In Hans Christian Andersen's The Princess and the Pea, the prince has a little problem. He searches far and wide for a real princess to wed, but can't find one who meets his royal expectations. Which are, admittedly, very vague, except that he wants a real princess. The genuine article. One dark and stormy night, a drenched young woman arrives at the doorstep of the palace claiming to be a real princess. The queen — like astute prospective mothers-in-law everywhere — takes this opportunity to test the credentials of her potential replacement. She puts the young woman in a bed of 20 mattresses and 20 feather comforters, under which there is a single pea.
The next morning the young woman complains that she has been bruised by something in the bed. Everyone rejoices. The young woman's hypersensitivity proves — to the prince and his discerning mother, at least — that this girl is royal marriage material.
Andersen's little story, a relatively minor contribution to the fairy-tale canon, was first published in 1835. The story doesn't tell us anything else about what it takes to make a real princess besides a propensity to gripe about palace hospitality. Is she beautiful, is she kind, is she smart as a whip with the kind of diplomatic skills and good judgment it takes to be a good royal consort? All Andersen tells us about princesses is that they are not like the rest of us.
The prince marries his real princess, the pea is placed in a museum for posterity, and Andersen doesn't even bother to let us know if the royal couple lived happily ever after.
Fast forward 175 years, and princesses are more like commoners and far less like that elusive real princess. And observers are delighted.
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