- Bluebeard: A Reader's Guide to the English Tradition
Casie E. Hermansson's most useful survey, Bluebeard: A Reader's Guide to the English Tradition, shows how very ubiquitous this tale of the ogre who kills multiple wives is, and has been, in our Anglophone cultural imaginary, especially in print, visual, and performance modes. The book's preface, aptly subtitled "Three Hundred Years of 'Bluebeard' in English," points to the tale's complex history discussed in the chapters on variants and variations in part 1 and to the volume's own chronological structure, especially evident in the chapters of parts 2-4, which examine "Bluebeard" in the popular culture of the English eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries respectively. Extensive illustrations, notes, and bibliography round out the volume.
The title's strengths include its very inclusiveness of a wide range of sources, both primary and secondary, that are not usually brought together. Space limitations curtail full discussion here, so I will note highlights. Part 1, for example, discusses bluebeards in true-crime writing and pirate Bluebeard narratives (chapter 2) in conjunction with the more usual discussion of Bluebeard variants [End Page 379] (chapter 1). Part 2 discriminates between different early eighteenth-century translations of Charles Perrault's influential 1697 text and posits their varying effects on the English tradition (chapter 3). It also traces the eighteenth-century orientalization of the Bluebeard tale, something long recognized by fairy-tale studies scholars, but its focus on the influence of specific stage productions—especially George Colman and Michael Kelly's popular 1798 play, Blue Beard; or, Female Curiosity: A Dramatic Romance—adds a new performance component (chapter 4).
Part 3, in certain ways the heart of the book, examines the Bluebeard tale in nineteenth-century chapbooks and juveniles (chapter 5), on the comic stage (chapter 6), and in Victorian arts and letters (chapter 7). It develops what fairy-tale scholars have seen as new areas of study, the pantomime and the comic stage, as "hybrids" between the oral and the written forms of the fairy tale, rewriting what folklorist Jennifer Schacker sees as the academic stereotype of fairy tales and Victorian morality. By chance, I also read A. S. Byatt's novel The Children's Book (2009), as I was reading this volume for review. The novel is replete with late Victorian and early Edwardian puppet and stage performances of fairy tales and includes a major character, a fine potter, who is also a Bluebeard with a secret room. Both titles mutually inform each other and reveal something about nineteenth-century British culture.
Part 4 outlines what Hermansson sees as a crisis in the Bluebeard tale in the twentieth century (chapter 8); ironic, modernist presentations of the tale (chapter 9); and contemporary treatments (chapter 10). Examination of early Bluebeard films such as Georges Mélies's 1901 Barbe-bleu is illuminating, but that of other issues seems truncated here. For example, I found that the discussion under the subheading "Feminist Revisionism" is not sufficient for what I see as a major component of twentieth-century criticism of the Bluebeard tale and as Hermansson's own critical interest as well.
The whole text is, in fact, somewhat short (178 pages) to cover so much ground, so its inclusiveness can also be seen as a limitation, since description and critical assessments are not as fully developed as they might be. The preface contains a subheading, "Interpreting Bluebeard," that summarizes critical approaches to the tale (historical anthropology, universal folklore classifications, psychological archetypes, and feminist and postmodern approaches), but the book itself most often draws on the latter approaches, implicitly referring to Hermansson's earlier critical book, Reading Feminist Intertextuality through Bluebeard Stories (2001), but not developing, as I indicated above, those theoretical issues.
In all fairness, however, there are two points I would like to make. The first is that I am more familiar with twentieth-century feminist criticism than with other centuries discussed, so I can be more critical, as reviewer, of the [End Page 380] condensations and exclusions...