was put in the museum, where it may still be seen, if no one has stolen it.
There, that is a true story.
What’s the moral?
So what’s that all about then? My idea is that it’s just a funny, silly story with a happy ending - with perhaps a little bit of satire about how posh people think they’re very sensitive and special. But naturally there are academics who study these things, and inevitably they have theories.
One theory is that the Princess’s sensitivity is a metaphor for her depth of feeling and compassion - and so being a true ‘Princess’ is nothing to do with birth or connections, but how you are as a person. Others gives a darker perspective, and claim that the story is really all about Hans Christian Anderson himself.
Anderson was a prolific author of plays, novels and poems, but his fairytales - including The Ugly Duckling, the Emperor’s New Clothes and The Little Mermaid - have a timeless quality and have embedded themselves into Western consciousness.
He was celebrated in his lifetime too, but though he was courted by the nobility some researchers think he longed to be part of the top rank of society but was never fully accepted (there is some evidence that he may even have been an illegitimate son of the Danish King, Christian VIII). His bitterness at the petty humiliations he endured as a ‘performer’ are therefore reflected in the absurd test set for the Princess with her twenty mattresses and twenty featherbeds.
A legacy of ideal comfiness
Whatever the truth of that, Anderson’s tale remains a much-loved story down the generations - and its gigantic bed remains one of the most memorable items of furniture in culture.
There are some other fine legacies too. There is the glorious 1911 illustration by Edmund Dulac [above], included in the classic volume Stories from Hans Anderson. It really does look like an ideal of comfiness, doesn't it? What sleep-deprived adult doesn't occasionally fantasise about curling up in a bed like that?
And there was also a German opera, which got turned into a 1950s Broadway musical called Once Upon a Mattress, which was revived in the 1990s starring Sarah Jessica Parker. As you can see, it goes for the broad comedy approach, but I can’t help but think that if he saw it, poor old Hans Christian Anderson might be black and blue… from turning in his grave.