Was the murderous Bluebeard of fairy tale and legend the victim of a nefarious plot? Serial wife-killer or maligned old gentleman? Read on for a curious take on this familiar tale.
Justice for Bluebeard
How the bare mention of my title makes the mind travel back to the days of childhood, and how all the heroes and heroines of youth arise before us like the ghosts in Macbeth! How I remember weeping at poor little Red Riding-Hood’s untimely fate, glorying in dear Cinderella’s triumph, being wretched with poor Beauty and the Beast, envying the celebrated Jacks their glorious fortunes, and, above all, hating that execrable monster, Bluebeard! The mind of youth is disposed to be always fascinated with the horrible, but when to this is added magic, the effect is simply irresistible. This story to our budding minds was as Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin were some few years later. So violent is the hatred engendered in the youthful mind against my hero that I am afraid I will have some trouble to surmount these prejudices. To be candid with my reader, it was not until lately that I was able to overcome my own. So powerful are youthful impressions!
But in reading over the biography of this celebrated personage at a period of my life when my mind was not so easily affected as formerly, the thought occurred to me that Bluebeard perhaps had a “might have been,” as well as Maud Müller. Who knows? To be candid again, I do not. But it is my object to let you see how very possible “it might have been.”
In the first place, our imagination is excited and our prejudices are raised against the poor old gentleman before we have heard a word to his discredit, simply because he is a Frenchman and has a blue beard. Now, no one can positively assert that either of these is a distinctive mark of a wife-killer, although the latter has become synonymous with gentlemen who indulge in this amiable propensity.
Secondly, because he was a widower and desired to marry again is no reason why he murdered his first wives. Are we to suppose that every widower is accessory to his present melancholy condition? Think of the absurdity of the thing!
That Bluebeard was an eminently respectable gentleman may be gathered from the story; for is it probable that as a person who must have shed blood enough to change the very color of his beard would be allowed to give splendid parties? Or would these parties be patronized by the most delightful young ladies? Or would he be allowed to play the agreeable like a “fine old gentleman of the olden time?” Why, my dear readers, it is an insult to his countrymen (and who would insult a Frenchman?) to suppose such a thing possible.
He is not described as an adventurer, enveloped in mystery and an enormous blue beard, who came from a foreign land, and settled in this peaceful little village to bring destruction on its charming maidens. For all we know to the contrary, he was born in this very village, and bred in it: perhaps some of the “oldest inhabitants,” who are considered as the most reliable kind of authority, could have told all about the time when he was a boy, and when this wonderful beard began to make its first appearance. He evidently selected all his wives from his native town. Now, if there was anything mysterious connected with the death of these ladies, why was it not inquired into at the proper time? There are always plenty of relatives to carry on these investigations.
Again, if Bluebeard was held in such utter abhorrence, why did the last Mrs. B. marry him? Now, from all I can learn, I find that this worthy gentleman made her a most exemplary husband. He certainly gave his wife all she married him for—fine dresses and plenty of money. Even when he is obliged to absent himself from the house, instead of curtailing her pleasures, like the majority of crusty old husbands, he kindly gives her a carte-blanche to amuse herself in the ways she pleases, and finally gives her the keys of all his valuables. It is true there was one little condition attached, but this was a mere trifle. Is this the conduct of a cruel husband?
Now comes the tragic part of the story. Mrs. B. gives a magnificent party, and invites all her friends. Proud of her riches, she shows them all her rooms, displays all her husband’s treasures, and succeeds to her heart’s desire in exciting their envy. After this her curiosity is violently excited to see the forbidden room. Strangely enough, she deserts her company and goes up alone (mark that), opens the door, drops the key in her fright, and sees—what? The gory corpses of his former wives suspended by the hair of their heads! Now let me ask, in the name of common sense, how did she know they were his wives? How was she able to recognize them after such a lapse of time? Why did she not cry out and bring up the company from below? or why did she not run away and escape from the vengeance of the abominable tyrant? But no: she carefully picks up the key, and fruitlessly endeavors to brighten it with ashes or Sand-paper. When her husband unexpectedly returns the next morning, she hands him the keys as though nothing had happened.
We all know what ensues: the picture is indelibly engraved on our minds. There is poor Mrs. B. on her knees, with her hands clasped in agony. Over her stands her infuriated husband, attired in a becoming garment of bright yellow: his immense blue beard occupies a conspicuous place in the foreground: in one hand he clutches the lovely tresses of his wife, and in the other he holds a flaming sword uplifted over her devoted head.
Now this description is pleasingly diversified by the charming little episodes of Sister Anne and the opportune arrival of her brothers, and the rescue of Mrs. B. and the death of the horrible monster, her husband.
I do not intend to refute these charges or to palliate a single circumstance. I simply say, Bringone witness forward to prove that all this did take place. The fact is, no one was present but his wife, Sister Anne and the brothers—persons whom everybody will admit were particularly interested in giving the popular version of the story.
We all know that Bluebeard had no legal heirs; so all of his immense property passed into his wife’s possession. Now the first thing she did was to buy immediately commissions in the army for her brothers, and thus get rid of them for ever; the next, to give her sister Anne a large dowry, to enable her to marry the man of her choice; and lastly, to marry her former lover herself, having loved this gentleman all the time, although she had shamefully jilted him to marry Bluebeard and his money. Now, I consider all these to be very suspicious circumstances, and the lady herself to be a very suspicious character: in fact, not a bit better than she ought to be. In the first place, we find her deserting her lover to marry a man for his money: I am sure every person will admit that this is an unusual and unnatural crime. In the next, we find her indulging in an extraordinary curiosity, totally foreign to her sex: a woman that will do either of these two things will do anything.
So I think that it is pretty safe to suppose that a foul conspiracy was formed against Bluebeard; and the consequence was, that the poor old gentleman lost his life, and had all sorts of horrible charges trumped up against him to conceal the guilt of Mrs. B. and her accomplices.
For you see that there is no further mention of the lovely and unfortunate ladies who were discovered in an attitude that was decidedly uncomfortable by the last Mrs. B.; no heartbroken relatives identified the gory but well-preserved remains; no coroner held an inquest over these unfortunate victims of “man’s inhumanity to—woman;” and no bodies seemed to have been treated to the luxury of Christian burial.
Now, reader, do you not agree with me in thinking that Bluebeard was a poor dear old gentleman, who was first murdered by his wife’s ferocious military brothers, and then has had his memory maligned and his reputation handed down to posterity as a shining mark for their execration and a magnificent subject for their tableaux?
Source: Lippincott’s Magazine, 1869 Annual