- The Mill on the Floss’s Tom Tulliver and the Victorian Bluebeard Type
One of the most popular fairy tales of the nineteenth century was “Bluebeard,” the story of a wealthy man who kills a series of curious wives for entering his forbidden chamber. The tale was performed repeatedly on the Victorian stage, printed in chapbooks and fairy-tale collections, and retold by Victorian poets and fiction writers. So well known was the character that Victorians frequently used his name as a label for aggressive or dangerous men (or male animals). In The Mill on the Floss (1860), Maggie Tulliver identifies her brother, Tom, as an example of the Bluebeard type when she compares him to “Bluebeard at the show” (179). This essay situates the novel’s characterization of Tom within Victorian discourse about Bluebeardlike men, discussing the wide range of Victorian usages of the name Bluebeard outside the fairy-tale context, in texts ranging from political critiques to historical essays to a fishing handbook. I argue that the combination of fear and grudging admiration Victorian writers express about the character parallels their ambivalence about the men they compare to Bluebeard. Further, I argue that mixed feelings about Bluebeard and Bluebeard-like males are reflected in the repeated considerations of Bluebeard’s national character. On one hand, Bluebeard was typically described as non-English, often in terms suggesting the imagined Orient; on the other hand, Victorians found many examples of Bluebeard-like behaviour in past and contemporary English leaders, including Henry VIII. Like Victorian Bluebeards, Tom Tulliver is depicted in terms that alternately suggest admiration and reproach, as well as his English and “Oriental” qualities. The novel’s Bluebeard-like characterization of Tom shows that although Tom’s self-reliance and rigid sense of justice can be praiseworthy, taking those qualities to an extreme can make a cruel tyrant who is potentially harmful to himself and those around him.
The story of Bluebeard was first published by the Frenchman Charles Perrault in Histoires ou contes du temps passé in 1697 and was first translated into English by Robert Samber in 1729 (Opie and Opie 133, 136). Multiple versions of the tale circulated during the Victorian era, with most including the following plot elements: a wealthy man who has already been widowed several times wishes to marry again. He woos a young maiden who is initially put off by his blue beard and/or troubled marital history but is eventually won over. Soon after their marriage, Bluebeard gives her the keys to his castle, [End Page 117] warning her not to enter a particular chamber. The wife enters the forbidden room, finding the bodies of his previous wives. Her transgression is revealed through a stained or broken key, and Bluebeard prepares to kill her as punishment. Just as he is about to chop her head off, the wife’s brothers and/or former lover rides in to rescue her.
Recent studies have noted Bluebeard’s popularity during the Victorian era, with scholars examining parallels to the fairy tale in the fiction of Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Anne Thackeray Ritchie.1 Hilary M. Schor has given the most attention to the Bluebeard tale in George Eliot’s fiction, calling Middlemarch (1871–72) and Daniel Deronda (1876) “the novels in which Eliot rewrote the story of Bluebeard, the angry man with the curious wives” (“Reading Knowledge” 239). Schor argues that the heroine of the Victorian novel marries in order to make a choice about her life, but only learns what she needs to know in order to make a wise choice after she is already married, much as Bluebeard’s wife does not learn her husband’s secret until after she has married him (Curious Subjects 7–8). She contends, “In the realist novel, women do not ‘choose’ in order to get married; they enter the marriage plot because it was the one place where they had anything that looked like choice” (Curious Subjects 12). So, for example, in Middlemarch, “Dorothea has learned too late what her [first] marriage means—it has been a path to a larger sympathy but also an end to a...