Precious Illusions: The Romance & Reality of What It Means To Be A Princess

Once upon a time, I grew up fancying the idea that I, too, was a princess. Like most little girls, I dreamed that I would grow up to be beautiful, smart, kind, vivacious, and celebrated by my friends and family as a gem to be treasured, and by this measure, I would be loved and cherished. I would eventually meet my prince one day and we would fall in love, get married, live in our own place (or palace, I should say), have children of our own, and live out the rest of our days in joy and prosperity.

tumblr_muu0jkebKJ1shue0qo1_500Image via Tumblr

Of course, unless you’re Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge (who just gave birth to a little princess named Charlotte) or Mary Elizabeth Donaldson, the Crown Princess of Denmark, real-life princesses living in the 21st century, then proclaiming that you ARE a princess out loud in public might sound a bit delusional and embarrassing.

Yet, Mary Baker had already done just that — and managed to pull it off, too. She was dissatisfied with the circumstances of where her life choices had led her at the time, and just decided to become someone else entirely. In 1817, in a small town in Devonshire, England, Mary masqueraded around town under the alias “Caraboo.” Caraboo’s mannerisms were deemed so foreign and exotic to the townspeople that they started believe that she was an actual Princess of Javasu, allegedly of the Malay people. In reality, she was a servant girl who had wandered all over England, the daughter of a poor cobbler. There’s even a film about her, which was released in 1994, called “Princess Caraboo.”

Why did she do it, though?  Whatever possessed Mary Baker to reinvent herself and become not just a new character, but a new exotic royal persona complete with a new alias?

Images via Wikipedia

The reason is simple: survival. Mary Baker became Princess Caraboo to survive. She did not have a formal education. She worked different odd jobs as she grew up: spinning wool, driving her father’s horses, and working in several different households as a servant. Mary Baker was a wild child by nature; her imagination was always more vivid than her focus, and she could not hold a steady job for more than three months. What’s a young woman to do when she’s trying to figure out where to get her next meal without losing her dignity?

Why, reinvent herself, of course!

Eighty-eight years later, however, a playwright named Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote a novel about a young girl living in a boarding school who had lost her father. In the story “The Little Princess,” Sara Crewe, orphaned at age eleven when she lost her father to jungle fever during one of his business ventures, had to resort to using her imagination in order for her to cope with this trauma. In doing so, she also became close friends with the scullery maid, Becky, with whom she shared a room when she was banished to live in the attic after her father’s assets were declared insolvent following his death. It did not matter to Sara whether she was rich or surrounded by the luxuries of fine, beautiful things. Sara and Becky used their imaginations to spin elaborate and exciting tales of their adventures in India, where Sara was born and raised before her father brought her to England.

A Little Princess

Sara kept persevering amidst the abuse she endured from Miss Minchin at the boarding school. No matter how horrible things grew, she kept believing in herself and in her friends. She remained kind and thought of others’ needs rather than dwelling on her own misfortunes. She once found spare change in the middle of the street and bought half a dozen buns from the baker, but upon seeing a starving girl begging for food in the street, Sara decided to give the girl five of the buns instead. Sara consoled others even though she was faced with challenges of her own. Her kind and generous acts, despite her own misfortunes, attest to the strength of her character.

In defiance against the degradation and the humiliation that the stern Miss Minchin had put her through, Sara declared: “I am a princess. All girls are. Even if they live in tiny old attics. Even if they dress in rags, even if they aren’t pretty, or smart, or young. They’re still princesses.”

Becky and Sara from A Little Princess
Becky and Sara in the attic of the boarding school

The story, of course, remains a classic of the bildungsroman genre of literature to this day. The novel inspired at least two film adaptations: the 1939 version featured renowned child star Shirley Temple, while the 1995 version featured the young Liesel Matthews in the title role. (Side note: Liesel Matthews is the stage name of Liesel Pritzker Simmons, the heiress to the Hyatt Hotels.) I myself was a fan of the 1995 film adaptation, and the entire premise of the story was empowering for me as a young, impressionable girl trying to make sense of her place in the world. Granted, twenty years later I’m still trying to make sense of everything around me, but at least the film helped me embrace the concept of accepting myself just the way I am.

Now, as I reflect back on some of the things I have learned over the years, I’ve started asking myself more questions about what it truly means to be a princess and to be a modern young woman.

Anne Hathaway as Mia Thermopolis in "The Princess Diaries"
Anne Hathaway as Mia Thermopolis in “The Princess Diaries”

It does not matter whether you were born into genteel society, or whether your family has accumulated a vast amount of wealth through their business ventures and investments. Possessing property is not a prerequisite to be a princess. You can be the richest person in the world descended from the oldest lineage of royals and nobles and still have a personality as rotten as a forgotten apple covered in fungus. The possessions of a materialistic lifestyle may enable a person to reach a rank of privilege, but privilege in and of itself does not necessarily ennoble a person.

Being a princess is a state of mind. All that’s required is to change your dreary outlook on life. As long as you have hope, you can still believe that happy endings exist, and that somehow your hard work will pay off in the end. However, this hope should not blind you to the realities of daily life. You have to be willing to fight for what you believe in, and you have to be prepared for whatever battles come your way.

Emma Watson (who will play Belle, the humble bookworm-turned-into-princess, in the upcoming live-action version of Disney’s “Beauty & the Beast”) expressed this notion perfectly in an exclusive interview with GlobalGrind:

“I feel like young girls are told this whole idea that they have to be this kind of princess and be all delicate and fragile and that’s bullshit. I identify much more with the idea of being a warrior and being a fighter. If I was going to be a princess, I would be a warrior princess, definitely. I think women are scared of feeling powerful and strong and brave sometimes. There’s nothing wrong with being afraid. It’s not the absence of fear. It’s overcoming it. Sometimes you just have to blast through and have faith.”

We grow up with several of these gender-constructed themes and tropes in mind, thinking that these should be our guidelines to attain happiness. Princesses are delicate, lovely little flowers who need saving while a knight or prince in shining armor are the heroes who save the day. But not all of us are really that delicate. Some of us are more like diamonds in the rough, like charcoal that becomes polished over time from the pressures we’ve had to deal with in our everyday lives.

As we grow older, we make mistakes. We learn that there won’t always be a knight in shining armor, or that sometimes a charming prince is merely a pompous prat who knows how to sweet-talk you into swooning over him but would rather pull the rug from under your feet and run away as your heart drops and shatters to pieces. What can I say? Some guys give themselves too much credit for being clever when they’re actually being cruel. Other guys think they’re entitled. Those kinds of guys clearly have not matured yet. The remaining few guys out there who are neither tricky nor treacherous, are actually sincere and sweet. But you also can’t settle for just any “nice” guy who happens to come along in your life, not unless you’re absolutely sure about your feelings (assuming you’ve even developed feelings for this fellow).

"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" by Frank Cadogan Cowper
Original Painting: “La Belle Dame sans Merci” by Frank Cadogan Cowper, based on the poem by John Keats

I’m not saying that you should abandon all hope for a happy ending. There is nothing wrong with earnestly believing that someday your prince will come or that you’ll meet that someone whom you’ve met once-upon-a-dream. If you want to believe that, that’s okay. Maybe you’ve found him already, in which case, you deserve every happiness with that person and the opportunity to grow. On the other hand, especially for those of us who are still single and in want of a good man with a good fortune, it is also a truth universally acknowledged that we need to be prepared in case those romantic ideals get shattered by the reality of a potential heartbreak. You’ll find that maybe you don’t need rescuing. Maybe you won’t need validation from someone else to feel like you’re worth something because you’ve already realized that you are priceless. You just have to keep in mind these four things:

  1. Not all fairytale endings are happy.
  2. Not all happy endings come from fairytales.
  3. You might have a difficult journey ahead while pursuing lasting happiness.
  4. Most endings often lead to new beginnings.

Maybe these were the realizations that Alanis Morissette was referring to in the song, “Precious Illusions.” I was twelve when the song was released from her fifth studio album in 2002, Under Rug Swept. At the time, I had no idea what she was talking about. I was too distracted by her medieval princess attire and the split-screen parallels to fully listen to the lyrical content.

I just saw the music video playing on VH1 and thought, Wow, she’s so cool and clever bringing all these fairytale elements together with real life! However, the musings of my twelve-year-old self had barely even scratched the surface of what Alanis meant when she penned these lyrics.

You’ll rescue me, right?
In the exact same way they never did
I’ll be happy, right?
When your healing powers kick in

You’ll complete me, right?
Then my life can finally begin
I’ll be worthy, right?
Only when you realize the gem I am

But this won’t work now the way it once did
And I won’t keep it up even though I would love to
Once I know who I’m not then I’ll know who I am
But I know I won’t keep on playing the victim

These precious illusions in my head
Did not let me down when I was defenseless
And parting with them is like parting with
Invisible best friends

This ring will help me yet
As will you, knight in shining armor
This pill will help me yet
As will these boys gone through like water

But this won’t work as well as the way it once did
‘Cause I want to decide between survival and bliss
And though I know who I’m not I still don’t know who I am
But I know I won’t keep on playing the victim

These precious illusions in my head
Did not let me down when I was a kid
And parting with them is like parting with a
Childhood best friend

I’ve spent so long firmly
Looking outside me
I’ve spent so much time
Living in survival mode

But this won’t work now the way it once did
‘Cause I want to decide between survival and bliss
And though I know who I’m not I still don’t know who I am
But I know I won’t keep on playing the victim

These precious illusions in my head
Did not let me down when I was defenseless
And parting with them is like parting with
Invisible best friends

These precious illusions in my head
Did not let me down when I was a kid
And parting with them is like parting with a
Childhood best friend

All those references to “parting with a childhood best friend” and “invisible best friends,” allude to those romantic notions we would dream about as children, when we first wondered what it was like to fall in love with the right person. It’s a matter of separating the romantic idealism from the realism, as well as redefining your identity in the midst of embarking on the hero’s quest to find that happy ending.


Does a happy ending always have to involve romance, marriage, or riches? Life experience can teach us that it’s not always necessary. Sometimes a bad break-up can lead to more time for you to explore your own academic interests and pursue your career goals. Or maybe you find the passion to travel on your own and discover new delights on your journey. What if happiness existed in the pages of that novel you’ve been trying to draft all of these years and you’ve only now just found the time to complete it? It’s an individual preference for each person, one that only you can define for yourself.

Must we always choose between survival and bliss? Why can’t we have both? Survival implies that you’re trying to get by, day to day, just barely making it to the next. Yet survival means nothing if there is no overarching dream you are trying to achieve in your struggle to succeed. What makes you happy? What makes you feel alive? Is there something you have been dying to do but haven’t done yet? If so, what’s stopping you?

We learn to redefine ourselves and re-envision the way we look at the world. Often, we base our new perspectives from what we have learned from our previous life experiences. You can be your own kind of person and be the person that you want to be. The key to this is to break away from the stereotypes that trap you into only one way of thinking. There are tons of possibilities out there.

You don’t have to be a damsel in distress. You don’t have to sit around wondering and worrying when you’re going to find “the one.” You don’t have to worry about marrying rich to secure your future and place in society just to survive. You can do whatever the heck you want and set whatever goals you want for yourself. If you happen to also meet someone along the way who helps you become a better person and encourages you to follow your dreams, and you fall in love with each other, then you are free to decide whether you want to be with that person or not. You can make your own luck and create your own life. So while survival is essential, you have to also remember that you are entitled to finding your own bliss, as long as you’re willing to work for it.


You have the power to write your own story. You can pen your own happy endings, but you can sketch out new beginnings, too.

Julianne Day Ignacio

A bonafide bookworm, self-proclaimed nerd, and cat-lover, Julianne is a born-and-raised Brooklynite who loves to listen to a good story and help others cultivate their storytelling skills. Julianne received her Master's degree in Media Studies and Certificate in Media Management from The New School. You can find her crafting new content and updating the social media outlets for Verge of Verse, snapping photos, or chilling out at a cafe or park as she writes about her discoveries and her adventures in the city.

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