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Many years ago, I read a short story which was basically a letter being written by a woman whom the reader soon realizes is Cinderella's "Wicked Stepmother." She feels Cinderella is now old enough, and world-wise enough, to understand and accept the unvarnished truth.

To hear the stepmother tell it: After she married Cinderella's daddy, and she and her two daughters had moved into his big house, she realized that her new husband had nasty sexual-predator tendencies. Specifically wanting to ravish attractive girls who were in early adolescence. While his first wife had been alive, their daughter had been too young for this to become a problem, but now she was reaching puberty and her body was starting to fill out, etc. (The stepmother's two biological daughters were far too homely to ever be in real danger from their new stepfather, fortunately.)

The stepmother was in a bind. She didn't have any economic resources to tide her over if she walked out. She didn't have evidence that her husband had actually raped anybody. She was supposed to be totally subject to her husband's authority unless she could prove he had, in fact, committed a terrible crime. And if she tried to warn Cinderella about the potential threat, the girl would just take it for granted that her stepmother was a wicked woman who was trying to poison the daughter's mind against her beloved father.

As a stopgap measure, the stepmother rearranged the household chores so that Cinderella spent much of her time in the kitchen, wearing shabby, frumpy clothes and getting ashes and stuff smeared over her face every day. The point was to keep her pretty face and developing figure from catching the predatory eye of her own father. But Cinderella had no clue that all this was only being done for her own good!

Then magic intervened, and Cinderella married a handsome prince, and thus was safely removed from her father's household. But now Cinderella has realized that her royal husband has some serious character flaws beneath that handsome exterior, and has reached out to her stepmother for sympathy. Which she is receiving in this letter. (I don't remember what the stepmother suggested they should do next, now that they were allies against evil men who abuse women, but I'm sure there was something.)

Note: I think I first read this story sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s, but I don't remember where. For years, I thought it was one of the stories collected in Tanith Lee's paperback anthology of revisionist takes on old fairy tales: Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sister Grimmer. A while back, I found my copy of that book, and determined that while there was a dark take on the Cinderella legend in there, it wasn't the same story I have just described. So I'd like to know who really wrote the story I've summarized!

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    Jan Struther's "Ugly Sister" (1935) is a fine old revisionist Cinderella, but definitely not the one you're looking for. (Told by one of the stepsisters, not the stepmother; Cinderella's father is a drunk, not a rapist; etc.) – user14111 Oct 15 '16 at 3:06
  • +1 because good detail. I'd like to read this when you find it! – Paul Oct 15 '16 at 9:23
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NB this whole answer is one big spolier. Read on at your peril!

Your post says you have read and discounted a Tanith Lee story from Red as blood, though you don't say which story it was. However the plot you describe is an exact match for The reason for not going to the ball by Tanith Lee. This story wasn't in Red as Blood, or indeed any other Tanith Lee anthology.

This story is, as you say, a letter from the stepmother to Cinderella. The stepmother was wed as a child bride to an abusive husband who she eventually poisoned to escape. She marries Cinderella's father but quickly notices:

To you, innocent and gracious and loving his arm about you, his hand on your waist, the pressing of his lips over and over to yours — yes, even pressing with the lips a touch parted and moist — these were the normal attentions of a gallant father. But I had heard, I had heard and I had learned. How your mother had been privately dressed, and I was privately dressed, as a very young girl. How he liked best when we whispered girlish rhymes to him, and pretended surprise, even alarm, as he unlaced himself. That is no matter. There is nothing bad in that. But he had bastard daughters too. He had abused them all. There were three, and none a virgin, for each had had to endure him. He did not like them too young, that was the only saving grace. About fourteen, that was the age he relished the most.

As you say, the stepmother is without resources:

But what could I do? I had no money, and so no power, of my own.

So she:

I had you dressed in rags that stank. I had you smeared with filth. I let the sluts of the kitchen teach you dirty ways and words. I had them smother you up in that place below, among the greasy spits and smoking hearths. I made you as unappetizing as I could, and oh, my dear, that was very difficult, but in the end, I had succeeded. And so I invited him to spy on you, just once. And you were no longer to his taste, the madman. “No daughter of mine.” These words he actually vocalized. He liked his women clean and couth. Educated and gentle. Never swearing, perfumed with roses, not the cinders of the fire.

All without Cinderella's knowledge of why this was done:

But you, too honorable to speak ill of me, you pined for him. You pined for your loving father who, if he had had one clear thought, would have rescued you, bathed you, dressed you in silk — and raped you over and over.

Cinderalla has married the prince, but the prince also truns out to be an abusive husband:

So as our path went upwards, lovely girl, sad, lost girl, yours declined. When did he begin to hurt you first? The female servant who has helped me says that it was on your wedding night. She says he chained you in a spiked collar like a dog, and used his boots. And worse. Much worse. Does she lie? How I hope so. Maybe they are even lies about the scars upon you. Though once I came back, yes, hidden in my own disguise, and I watched on the street as you passed in the glass carriage. And you were like a bird in a cage. Your hair so pale a black — is there white in your hair? Your eyes that looked about, seeing nothing. Just a glimpse, then gone, like a spring flower, the snow-drop, that is swallowed by the mud.

The letter ends with the stepmother arranging for Cinderella to escape from the palace.

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    Thanks. It's nice to learn that my memory was only half-wrong. As I said, I had long thought this "dark revisionist take on the Cinderella story" had been written by Tanith Lee, and I was correct! But I also thought it must have been something I first saw in Red as Blood, alongside her skewed versions of Snow White and other fairy tales, and I was wrong about that. I now see this was only been reprinted in one book -- The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Tenth Annual Collection -- so that must be where I read it, back around the late 1990s. – Lorendiac Oct 16 '16 at 23:25

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