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Sunday, 18 July 2010

Profile: Bluebeard

'Killing wives since 1697'

Name: Barbe Bleue or Bluebeard

Age: The oldest literary version of the story is by Charles Perrault and was published in 1697, but the tale was based on much older oral folktales.

Location: France. There has been much speculation over whether Perrault based Bluebeard on Gilles de Rais, a 15th c. Breton knight who fought alongside Joan of Arc and murdered children in his spare time. Blue-Beard a contribution to history and folk-lore is a book dedicated to the subject, although as the tale is closely related to many other folktales worldwide this link is often disputed.

Appearance: Did I mention he has a blue beard? He does in Perrault's version anyway, a beard which 'made him so frightfully ugly that all the women and girls ran away from him'. He's not to be confused with the pirate, whose beard was actually black.

Relationship Status: Interested in women. But would you want to marry him? Whether you take the tale to be about a psychopathic serial killer, or simply about the dangers of marriage in an age when death during childbirth was more common, he's not a good prospect. Especially if you add to that Perrault's view that the tale is really about the evils of women's curiosity (i.e. serves them right).

Best lines written about him: I couldn't write this profile without getting some Angela Carter in it, in her version of the tale, the title story in the collection The Bloody Chamber, her narrator says of him:
I know it must seem a curious analogy, a man with a flower, but sometimes he seemed to me like a lily. Yes. A lily. Possessed of that strange, ominous calm of a sentient vegetable, like one of those cobra-headed, funereal lilies whose white sheaths are curled out of a flesh as thick and tensely yielding to the touch as vellum. When I said that I would marry him, not one muscle in his face stirred, but he let out a long, extinguished sigh.
Some places you'll find him online:
Bluebeard and the Bloody Chamber, an essay by Terri Windling
An annotated version of the tale, along with history and illustrations on SurLaLune
Bluebeard stories collected by D. L. Ashliman
Bluebeard's Keys and Other Stories, by Anne Thackeray Ritchie
The Grey Woman, a reimagining of the Bluebeard story by Elizabeth Gaskell
Bluebeard's Final Girl, or, The Revisionist, a poem by Veronica Schanoes
The book for Offenbach's Opera of the tale
Bluebeard a 1944 film starring John Carradine (available to watch online)
Bluebeard; or Female Curiosity poster and info about a 1798 performance
Some other tales with murderous grooms: Fitcher's Bird, Mr Fox, The Robber Bridegroom, Cannetella

And if that's not enough Bluebeard for you, you could also try Catherine Breillat's new film. It got a cinema release in the UK on Friday but I've read that it has gone straight to DVD in the US.

There is an interview with Catherine Breillat in The Guardian and reviews of the film in The Guardian and The New York Times.

The illustration at the top of the post is taken from The Sleeping Beauty Picture Book, illustrated by Walter Crane. I love the fact that in this book 'Bluebeard' is published alongside 'The Baby's Own Alphabet', which says something about our changing relationship with the story and with our children.

Previous profiles: Goldilocks, Jack (of the beanstalk fame), Little Red Riding Hood, The Big Bad Wolf


  1. The Breillat film is not only out on DVD in the U.S., it's currently on Instant Play on Netflix, for those with subscriptions. Just watched it myself, and it was definitely worthwhile.

  2. Thanks for posting that Kate. We don't have Netflix in the UK, it sounds great.

  3. The German writer Michael Kruger has an odd version of the tale, in his collection Scenes from the Life of a Bestselling Author.

    In 'The Bluebeard Trust', a young man discovers a family secret: he's the son of Bluebeard, a serial seducer who has divorced six women. The protagonist shocks his family by inviting the ex-wives to visit for Christmas.

    One of Kruger's characters describes Bluebeard Senior as a 'mummy's boy':

    'With his tearful, sensitive disposition and his practised charm, he softened up the women until they were like soggy bread rolls, at which point he would find them repulsive and move on to the next victim.'

    When I was teaching Carter and Leonora Carrington, I wanted to put Kruger's Bluebeard alongside them...I don’t quite know what to make of it, but the book's worth a look if you can find it.

  4. Thanks for posting that Matt, it looks like a very intriguing story (I loved the quote). I'll definitely look out for it.

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