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While Beauty Slept by Elizabeth Blackwell


Highlights: The relationship between Elise, an attendant, and the royal family shows how loyal and devoted many courtiers were to their monarchs.
Synopsis: A new fairy tale-inspired novel that has garnered a great deal of attention. Blackwell’s novel is not a fairy tale, however, but a realistic look at what life may have been like in that kingdom so far away.
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A realistic portrait of what life may have been like in Sleeping Beauty's castle is vividly captured in Blackwell's writing.


The narrator is telling the story many years after the fact, so the use of "hindsight" spoils several future events for the reader.

Posted March 31, 2014 by

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nce upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, there lived a beautiful princess. If you’ve ever read a fairy tale, then you are familiar with its basic formula: a beautiful princess, whose existence is threatened by an evil villain, is rescued by a handsome prince riding a white horse. In my childhood, I read countless fairy tales, but my favorite princess story of them all was “Sleeping Beauty.”

Fairy tales have become quite fashionable again, yet now they are complete with twists and turns that result in their barely resembling the original stories. A new fairy tale-inspired novel that has garnered a great deal of attention is Elizabeth Blackwell’s While Beauty Slept. Blackwell’s novel is not a fairy tale, but, rather, a realistic look at what life may have been like in that kingdom so far away.


For the first 14 years of her life, Elise Darliss has known nothing except abject poverty. Living in little better than a hovel, Elise, her siblings, and her mother catch the pox; only Elise and one brother survive it. Deciding to make a new life for herself away from her abusive step-father, Elise becomes a servant at the kingdom’s castle where she quickly rises up the ranks to become head attendant to Queen Lenore.

A true confidante to Lenore, Elise learns that the queen, after many years of trying to have a child, has finally conceived through a questionable method that the king’s aunt Millicent introduced to her; the method incorporated dark magic. Although Lenore wants nothing more than to give Millicent her due, King Randolph refuses to accept his aunt’s influence over Lenore. Ultimately, he banishes Millicent from the castle, but she reappears at baby Rose’s baptism, vowing to exact her revenge in the most horrible manner imaginable.

From this point on, Elise becomes part of a team, including Millicent’s sister, Flora, that is dedicated to keeping Rose safe. Elise’s devotion comes at a heavy price: it costs her the man she had hoped to marry. In the end, will her resolve be enough to save Rose and the kingdom from the destruction Millicent has planned?


Readers looking to find another fairy tale-type story about Sleeping Beauty should look elsewhere. While Rose is an important character in the work, this novel is about Elise and her experiences. The reader follows Elise from the time she is a 14-year-old girl with no clue what her place in the castle’s world will be to her becoming a mature woman of 32 who has known both love and loss. During the course of the book, Elise gains insight and wisdom, but she remains an unwavering and loyal companion to both the queen and the princess.

Because Elise is retelling the story many years after the events have unfolded, she has the advantage of hindsight, which she uses to speculate on what she should have done or thought at the time. The author employs this technique several times throughout the work, causing its usage to become a slight aggravation. At one point, Elise weighs the dangers of getting one’s prayers answered. She posits,

I would learn that every wish granted comes at a price. One we cannot forsee until it is too late.

That ominous thought hints at the evil that is to come, but the suggestion feels contrived to show the details that Elise’s older self knows but the audience must wait patiently to discover. Later, after a blissful day with her beau and just when the reader thinks she will finally be allowed to have her own happiness instead of having to live vicariously through the royal family, Elise remarks,

But happiness, fleeting by nature, is often savored only after it is flown. For me, thinking on that day will always be tempered by memories of the sadness that followed…I want to weep for that innocent girl who believed so fervently that love conquered all. For the queen was right, love’s progress is rarely smooth, and my way was to become rocky indeed.

Talk about a spoiler alert! Readers’ hopes for Elise having a happily-ever-after are dashed before they even have time to materialize.

The book has several nice qualities. One never hears of chamber pots or pox marks in the fairy tale version, but because Blackwell uses an approach that shows the ugly side of court life, too, her work comes off with a realistic feel to it. Also, the complexities of marrying above or below one’s station, and the consequences of doing so, drive much of the action. This addition helps with creating a realistic portrait of a fantasy world.


I listened to this book as an Audible work, with Wanda McCaddon serving as the reader. According to her profile on Audiofile, she has been narrating books on tape since the early 1980s and has been a part of readings for both modern works and classics alike. In addition to her work with audiobooks, she has acted in several films including Patch Adams and So I Married an Axe Murderer. The book comes in at 432 pages in the hardcover version, but it is nearly 13 hours long as an audiobook, which is a long time to spend with a narrator of poor quality. Fortunately, McCaddon’s performance of While Beauty Slept was wonderful. She was able to provide enough distinction for the multitude of female voices for the listener to be certain which character was speaking. I found her characterization of Millicent to be particularly good.

In all, While Beauty Slept is a solid work by an accomplished writer, and by far the most successful of her books to date. Blackwell may decide the fairy tale genre is her niche, for she manages not to bore by repeating the classic. Instead, she offers a fresh take on an old favorite.

While Beauty Slept (Hardcover)

By (author): Elizabeth Blackwell

Historical fiction at its best ? The Brothers Grimm meets The Thirteenth Tale 

I am not the sort of person about whom stories are told.
And so begins Elise Dalriss’s story. When she hears her great-granddaughter recount a minstrel’s tale about a beautiful princess asleep in a tower, it pushes open a door to the past, a door Elise has long kept locked. For Elise was the companion to the real princess who slumbered?and she is the only one left who knows what actually happened so many years ago. Her story unveils a labyrinth where secrets connect to an inconceivable evil. As only Elise understands all too well, the truth is no fairy tale.
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Mollie Smith Waters

Mollie Smith Waters teaches American literature, theater, and speech at a small community college in rural Alabama. Her hobbies include reading, writing, traveling, and walking.


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