Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairytale, ‘The Little Mermaid’, is in many respects about a subordinated being who dares to seek a future that defies her society’s expectations. The eponymous protagonist rescues a Prince who falls overboard, and then vows to become human and win his love at great personal cost because the sea-witch who transforms her demands the mermaid’s beautiful voice, and also threatens that if she fails to win the Prince’s love she will dissolve into sea-foam on the morning of his marriage to another.
All visual interpretations of the fairytale face the challenge of expressing not only the mermaid’s transformation into a human, but her desire to be recognised by a so-called higher being, and the love that makes her grow, change and even break. The Parisian Librairie Delagrave edition from 1935, with its illustrations by Maurice Berty and watercolour by Christiane Hameau, is striking in its attempt to interpret the fairytale for contemporary readers.
Illustrations of the mermaid prior to her transformation show her as an inhabitant of a natural realm, largely untainted by civilisation. In a depiction of the mermaid beside a giant octopus, her waist-length brown hair, pink and white floral wreath and rosy cheeks and lips are perennials of Western feminine beauty, and seem untouched by contemporary fashion. Hameau’s gold highlight on the mermaid’s green tail gives her figure sculptural relief, and also indicates her otherworldly majesty. Nevertheless, her eyes’ feline slant and long, lean torso, with arms crossed to conceal her breasts, recalls mid to late 1920s beauty ideals, and indicates that Berty and Hameau’s vision of nature was influenced by the art deco movement.
Although this Libraire Delagrave edition was published in 1935, the mermaid’s transformation, after her acquisition of legs, is dramatised through her relinquishment of a timeless, feminine oceanic realm, to a masculine historic realm, and her subsequent resemblance to the 1920s garconne. In a departure from Andersen’s text, Berty’s illustration of the mermaid on shore in the prince’s court, depicts her with a straight page-boy bob, fashionable in the mid-1920s, wearing an androgynous red tunic and hose, which emphasise the ‘loveliest legs and feet that a young girl could dream of’. Her red garments symbolise her passion for the prince, but also the punishing pain that accompanied her acquisition of legs, because every step felt like walking on hot coals. The notion of sacrifice is further apparent in the mermaid’s androgyny. Although her high-arched feet and legs with their rounded tapering line are gendered feminine, her shorn hair and the phallic sword about her waist indicate that she has given up a measure of her femininity by occupying the active, masculine position of adventurer and wooer. Indeed, the fairytale duly punishes her for her presumption, because the prince admires, but dismisses her current form. He instead prefers to remain faithful to his original memory of her as his rescuer when she still had her fish-tail, and then eventually marries a human princess who mysteriously resembles the mermaid prior to her transformation.
While the patriarchal myth that a woman who occupies a masculine position sacrifices both herself and the love of men is timeless, it appears especially poignant in these 1935 illustrations, which were conceived in the wake of the female emancipation that characterised the post armistice years, and manifested most strongly in mid-1920s fashion. Thus, in their depiction of the mermaid’s metamorphosis for a children’s fairytale book, Berty and Hameau drew attention to society’s lingering discomfort with regard to feminine agency.