‘And, ah! his castle. The faery solitude of the place; with its turrets of misty blue, its courtyard, its spiked gate, his castle that lay on the very bosom of the sea with seabirds mewing about its attics, the casements opening on to the green and purple, evanescent departures of the ocean, cut off by the tide from land for half a day…’
I first read Angela Carter’s short story collection The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories for a fairy tale module I did at university, and having a spare hour or two this week (now NaNoWriMo is over!), found myself re-reading the first and longest story: The Bloody Chamber.
All the stories in the collection are Angela Carter’s rather unique retellings of fairy tales (and these are definitely not versions for children!) and The Bloody Chamber is her version of the Bluebeard story – Bluebeard traditionally being a wealthy aristocrat in the habit of marrying women and then murdering them in a secret room under his castle.
In Carter’s version, the seventeen-year old heroine marries a much older man and leaves her mother to go and live with him in his castle by the sea. As the story traditionally goes, he tells her he will be going away for a while, and says she may have free rein of the castle, except for one small room, for which he gives her the key, but tells her she must under no circumstances enter it. So what does she do? Goes for a quick look! Inside the room she discovers the mutilated bodies of his previous wives, and whilst fleeing in horror she drops the key in Wife Number Three’s blood. Although she tries to wash it off, she doesn’t manage to do it before her husband returns home unexpectedly, and he immediately sees it and knows she has disobeyed him, and has her prepare for her decapitation.
And this is where Carter’s version deviates pretty radically from the original. Traditionally Bluebeard’s wife is saved by her brothers, and uses her inheritance to marry off herself and her sister to wealthy suitors and pay for her brothers’ captains’ commissions. As The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories are generally considered to be feminist retellings of fairy tales, this of course, is not how Carter’s version ends. Instead the heroine of The Bloody Chamber is saved by her mother, who rides in on a horse and shoots Bluebeard with a revolver. Yep, it’s pretty different all right.
It is this complete turning on its head of the often misogynist traditions of fairy tales that I liked most about The Bloody Chamber. Whilst the heroine is a little shy, and perhaps a little naïve (after all, she married a significantly older, and slightly sinister sounding man who she didn’t know much about!), she isn’t the classic helpless heroine of a fairy tale. She tries to outwit her husband and avoid him seeing the blood stained keys, and when confronted with the inevitability of her own gruesome death, simply asks “What form shall it take?”
And then of course there is her mother. Gone are the brothers who break into the castle in macho style to rescue the damsel in distress, and instead we have a wild-haired older woman (who supposedly killed a tiger on her eighteenth birthday) ride in with her skirts tucked up around her waist, and calmly shoot him in the face. In fact, there almost seemed to be a kind of symbolism to the scene: Carter’s version of Bluebeard, who is very much the traditional character from old fairy tales, is preparing to decapitate the heroine with an antique sword, when a significantly more modern character (the powerful woman) rides in and kills him with a significantly more modern weapon. To me, it almost seemed like a comment upon the outdatedness of gender roles in traditional fairy tales, with the typically absent mother now riding to the rescue.
The language of the entire story was beautiful, rich and sensuous, and I was also intrigued by the strange time and space of the story. Whilst aspects of it seemed to belong to the classic, vaguely medieval world of traditional fairy tales (eg. the castle, the idea of a rich aristocrat, the age gap marriage), the modern world was also present in it (eg. the train, the telephone, mention of cities like Paris and New York). It was difficult to establish whether the setting was old or new, and in my mind it ended up as a curious amalgamation of the two, and this was both intriguing and disorientating. They are sleeping in a four-poster bed at the top of a tower in a fairy tale castle, but wait, the phone is ringing, and it’s his agent in New York…hang on, what?
The entire collection is equally intriguing, and similarly bizarre, and all the stories have similar themes, and an undercurrent of violence, horror and sexuality that only adds to the Gothic atmosphere. However, I would say that, in my opinion, some of the stories are markedly better than others. Although it is a while since I read the entire book, I remember liking The Courtship of Mr Lyon (Angela Carter’s take on Beauty and the Beast), but not really getting The Company of Wolves (which they made us watch a really strange film version of at uni!).
Overall, I enjoyed rereading The Bloody Chamber. As a single story, it’s not long, so it’s pretty easy to read in one sitting, and I loved the way Carter adapts the fairy tale, and sets it in a bizarre partially modern, partially antiquated world (plus the Mum with the gun bit was a nice twist!). I don’t often reread things, and I found that strangely, I actually liked the story better on reading it a second time! From memory I would perhaps only have given it a 3/5, but upon reading it again (without the pressure of having to read it before my uni seminar) I found myself noticing more how well written is was, and how much the characters stray from the classic fairy tale stereotypes. Whilst as a collection I would probably give a rating of 3/5, because, from my memory some of the later stories strayed a little too far into disturbing territory, or were just plain weird, I would give The Bloody Chamber as an individual story 4/5.