This is the second of six posts concerning my Never Afters novella series, to be published by Brain Jar Press in 2022. Each title re-visions a well-known fairy tale, originally written as the creative component of my PhD thesis. Dark, powerful, and brimming with magic, the Never Afters tales weave a world in which the fairy-tale girls grow up to find both love and heartbreak, family and friendship, loss and forgiveness.
Of all the fairy tales I chose to re-vision for this series, “Bluebeard” by French writer Charles Perrault is perhaps the least well known. If you are unfamiliar with the story, you can read or listen to a translation here. The marvelous Terri Windling has published an illuminating essay on her website, discussing the history, possible influences, and literary criticism around “Bluebeard”, as well as tales of a similar type, lavishly illustrated with classical and contemporary artworks. Well worth the read!
Unlike the rest of my Never Afters stories, which all pick up at some point in time after the end of the original fairy tale ends, I began The New Wife slightly early, at the moment where Bluebeard’s latest bride and would-be victim discovers the gruesome secret of his forbidden room. The reason for this was simple: I wanted his murdered former wives to be part of this story and to be present right from the start, seen as the wronged and wounded wraiths they have become.
Before I began to write The New Wife, my somewhat nebulous thoughts around re-visioning “Bluebeard” were markedly different to the novelette in its final form. While the wraiths were always intended to be part of the story, I was inspired by the conteuses of the seventeenth and eighteenth century French salons (in which Charles Perrault was but a junior member) and so played with the idea of a manor house cum boarding school for wayward girls. This was to be a place filled with laughter and music and teenage shenanigans, presided over by wives both living and dead, with the defeated spectre of their former husband caged within his own murderous chamber — a tale of light to counter the darkness of the original fairy tale. As my research around the story progressed, however, the planned narrative became gloomier and increasingly claustrophobic, the threat of Bluebeard looming ever larger, until all that remained of my lively salon were the names of the five conteuses after whom my wraith-wives were duly christened (for the record: Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force; Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier de Villando; Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville; Gabrielle Verdier; and Henriette-Julie de Castelnau, comtesse de Murat).
Part of this shift arose from my irritation with a persistent strain of criticism that argues the wives, in their disobedience and betrayal, are as much to blame for their own deaths as Bluebeard. Seriously. Here is but one example:
He is simultaneously the disobeyed husband, the victim of his wife’s violation of authority, and a ruthless pervert whom society should punish; likewise she is both her treacherous temptor’s next victim and the violator, the breaker of her own promise, whom her husband should punish.Phillip Lewis, Seeing Through the Mother Goose Tales: Visual Turns in the Writings of Charles Perrault. Stanford University Press, 1996. p.206
How on earth can their misdeeds carry equal weight, I wondered. Is the wife as deserving of her fate for simply peeking into a prohibited room as her husband is for killing his other wives? Are we to suppose that if a wife does resist the temptation to use the key, then Bluebeard will let her live rather than devise another test for her to fail? And even if she passes, over and over again, are we then to deem her oblivious marriage to a sadistic sociopath to be a happy ending, despite the number of dead women already rotting away behind the forbidden door? Ultimately, I decided that my re-visioning of “Bluebeard” needed to begin in a place as dark and as maddening as these questions: in the bloody chamber itself, with the newest wife confronted not only by the knowledge of her husband’s crimes but with the grisly manifestation of her murdered predecessors.
And then I let them all loose to take their revenge.
Bluebeard’s seventh wife is the first to survive his wrath, courtesy of ghostly warnings and the timely intervention of her brothers. The village burns her murderous husband, his crimes laid bare and his wealth passed on to her… but even after his death, Bluebeard’s house won’t allow anyone to leave. All wives—living and dead—remain trapped in their husband’s manor, even as the man who terrorised them proves to be less dead than they had hoped.
Haunted by his vengeful ghost, can the wives find a way to break the curse that would bind them in darkness and torment forever?
The New Wife will be released on 15 March 2022 and is available for pre-order now from Brain Jar Press.
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