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A Sparkling Whirl of a Story: Jessie Burton on why she chose to revise The Twelve Dancing Princesses

October 30, 2018

To mark the release of The Restless Girls, author Jessie Burton shares with readers why she decided it was time to re-write the classic Grimm fairytale.

Words | Jessie Burton

Dear Reader

I truly hope you enjoy The Restless Girls, my revision of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, a fairytale which has stayed with me since I was a little girl. It was a joy to write, from beginning to end, and I loved doing it.

In the original story by The Brothers Grimm, twelve princesses are locked in their room every night by their father, the king. However, every night, they descend to a secret underground world, where they dance and dance until dawn. The king cannot solve the riddle of his daughters’ ruined shoes, so he announces that whichever man who can, may choose any of the princesses to marry and will eventually inherit his kingdom.

Princes try, and princes fail, because the girls are drugging the men every night before they go dancing. However, one day, a poor soldier is given a magic cloak by an old woman, and told not to drink the wine the women give him. This enables him to follow the twelve princesses underground to their secret dancing world, spy on them, and report back to their father the true reason why their shoes are worn through every morning. He is duly rewarded with his choice of daughter to marry, and the inheritance of the kingdom. The dancing princesses are no more.

Obviously, when I re-read this as an adult, I felt the whole set-up was awful. None of the princesses are given names or any markers of personality. We only see their world through the eyes of the soldier who stalks them, and the coup de grâce at the end is nothing short of deal done between men, a forced marriage for one of the girls and a cessation of fun and freedom for the eleven others. Their lives are over.

In this version, I have chosen to swing the camera around. The twelve girls are given names and attributes, and I consider whether it’s really that wonderful being a princess locked up in a palace, after all. They have to overcome obstacles, and show their mettle in order to get to a secret underground world full of golden foxes and toucan waiters. The king’s behaviour is scrutinised by his advisers, and he comes up short. I wanted the agency to be in the hands of the girls: no one can ‘save’ them in the end, they have to do that for themselves. Everything is told through the eyes of those twelve girls.

The dancing in the secret tree palace is the key to my story – the power and freedom it gives them, a sense of owning their own bodies, their own space, of being able, finally, to express themselves without the observation or criticism of anyone. The holes in their shoes are symbols of the girls’ rebellion and bravery. The Restless Girls is about having fun, enjoying the good things in life, keeping a sisterhood alive, and observing and criticising the status quo. It’s a sparkling whirl of a story, full of love, laughter and lionesses, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.

With my warmest wishes,


Purchase a copy of The Restless Girls | Read our review |Read an extract

Jessie Burton was born in 1982 and went to school in south London. Her favourite subjects were story-writing, sleeping and ice-cream eating. After studying at Oxford University, the highlight of which was playing a rose and a fox in The Little Prince, she went on to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. She worked hard for nine years as an actress and a PA before her first novel, The Miniaturist, was published. The Miniaturist was translated into over thirty languages and has sold over a million copies around the world. Her second novel, The Muse, was published in July 2016 and is also a no.1 bestseller. She shares her home with a cat called Margot and some very nice friends – some real, others quite imagined.

Angela Barrett studied at Maidstone College of Art and the Royal College of Art. She has taught Illustration at Cambridge College of Technology and Drawing at Chelsea College and is widely regarded as one of the UK’s finest illustrators. She won the 1989 Smarties Book Prize for Can It Be True? and has been shortlisted three times for the Kurt Maschler Award and once for the Kate Greenaway Medal.



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