Bluebeard by Angela Carter

18th Feb 2011


Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella were perhaps the first female figures that I encountered in fiction.

We initially became acquainted in the pages of treasured Ladybird books, on screen through the filter of Disney and I even stepped into their shoes and capes through the magic of the dressing up box.

My favourite renderings of these girls and women were always those of my mum’s vivid bedtime stories. Until, that is, I first discovered Angela Carter at age seventeen and was enchanted by these stories all over again.

First published in 1977, Carter’s translations offer fresh insight into the stories that 17th Century French folklorist Perrault first committed to paper, capturing age-old oral tradition.

The morals written at the end of each tale in the collection may still resonate with modern day romance, as relationships and love are presented with darkness and light in equal measure.

From the popular Puss in Boots, to the lesser-known The Foolish Wishes and the cautionary tale for curious wives Bluebeard, all of these stories demonstrate the desires and dangers of the heart.

They tell of unlikely matches, the thorny perils of matrimony (including ogreish, child-eating mother-in-laws) and the transformative power of true love.

With this being Carter, these are far from completely undeviating translations (she certainly wouldn’t have been awarded top marks in her French test for this).

However she reinterprets these tales with skilful brevity, elegance of language and sharpness of wit that stays true to Perrault’s narrative style and structure and doesn’t stray as far from the original versions as might be expected.

Those already familiar with Carter’s work may well feel disappointed by the simpler style of these stories in comparison. In The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, published two years later, Carter indulges us by fleshing out these tales with gloriously gothic sensuality and allows us to feast on first person perspectives of the female protagonists.

But in Bluebeard, she has stripped these tales back to the bare bones, presenting us with the skeletons of the stories. So be warned, if you read Bluebeard hoping for more of The Bloody Chamber it may feel a little like having to drink a beaker of cheap house red after enjoying a goblet of full bodied, rich Rioja.

I found it rewarding to view this collection as a Carter sampler; Bluebeard allows us an interesting insight into her earlier unpicking of the fairytale form prior to The Bloody Chamber, in which the tales are further embellished and words more intricately woven to create a far richer and undeniably more memorable collection.

Bluebeard would serve well as an accessible introduction to Angela Carter for the as yet uninitiated, an effective appetiser for those ready to then move on to feast on her later work.

If the idea of post-modern, feminist readings of these traditional tales now seems over-familiar rather than radical, it’s testament to the lasting legacy of Carter’s ground breaking work in the deconstruction of the fairytale.

As she continues to inspire generations of female readers, writers and academics to look afresh at fairytale and folklore, Carter has herself been bestowed with almost mythical status.

But is there still anything to be learnt from revisiting the fairytale today, or is it time we moved on? Can the morals that they share still apply to (post)modern day romance and relationships?

I know one lesson I’ll definitely be taking away from this collection: irrespective of whether or not he throws the best house parties in town, never, ever trust a man with blue facial hair.

Bluebeard is part of Penguin’s Mini Modern Classics series, published this week at only £3 apiece.

Rating: 3/5

Other recommended reading: Indulge in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories and you won’t be disappointed. For an even more up-to-date take on the traditional, Laura Dockrill’s Echoes is a collection of twisted tales bringing the fairy tale crashing into the twenty-first century with dark humour and imaginative twists that will allow the legacy of Carter to be enjoyed by a whole new generation.

Nikki Shaill


  • LizzySiddal says:

    “Bluebeard would serve well as an accessible introduction to Angela Carter for the as yet uninitiated, an effective appetiser for those ready to then move on to feast on her later work.”

    Spot on – that’s exactly the effect this volume has had on me. I am looking forward to becoming better acquainted with Carter and will look up Laura Dockrill too.

  • As the Publisher of Penguin Classics it’s great to see such enthusiasm for the series. I’d also recommend checking out the work of Shirley Jackson and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, both included in Mini Modern Classics and with other titles in the regular, larger Modern Classics.