When I meet Cathryn Constable at her palatial London townhouse I don’t feel all too dissimilar to little Sophie Smith entering the royal palace – a world of sumptuous furs draped over enormous couches and candelabras attached to the walls with wax fists. The central London traffic melts behind the Georgian window panes, a leafy garden square blocking the takeaways and bars on the high street.
Cathryn Constable: Queen of Princesses
04/10/2012 by Stacey Bartlett
Cathryn Constable’s The Wolf Princess is a deliciously old-fashioned fairy tale full of Russian princesses, ice palaces and howling wolves
I am served coffee and biscuits from crockery fit for the Snow Queen herself – but Constable is a warm and generous host, sinking into the couch opposite me to talk fairy tales, princesses and writing. It’s easy to see how Constable conjured up Princess Anna Volkonskaya’s palace – which was her favourite part of the writing process, she admits – with her eye for detail and love of design. “I love falling-down buildings,” she says, which would explain the intricately described Volonksy Palace ('a palace of shadows, of twilight, everything cobweb-coloured…candles, almost burned down to the wicks, flickered from drunkenly arranged sconces on the walls. A grand staircase twisted up and up, into the shadows, winding round a chandelier as large as a boat').
“Girls are sensual,” Constable says, recalling the famous Turkish Delight scene in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. “I didn’t even like Turkish delight until I read that.” She says it’s important to give young readers descriptions – “you can put a finger in a fur pelt; drink cherry cordial out of a horn beaker, not a glass. If you can put beauty and loveliness into everyday life - that’s what sustains you. There’s a lot of commodification in children’s literature nowadays.”
In The Wolf Princess, Sophie Smith and her two school friends are whisked away from a school trip in St Petersburg to the Volonksy Palace, a skeletal ice palace deep in the Russian forest that seems to be on the verge of total ruin. The last remaining member of the assassinated royal family is Princess Anna, who is struggling to keep the palace running – the parties and royal appointments have frozen up too, and the Volonksy diamonds disappeared with them. Sophie and her friends can’t understand why they are royal guests, but it soon becomes clear as the wolves start to make themselves heard in the forest.
Constable said she got “obsessed” with Russian literature only recently, around the same time she was reading children’s books with her three children. “There’s something about Russian writing – it was like discovering Narnia,” she says. “When I would come back to English and Anglo Saxon writing, they seemed quite limited and stunted. There’s just that extra bit in Russia where they’ve found something, they frame things in a different way.” She endeavored to learn Russian, finding European translations frustrating – "you’re reading someone else’s version of something.”
The Wolf Princess came about when Constable was writing a story for her daughter Syrie; she says: "there’s an interesting creativity that comes with being a mother that people don’t really talk about, because you’re so stimulated and challenged and growing emotionally. So The Wolf Princess was a conflation of that and reading lots of stuff with the children”. Philip Reeve and Catherine Fisher are some of her favourites.
Modern literary princesses, she says: “Aren’t to do with cash or cars or blow dries or balconies. They should have a richness of character as opposed to material richness; a sense of responsibility and kindness, of community, responsibility and friendship.”
The three main characters – Sophie, Marianne and Delphine – embody “three sorts of woman-ness. Marianne is knowledge; Delphine is worldliness, and Sophie is intuition.” Children are “sort of magnetic” in their early teens, she says; “What I notice about my own children is you can’t see why they pick the friends that they do. They pick somebody and that’s it – [children are] very clear about when you like someone or don’t like someone.
“I find writing for children utterly engrossing and fascinating…I don’t want to write realistic novels. You get realism every day. Children love romanticism, but don’t want to feel cheated or lied to – they like to work things out, but at the same time they are impressionable. There’s a world out there and they haven’t explored it yet”.
Constable’s publisher, Barry Cunningham, was the original publisher of Harry Potter. “Once or twice in a lifetime of publishing it happens,” he says of The Wolf Princess. “The outside world melts away and you’re holding a book that warms hearts, excites the imagination and captures the essence of what makes a truly great children’s story.” With Constable’s magical storytelling conjuring dream-like images, lovable characters and a film in the pipeline, I’m inclined to agree.
The Wolf Princess is out on 4 October, published by Chicken House.