Thursday, October 29, 2020

Illustrating Bluebeard

Bluebeard's wife looks around as she begins to unlock the door.
Here’s a horror story for you: a French nobleman seeks a bride, but struggles due to his unsightly blue beard and a string of missing wives. Eventually, he is able to woo a young woman and bring her back to his estate as his new wife. After a month of marriage, he declares that he must go away on business, leaving her with a ring of keys and an interdiction. She can go wherever she likes and entertain to her heart’s content, but she must not use the littlest key on the ring. It opens a closet on the ground floor and nothing awaits her there but her husband’s “just anger and disappointment.” After some time, the young bride is overcome by her curiosity and unlocks the door, where she finds the bodies of her murdered predecessors. When her husband discovers that she has failed his test, she is only spared their fate by some stalling and the timely arrival of her brothers, who kill her husband in turn.
Bluebeard, a fairy tale first published in Charles Perrault’s 1697 Histoires du temps passé, ou, Les contes de ma Mère l'Oye, better known as Mother Goose, has been retold over and over again, deeply affecting the development of the gothic and horror genres. Its influence pervades classics like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Fritz Lang’s The Secret Beyond the Door, as well as more recent texts, including Crimson Peak and Ex Machina.
A caricature of Bluebeard handing the keys to his wife.
Rauner Library’s collection of illustrated versions of Bluebeard also highlights a curious trend: how Bluebeard, a French fairy tale, became increasingly Orientalized over time. When the first literary version was published, the accompanying illustrations showed its characters in European dress. They were also largely unnamed, with the exception of the “Bluebeard” moniker and the new bride’s sister Anne. At some point in adaptation, however, the bride gains the Arabic name Fatima, and the story begins to take on an exoticized aspect. In an 1805 English language version, the entire story is relocated to an ambiguously Eastern setting. In others, like William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Awful History of Bluebeard (1924), Bluebeard himself is the focus of the change, while everything else remains fairly European. Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), one of the great artists of the Golden Age of Illustration, also had to have his two cents. His take on Bluebeard, featured in The Sleeping Beauty and Other Fairy Tales from the Old French, is located “in a city not far from Baghdad.” Even Arthur Rackham, whose work is overall less interested in the Orientalism of his peers, was apparently unable to resist the racist allure of imperiling a beautiful woman in an imagined East. 

Bluebeard brandishes a scimitar.
This translocation by tale-tellers and illustrators leaves a lot to be desired. The inconsistent mish-mash of European design sensibilities with an interest in and fear of the Orient is by no means exclusive to Bluebeard, but it is a specific and somewhat puzzling case study. The standard lineup of historical figures cited by folklorists as possible influences on the oral folktale, like Gilles de Rais and Henry VIII, is not exactly foreign. And while the story is gruesome enough that it could have made some uncomfortable to think of as so close to home, Bluebeard is no more horrific than many other fairy tales that didn’t receive the same treatment.What do you think? Check out some of the Rauner’s many illustrated variants, including Rare Book PQ1877 .C513 1785, Sine Illus D86sleb, Sine Illus C366fai, Illus R115 afb, 1926 Coll B587n 1805, and Sine Illus C527fai.