When the stepmother has ulterior motives, are they always bad?

She might order a huntsman to kill you and bring her your heart, or disguise herself as an old beggar and trick you into eating a poisoned apple. She might make you a slave in your own home and forbid you to attend the ball. She might convince your father to leave you to die in the forest.

Whatever she does, the stereotypical fairy tale stepmother is never good. Exceptions to this can be found in Icelandic stories, take The Horse Gullfaxi and the Sword Gunnfoder and Hild the Good Stepmother and Princess Ingibjorg – both these tales feature stepmothers who do not curse their stepchildren, but do their upmost to save them.

Turning to more modern portrayals, there are stepmothers who are not necessarily involved in magic, but no less kind and helpful.

Charlotte Tanberry, The Chocolate Box Girls

In the first book of Cathy Cassidy’s series of six, widower Paddy Costello and his daughter Cherry relocate from Glasgow to Somerset, to live with Paddy’s partner, Charlotte, and her four daughters. Cherry’s mother died when she was four, so Charlotte is the only mother figure she can fully remember. Charlotte is motherly, loving, understanding and creative. In fact, it is not the stepmother, but the stepsister, who is the villain – Honey, the eldest sister, makes life difficult for Cherry from the beginning.

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By Annabel Barker: Literature Columnist


Prince Humperdinck, the antagonist of William Goldman’s novel, is a cruel prince who attempts to kill the main character, Buttercup, and orders her lover, Westley, to be tortured to death. There is only one quality that could be seen as redeeming: the love he has for his stepmother. He addresses her as “Evil Stepmother” – sometimes abbreviating it to “E.S.” – as a term of endearment, mocking the fairytale typecast, for Queen Bella is loving and affectionate towards her husband and stepson.

Lisa, The Hate U Give

In the best-selling novel by Angie Thomas, Lisa adores Seven, treating him exactly the same as her own children. Seven is the result of Lisa’s husband’s affair with another woman. Understandably, Lisa dislikes Seven’s mother and throws insults at her, but she never does it within Seven’s earshot, nor does she ever harbour resentment against him. Even Seven himself prefers Lisa to his own mother and does not put people right when they assume Lisa is his real mother.

Mrs Chase, Percy Jackson and the Olympians

In his action-packed series of tales of demigods, Rick Riordan has taken the wicked stepmother trope and heavily played with it – in the case of Mrs Chase, stepmother to Annabeth. Being a daughter of the goddess Athena, Annabeth is arachnophobic. As a child, Annabeth believed that her stepmother hated her, which resulted in her running away from home and joining Camp Half-Blood, a training facility for demigods. Contrary to Annabeth’s belief, Mrs Chase in fact deeply cares about her stepdaughter and was saddened by Annabeth’s departure, making it clear that Annabeth will always have a home with her, no matter what. Annabeth eventually returns home.

As we grow up, we learn rather quickly that, unlike our fairy-tale heroes and heroines, we are not going to slay dragons, rescue princesses, go to balls and live happily ever after. Likewise, stepmothers seldom reflect their fairy-tale counterparts.