Cupid and Psyche: Romance for the Victorian Child

The Red Romance Book
Figure 1: Cover displays intricate illustration by H. J. Ford, as well as colour corresponding bindings.

© 2013, Nabila Islam

“Cupid and Psyche.” The Red Romance Book. Ed. Andrew Lang. Illus. Henry J. Ford. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1921. 249-64. Print.


This curatorial is an exploration of the ideologies in the 19th century that influenced and shaped the respective works of Andrew Lang and Henry J. Ford, providing a commentary on their collaborative work on “Cupid and Psyche” from the Red Romance Book.

Andrew Lang

Andrew Lang (1844-1912) was the eldest of John Lang and Jane Plenderleath Sellar’s eight children. Lang’s educational journey includes Edinburgh Academy, University of St. Andrews and Balliol College, as well as a fellowship at Morton College from 1865 to 1874. A Victorian intellectual and classicist, Lang was interested in numerous subjects, such as history, anthropology and psychical research, especially after he moved away from religion, towards mythology and legends.

As a child, Lang read the works of the Grimm brothers and William Shakespeare. As an adult, he wrote articles, literary criticisms, and essays on the varying subjects that interested him. His list of work is extensive, going far beyond fairy tales. Despite his diverse knowledge on a verity of subjects, Lang preferred the romance of folk and fairy tales. However, he is most renown for his collection of fairy tales. Despite having published some original fairy tales, his distinction comes from being a collector and editor of folk and fairy tales from around the world.

Lang’s twelve coloured fairy books became a staple for children, introducing new and old tales, from a variety of sources. With the aid of his wife, who would gather the material, Lang would edit and arrange the tales and H. J. Ford would then illustrate for his books. The physicality of the books increased popularity, each the corresponding colour, with the sumptuous covers typical of the early 1900s. The Red Romance Book, though not part of the coloured fairy book series, holds the same physical qualities (see Figure 1).

Time & Culture Specific

“Cupid and Psyche” is classified as Aarne-Thompson Tale Type 425A, Search for Lost Husband, under the category of “Supernatural or Enchanted Relative,” and sub-category of “Husband,” but it falls under ATU 425B, “Son of the Witch” as well. This tale comes from Apuleius’s version of “Cupid and Psyche;” a tale set within his novel Metamorphosis. Apuleius was a Latin writer and Greek sophist who was a North African native and a Roman citizen. Although Apuleius wrote his novel in 2 A.D., there is evidence of Eros (Cupid) and Psyche in 4th century B.C. Greek art. Apuleius’s version gained popularity during the Renaissance when Greco-Roman antiquities were received by later cultures (Classical tradition), following which the story was retold through various artistic mediums. Apuleius’s tale of “Cupid and Psyche” is similar to a Hittie tale on the god Telepinus from the 2000 B.C. While it is not quite the same, the metaphors and motifs align, suggesting roots as ancient as these Anatolian people from the 18th century B.C.

However, there are differences between Apuleius’s and Lang’s texts. Writing during the Fin de Siècle for a different audience, Lang had to make this tale more suitable for Victorian children. That meant changing the prophesized non-human dragon bridegroom to a monster which shall devour Psyche. Lang downplayed the description of Psyche’s fated husband, which is typical, considering the disapproval Victorian society held for violent content; they felt that such material was unsuitable for children. Lang also removed the section where Psyche seeks retribution from her two elder sisters who caused her to doubt her husband and thus lose him. Such deception and unmerciful deaths would not have been appropriate. However, the most significant difference in the two tales is regarding Psyche’s pregnancy. As Lang is writing a romantic tale for the consumption of children, he eliminated any mention of Psyche’s sexual interaction with Cupid and the subsequent pregnancy.

Joyfully the eagle bore back the urn
Figure 2: Pysche’s final task in Lang’s version of the tale.

On her search for Cupid, Psyche must face trials set for her by Aphrodite. Where Apuleius’s Venus sets four tasks, the fourth being a trip to the Underworld, Lang limits Psyche’s trials to the rule of three. Likewise, Lang shortens the tale by relegating a few paragraphs to Cupid and Psyche’s reunion, Cupid’s request for forgiveness and immortality for Psyche. Apuleius, writing for an adult readership, included a magnificent wedding feast with the gods of Olympus.

Apuleius’s tale was seen as an allegory for immortality granted to the soul as a reward (for sexual commitment). This was later adapted into a Christian allegory. Lang’s adaptation of “Cupid and Psyche” might have provided Victorian children with entertainment; however, it might also have instructed young girls to be good, well-behaved children who trust their parents, and later, their husbands; to remain committed to their husbands in all circumstances.

H. J. Ford

Henry Justice Ford (1860–1941), was quite prolific throughout his career as an illustrator. He is best known for his collaboration with Andrew Lang on the coloured Fairy Books. Ford had an illustrious education, attending Repton School and Clare College in Cambridge (where he attained a background in the classics), the Slade School of Fine Art in London with Alphonse Legros and Sir Hubert von Herkomer’s Art School at Bushey.

Although best known as an illustrator, Ford had wide-spread interests. The fourth of seven sons to Augustus Ford, a solicitor, and his wife, Katherine Mary, he was as interested in cricket as the rest of the Ford family. Ford was able to foster a connection with J. M. Barrie while playing cricket with Barrie’s Allahakbarrie Cricket Club. He was friends with many renowned figures of his time, such as P. G. Wodehouse and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He was a friend of Sir Edward Burne-Jones, a British artist associated with the later phase of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Ford, who also did history paintings and landscapes, was able to exhibit some at the Royal Academy and New Gallery.

A quote from “L. D. L.” in The Times provides a summary of Ford: “The name of Henry Justice Ford was familiar from the 1880s to innumerable children…Every year his inexhaustible fancy produced illustrations, decorative, charming, and sometimes a little alarming, of princes and princesses and fairies, demons, and animals…it is by his illustrations he is remembered, though he never had quite the reputation as an artist he desired, perhaps, because he was reckoned ‘only an illustrator’.”

Victorian Ideals Illustrated

Aphrodite brings Cupid to Psyche
Figure 3: First illustration in the narrative of “Cupid and Psyche.” Fine details reflects Ford’s high art aesthetic.

Despite a constant interest in both fairy tales and the illustrations that go with them, industrial progression brought forth a further interest in traditional folk and fairy tales. Between 1880 and 1900 the illustrations for fairy tales gained a sudden increase in popularity. Britain’s acquisition of Africa and India meant an interest in new stories from other cultures, in addition to the traditional and well-known tales. At this time, H. J. Ford became one of the two most important and powerful illustrators.

Aphrodite finds Psyche's task accomplished
Figure 4: The single colour plate for this tale depicts the major female characters (Aphrodite and Psyche), one with a glow indicating a goddess nature. Reprinting this image in a reduced size means an overflow of details.

Ford consistently produced high quality illustrations of fine and delicate detail, balancing a high art aesthetic with consumerism (see Figure 3). His work combined the realistic and the fantastical, due to thorough research and ability. His coloured plates better display his Pre-Raphaelite influence compared to his black and white work, thanks to the brilliant colouring. However, reprinting the original image sometimes dulled the intense colours in an unfortunate way. The original illustrations were four times the reprinted size, thus his work, full of details, sometimes came off as overcrowded (see Figure 4).

Ford gained painterly knowledge on myths and legends through his association with Sir Edward Burne-Jones, which allowed him to insert such a significant amount of detail in his illustrations. He also did the illustrations on the covers and spines. Characteristic of the period, Ford used the art-nouveau frames on the illustrations and the hand-scripted labels underneath.

Zepyhr carries Psyche down from the mountain
Figure 5: The ideal Victorian femininity displayed in Psyche’s flowing hair and draped clothing.

Throughout their collaboration, Lang and Ford placed a strong emphasis on English femininity, despite the origins of the tales, complicating the image of an ideal woman. There was consideration neither for new readership among the newly colonized nor for any possible appreciation of differing cultures. The illustrations throughout The Red Romance Book depict the ideal beauty from the Romantic era; fair skin, a flowing mass of locks, and draped gowns. Most of the images are ethereal and in the case of “Cupid and Pysche,” almost all the images showcase nature or animals, creating enchanted illustrations. While English ideals regarding femininity and beauty do not affect the reading of “Cupid and Pysche” to the extent as some other tales, superimposing of ideals grounded from the Romantic era and the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic is significant. Especially once a growing readership is considered, as well as the purposeful neglect of displaying other cultures appropriately.



Works Cited

Anderson, Graham. Fairytale in the Ancient World. Taylor & Francis, 2002. 4 April 2013. e-book.

Merriman, C. D. “Andrew Lang.” The Literature Network. Jalic Inc. (2007).Web. 10 Apr. 2013.

Gollnick, James. Love and the Soul: Psychological Interpretations of the Eros and Psyche Myth.. Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1992. Print.

“H J Ford: Artist.” Look and Learn. Look and Learn Ltd. (2013). Web. 4 Apr. 2013.

“Henry J Ford.” The Wee Web Authors and Illustrators Archive. The Wee Web Authors and Illustrators Archive, n.d. Web. 4 Apr. 2013.

“Henry Justice Ford (1860-1940)” The Victorian Web. The Victorian Web. (2007). Web. 4 Apr. 2013.

Houffe, Simon. Fin de Siecle: The Illustrators of the ‘Nineties. London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd., 1992. Print.

Michalski, Robert. “Towards a Popular Culture: Andrew Lang’s Anthropological And Literary Criticism.” Journal Of American Culture 18.3 (1995): 13. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Apr. 2013.

Osgood, Josiah. “”Nuptiae Iure Civili Congruae”: Apuleius’s Story of Cupid and Psyche and the Roman Law of Marriage.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 136.2 (2006): 415-41. JSTOR. Web. 4 Apr. 2013.

Whalley, Joyce Irene and Tessa Rose Chester. “Moonlight and Shadown: 1880 to 1900.” A History of Children’s Book Illustration. London: John Murray, 1988. Print. 127-150.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. “Straparola and the Fairy Tale: Between Literary and Oral Traditions.” Journal of American Folklore 123.490 (2010): 377-97. Project MUSE. Web. 4 Apr. 2013.

view this exhibit on the CLA Omeka site

One thought on “Cupid and Psyche: Romance for the Victorian Child

Comments are closed.