In August, 1896, a literary fairy tale called “The Princess Baladina—Her Adventure” by Charles Douglass appeared In The Home Monthly magazine. August, 1896 was also the month 22-year-old Willa Cather first served as managing editor. Based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the periodical was not a major publication: as James Woodress states in Willa Cather: A Literary Life, “The Home Monthly was not much of a magazine,” but Cather was eager to accept the position because it was her ticket out of Nebraska, and “she was more than ready to leave Lincoln for a larger theater of operations.”
During her tenure, the readers of The Home Monthly were treated to several stories written by Cather, including “The Princess Baladina—Her Adventure” which Cather published under the pseudonym Charles Douglass, the name of her beloved younger brother. During Cather’s first few months on the job, she decided if the readership was going to have fiction to read, she would need to provide most of it herself.
When deciding what to write, Cather was inspired by her love of fairy tales, and “The Princess Baladina—Her Adventure” is her attempt at creating one of her own. The story certainly has all the ingredients of a fairy tale—a princess in a castle, a fairy godmother, a couple of wizards, a miller’s son, a prince—but most Cather scholars dismiss it as inferior (Woodress deems it “not much of a yarn”). While this story by young Cather certainly isn’t one her best, it does suggest elements that connect it to some of her most powerful fiction.
Cather had a drive for reinvention in both her life and work, and Cather reinvents the fairy tale with “The Princess Baladina.” As the story opens, Baladina has been confined to her room for misbehaving, and she is devising ways to make her family sorry for punishing her. The character as described is clearly a headstrong girl instead of the more submissive princess of fairy tales. Throughout her body of work, Cather questions assumptions about traditional roles for women, and her most successful female characters are those who make their own decisions and carve out new paths to take. In this early tale, no one can tell Baladina what to do, and when she wants to escape the castle, for example, she does.
While Baladina is definitely headstrong, her head is also full of stereotypical dreams. As she is sulking in her room, she starts reviewing “all the stories she had read about Princesses and their adventures.” Inspired by the story of "Princess Alice," she decides she needs to be enchanted by a wizard and then “some young Prince would come and break the spell and bear her triumphantly off to his own realm”—since marrying a prince is what “Princesses are taught to think.” (That will show her parents!) Baladina sneaks out of the castle in search of a wizard, but after two disappointing interviews with wizards and meeting a rude, disinterested prince, she is eventually recovered by her father and dramatically cries what are surely crocodile tears "at the dirth of Princes." Baladina does not get her “happily ever after ending,” and the dreams she was taught to believe do not come true. This disappointment when dreams collide with reality is the core to some of Cather’s most memorable work—from “Paul’s Case,” to A Lost Lady, to The Professor’s House, to Lucy Gayheart, just to name a few— and while this early story certainly has none of the power of those later works, there is an inkling of what is to come in Cather’s later writing.
Postscript: You can find “The Princess Baladina—Her Adventure” in the 2019 anthology The Big Book of Classic Fantasy edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Willa Cather is listed as author and not Charles Douglass.