This fairy tale of Gothic horror, like Carter’s highly original renditions of “Beauty and the Beast,” “Puss-in-Boots,” “Snow White,” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” is more than just a retelling of Charles Perrault’s seventeenth-century retelling of French folklore on “Bluebeard”.
Carter sets her story in fin-de-siècle France, a time of intense political, economic, social, artistic, and intellectual ferment, of romance, decadence, and revived interest in the Occult.
The story is familiar enough. A penurious seventeen-year-old pianist, barely out of school uniform, marries a much older, much married man. “Rich as Croesus,” he bears her away to his “sea-girt, pinnacled domain” of a “fairy castle” in Brittany. No sooner does he deflower her than he is called away to New York on business.
Entrusting the house keys to her, he tells her that she can open any safe, enter any door she wants, save for the little room in the west tower. He tempts her with these words:
“It is only a private study, a hideaway, a ‘den,’ as the English say, where I can go sometimes, on those infrequent yet inevitable occasions when the yoke of marriage seems to weigh too heavily on my shoulders. There I can go, you understand, to savour the rare pleasure of imagining myself wifeless.”
Drawn irresistibly to this very room, the young wife discovers to her horror the bloody chamber, furnished with a rack and an Iron Maiden, among other “instruments of mutilation,” and the remains of her husband’s three previous wives. Wife number one, a “sumptuous diva”, has been embalmed and laid out on a catafalque. Of wife number two, an artist’s model who had posed for the great Symbolist painter and printmaker Odilon Redon’s “The Evening Star Walking on the Rim of Night” (one of several imaginary canvases and literary works that are attributed to real-life masters in this story), there remains only a disembodied skull, wreathed in white roses and veiled in lace. Wife number three, a Romanian countess, is in the spiked clutches of the Iron Maiden, and it is into her pool of blood, not yet dry, that the bride on her honeymoon accidentally drops the “key to my enfer” (as her husband calls it).
A blind young man, hired to tune the piano, offers sympathy and love, but the prompt return of the husband, who had after all staged the charade of the business deal and who now gleefully prepares for the ritual of the girl’s beheading, appears to doom her.
Carter’s genius is to fuse Perrault’s tale with the Grimm brothers’ “The Castle of Murder” (to which the blind piano-tuner alludes when he tells the fourth wife that it is the name the villagers call her husband’s ancestral home), while adding her own twist. In Grimm, an old woman “sitting and scraping intestines” in the cellar helps the last wife escape by hiding her in the hay wagon that the old crone drives out of the castle. But Carter’s pianist is rescued by her own gun-wielding mother, an indomitable woman who, as a young woman growing up in Indo-China, had once faced down a boatload of pirates, nursed an entire village through a plague, killed a tiger, spurned riches and married for love.
“The Bloody Chamber” rewards repeated reading for the lushness of its prose and the artfulness of its telling. Through an accretion of richly imagined details, Carter conveys the pleasure and excitement of the girl as she is thrust into the “unguessable country of marriage,” a world far removed from the “white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment.”
For marriage brings opulence, experienced in a myriad of sensuous, tangible details: a satin nightdress “supple as a garment of heavy water”; a choker of rubies “like an extraordinarily precious slit throat”, after the fashion of aristocrats who went to bals des victimes wearing red ribbons tied around their necks in the last days of the French Revolution; a white muslin shift from Poiret, an entire wardrobe from Worth; a huge matrimonial bed decorated with carved gargoyles of ebony, vermilion lacquer, and gold leaf; carpets from Bokhara and Isfahan; for dinner, a “Mexican dish of pheasant with hazelnuts and chocolate; salad; white, voluptuous cheese; a sorbet of muscat grapes and Asti spumante,” as well as Krug champagne, and for breakfast, coffee and croissants, and “[h]oney, too, in a section of comb on a glass saucer,” and orange juice, freshly squeezed into a chilled goblet; a “jinn’s treasury” of “parures, bracelets, rings,” a “king’s ransom in Sèvres in the closet, and a queen’s ransom in Limoges”; sheafs of infinitely more valuable shares certificates.
To be sure, there are hints of the husband’s proclivities scattered throughout the house (and story). A library of forbidden books, spines gilt-stamped with titles like The Initiation, The Key of Mysteries, and The Secret of Pandora’s Box. Letters alluding to investment in the opium trade in Laos. A secret drawer in his office bureau, containing a sheet from the score of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde on which the opera diva had scrawled one word, “Until…”; a badly spelled sentence, “My darling, I cannot wait for the moment when you may make me yours completely,” scribbled down by the artist’s model on a piece of paper napkin from the Paris restaurant La Coupole; and a postcard of a ghoul in a Transylvanian village graveyard from the Countess Carmilla (a name that recalls Sheridan LeFanu’s famous lesbian vampire), with the quotation, “the supreme and unique pleasure of love is the certainty that one is doing evil.”
These memento mori suggest that the wives—the third one especially—were not merely complicit in the husband’s deadly games, but avid players themselves. Moreover, like the connoisseur that he is, this cardinal has picked his nun precisely because, in her “innocence, he sensed a rare talent for corruption,” “the promise of debauchery.” With her deflowering (since the young girl likens her own head and neck to the “calyx of a wildflower,” the impending severing of her head is also an act of deflowering) comes this awakening self-knowledge and a tantalizing first glimpse of her husband behind the mask of a “face unsigned by the years”.
But the “maternal telepathy” that sends the mother flying to her daughter’s rescue on the basis of a single telephone conversation and her daughter’s tears of loneliness adds another layer of meaning to the story, for it suggests that the “unguessable country of marriage” is a form of exile that tears a daughter from the “white, enclosed quietude” of her mother’s arms.
Helen Simpson sees “The Bloody Chamber” as a feminist parable: “Perrault drew the moral that female curiosity leads to retribution, though in the France of his time, where death in childbirth was commonplace and four-fifths of the resultant widowers remarried, the bloody chamber might surely have been seen as the womb. In Carter’s 20th-century version, the menace is located not in the perils of childbirth, but in the darker side of hetero-sexuality, in sadomasochism and the idea of fatal passion.”
What starts as Beauty and the Beast ends in Beauty’s return to the womb, enfolded yet again in her Iron Maiden mother’s warm embrace. The addition of the blind piano-tuner to the household hardly constitutes a threat to the maternal order. He is a mere lamb compared to the leonine-haired, vicuña-breasted, Russian-leather-scented husband whose caresses the girl has learned to crave. Beauty exchanges passion for contentment, risk for safety. Clear, fresh water is so very good after a long night of dark-red wine, but one wonders whether the young woman finds herself missing the intoxication, the potent glamor of the fin-de-siècle obsession with sex, death, and pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable and imaginable.
What I love about “The Bloody Chamber” is Carter’s crafts(wo)manship, the way her bejeweled prose is inlaid with multiple foreshadowings of the plot. Words like missal, lectern, “prayerbooks” (an extensive collection of books dealing with pornography and the Occult) invite readers to prepare themselves for the inversion of the Catholic ritual of marriage, of husband putting asunder what God has joined together. There are careful references to French occultist Eliphas Levy (Levi), to Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Là-bas, a tale of Satanism and conversion to Roman Catholicism that includes a graphic account of the sexual and murderous excesses of Gilles de Rais (said to be a model for Bluebeard), and to artists like Félicien Rops (who made his name with extraordinary illustrations for Là-bas), Gustave Moreau, James Ensor, and Paul Gauguin (to these three Carter attributes the fictitious but evocatively titled paintings “Sacrificial Victim,” “The Foolish Virgins,” and “Out of the Night We Come, Into the Night We Go”). Bluebeard’s putative Sacrificial Victim comes across a book with a steel engraving captioned “Immolation of the wives of the Sultan.”
Repeated mention of Wagner’s “Liebestod” (the German term means “love and death”) and the ruby choker already hints at the events to come. But the richest allusion of all is the picture of Saint Cecilia that hangs in the music room where the new wife practices her piano. The virginal Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians, fills the young girl with dread, though she is ignorant of Cecilia’s martyrdom by decapitation and miraculous fortitude. The name Cecilia means “lily of Heaven,” yet in the story, the lilies–“cobra-headed, funereal,” heavy-pollened lilies “that are white. And stain you.”–are associated with the husband. Cecilia is also derived from the Latin caecus, meaning “blind.” “Bloody Chamber” plays on the theme of blindness and insight, not just the blind piano-tuner’s ability to “see clearly with his heart”, but the young woman’s belated realization that she has allowed herself to be “bought with a handful of coloured stones and the pelt of dead beasts,” and the knowledge of her own hidden, dark depths–something of the Beast in Beauty–that she will carry with her at all times, like the permanent red stain on her forehead.
Note: This essay was originally published in “Letters to Narcissus”