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University of Toronto Quarterly 76.2 (2007) 796-807

Found in Translation:
Charles Perrault's 'Blue Beard' in the English Eighteenth Century
Reviewed by
Casie Hermansson
Associate Professor, Department of English, Pittsburgh State University
Maria Tatar. Secrets beyond the Door: The Story of Bluebeard and His Wives Princeton: Princeton University Press 2004. 247. $24.95, $17.95

Secrets beyond the Door, which traces the protean figure of Bluebeard, fairy-tale serial wife murderer, through different cultures, periods, and media, is the kind of energetic and erudite inquiry we have come to expect from Maria Tatar. Her aims are ambitious – 'This book will investigate ... how the story of Bluebeard has been constructed over time and across different cultures' (3) – and her many and varied examples show the powerful grip this fairy tale has had on the European imagination for hundreds of years. Engaging, well researched, and broad, her study's only limitation is one she acknowledges: 'This book does not aim to create a comprehensive catalog or archive of works that have stood in the long shadow cast by "Bluebeard." Instead it seeks to map the cultural circulation of the Bluebeard story by showing how it left its mark at specific historical moments on the stories we tell and the pictures we look at' (7).1

There is nevertheless one surprising oversight: the omission of Robert Samber's 1729 translation of Perrault's French Bluebeard, generally understood as the first English translation.2 Stith Thompson wrote of [End Page 796] Samber's Histories, or Tales of past Times ... with morals, by M. Perrault, Translated into English: 'To the literary world the story has become known through Perrault's famous collection of 1697, and wherever that version has exerted great influence it has determined the form of the story' (35). Exerting this 'great influence' for 120 years or more prior to the Grimm versions entering the English lexicon, Samber's translation 'determined the form of the story' for the English language in ways that had an enormous impact on the 'cultural circulation of the Bluebeard story.' The series of reprints, new editions, and bilingual versions it inspired strongly impressed itself on an English Bluebeard tradition that continued through the Victorian era – which remained influenced by Perrault's version of the tale even after that was joined by the Grimm stories from Kinder- und Haus Märchen (1812–15; 1819).3

Tatar includes a discussion of Perrault's tale in her first chapter, summarizing it in its 'canonical French form' (3), surveying important critical commentaries, and commenting both on the way its author frames the conflict as one between the familial and the (blue, bearded) foreign and on Perrault's 'judgmental asides' concerning Bluebeard's wife ('What is at stake in this story, Perrault suggests, is the inquisitive instinct of the wife rather than the homicidal impulses of the husband' [21]). Because it is the Grimm lineage that preoccupies her, she does not, however, pursue this rich and important vein of Bluebeard's history. In the English-language [End Page 797] tradition, it is Perrault's Bluebeard that is translated in the many editions of Mother Goose and that breaks out into chapbooks on its own (or with one other tale), travelling to villages, markets, and fairs throughout Great Britain and America in the chapman's bags and the pedlar's pack. It is Perrault's Bluebeard that forms the basis of the late eighteenth-century examples which themselves set the forms for the century to follow: Blue Beard, or, The Flight of Harlequin, the musical pantomime by William Reeve (1791); William Godwin's novel Caleb Williams (1794), and the play adaptation of it: The Iron Chest (1796), by George Colman the Younger; and the enormously popular Blue Beard, or Female Curiosity! (1798), also by George Colman, music by Michael Kelly.4

The Bluebeard tale was one of what Harvey Darton has described as the 'fashionably dressed French invaders' that became 'naturalized' into English (94). Perrault's master text appears in a...


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