Here we are! This story provides a basis for 'The Bloody Chamber', but its mention in the narrative clearly shows how Carter aimed to do more than a simple retelling. A French folktale, it was written by Charles Perrault and published in 1697, in 'Histoires ou Contes de Temps Passé' ('Stories or Fairy Tales from Times Past'). It is the story of a wealthy nobleman who murders a succession of his wives. The unexplained disappearances of these women and the strange colour of his beard cause people to avoid him, yet he succeeds in marrying the youngest daughter of a neighbour. Soon after the marriage, he tells his bride he must go away on business…and leaves her a bunch of keys. She is given free reign of the château, except for one room. When temptation becomes too great she unlocks the door, only to find the floor covered in blood and her dead predecessors hanging from hooks on the wall. Bluebeard returns; seeing she has disobeyed him, he says he will behead her immediately. He gives her permission to says her prayers first, so she locks herself and her sister in one of the towers. They wait for their brothers to come and rescue them, as the furious Bluebeard attempts to break down the door. In the nick of time, the men come, killing Bluebeard and making their little sister a rich widow. As with all folktales, there are several sources, believed to be an influence. The best known is the 15th Century Breton serial killer Gilles de Rais. Another is the Breton king Conomor the Cursed, who was said to murder his wives when they fell pregnant. He was also rumoured to be a werewolf.
Although he did not coin the term ‘fairy tale’, Charles Perrault (1628 – 1705) was the writer who instigated the genre. As well as the above story, he wrote versions of ‘Puss in Boots’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Cinderella’, which in turn became the basis for the ballets, plays, pantomimes and cinematic tellings we are familiar with today. The roots of all these tales are, in some cases, hundreds of years old, and would have originally been passed down in the oral tradition.
Perrault was born into wealth in Paris, and received a good education, later becoming an adviser to King Louis XIV. He was actively involved in the arts and literary debate, being a particular champion and defender of modern literature – interesting, given his later choice of subject matter. Aged 67, he published ‘Histoires ou Contes de Temps passé', which contained the stories he is best known for. The notion of fairy tales having a ‘moral’ may have been influenced by his admiration for Aesop’s ‘Fables’.
Angela Carter published a translation of Perrault’s tales in 1977.