In "From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers," Marina Warner reminds us that, though we have many modern psychological insights into fairy tales and their meanings, unless we look into history we will miss more obvious conclusions for fairy tale motifs which may seem shocking to us now.
For example, the tension between mothers, or mother figures, and daughters. Why is the stepmother always evil? There are a myriad of possible answers for this one. High mortality rates for young mothers giving birth led to men that remarried, causing real friction between a woman and her stepchildren in a household where not everyone could get the inheritance.
But also keep in mind marriage arrangements of older societies: women were married off when very young. They had no power in the choice, and no power over their husbands. One might expect the husbands to get villainized, but they rarely do. But a wife was not only under her husband, but under his mother. When a mother's son married, she acquired another set of helping hands. In several cases, a girl would be raised by her in-laws from a young age-in effect, a free servant. No wonder so many girls connected with Cinderella.
Warner delves into the full history of fairy tales, not just analyzing the Grimm or other most famous version. She contrasts two of the earliest versions of Sleeping Beauty and the villain in each one. In Basile's story, the prince (who is still the hero) rapes Talia while she sleeps, though married to another woman. It is his former wife whose anger against Talia and her children leads to her attempts to gruesomely kill them and turn them into food for her husband. Whereas Perrault's prince is single to begin with, and the villain is now his mother, who is really an ogre and wishes to eat the victims herself. Warner says that "cannibalism seemed then much less scandalous than rape, adultery and bigamy, and more suited to the childish fantasy of the invoked audience."
Yet as the tale becomes more and more "civilized," going next to the Grimms who take out the cannibalism entirely and has the prince saving the princess with a kiss, the tale has changed audience-former adults, or girls we might consider children but who were very close to marriage, were now Victorian children. Older fairy tales dealt with complications of marriage, and relatively more recent ones dealt with the time before marriage, and concluding with the marriage itself as the happy ending.
This quote is fantastic: "The more one knows fairy tales the less fantastical they appear; they can be vehicles of the grimmest realism." Don't forget that often, the characters which are now evil stepmothers were originally mothers, such as the Queen in Snow White.
But what about from the older generation's point of view? Imagine you, as a woman, have no authority at all until you have children of your own. It's not really surprising that some women might abuse the authority they finally got. But the idea of being jealous of the younger, more beautiful, daughter-in-law is perhaps just not wishful thinking on the part of the wife. Once a woman was widowed she was not guaranteed an inheritance. She could be shunned by all her children and left on her own. Once women became old they were seen as useless, thus true rivalry ensuing as the two women competed for power and affection from their son/husband.
The role of the mother figure in a fairy tale would also depend on who's telling the tale. Remember, often children were raised by a nurse, becoming closer to them than their birth mother. If a nurse, or or jealous grandmother, or some other relation was telling tales to children, that could explain why the birth mother would be villainized and some other womanly figure turn out to be the powerful fairy in disguise.
Mother figures are very powerful in fairy tales; whether they have the power to be cruel and abuse their charges, or the power of a godmother or fairy who eventually brings about the happy ending. Warner reminds us that, though it is mostly forgotten now, in Villeneuve's Beauty and the Beast, it is the fairy friend of his mother's that raises the Prince, later tries to woo him, and curses him upon rejection. Other French fairy tales, also lesser known, involve powerful, often evil, fairy figures, who wreak havoc upon the lives of their surrogate children. While we might get upset at the power men have in fairy tales, especially their lack of punishment, really the vast majority of action in traditional tales starring women is driven by women. The prince is little more than a prize at the end.
"Fairy tale's historical realism has been obscured...the experiences these stories recount are remembered, lived experiences of women."
Information taken from Chapter 14 of Warner's From the Beast to the Blonde: "Wicked Stepmothers: The Sleeping Beauty"
Image of Cinderella and her stepmother from here; Carabosse (witch from ballet version of Sleeping Beauty) by Leon Bakst, witch from Disney's Snow White