Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

The Infernal Desire Machines in Anne Thackeray Ritchie's Bluebeard's Keys and Angela Carter's "The Bloody Chamber"

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

The Infernal Desire Machines in Anne Thackeray Ritchie's Bluebeard's Keys and Angela Carter's "The Bloody Chamber"

Article excerpt

"Argument"

Between 1866 and 1874 Anne Thackeray Ritchie (1837-1919) published nine revisions of well-known fairy tales. The first four stories ("Sleeping Beauty in the Woods," "Cinderella," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Little Red Riding Hood") and the novella Jack the Giant-Killer appeared over a two-year period in The Cornhill Magazine and were collected in Five Old Friends and a Young Prince (1868).1 Four more such revisions (Bluebeard's Keys, Riquet à la Houppe, Jack and the Beanstalk, and The White Cat) were subsequently serialized and collected in Bluebeard's Keys and Other Stories (1874).2

The two collections differ in several notable respects. Most of the tales in the 1868 volume are relatively short and draw on fairy-tale classics that Rtchie's narratorial persona, Miss Williamson, expressly attributes to "good old Perrault" and the "old French edition" ("Little Red Rding Hood" 16O).3 However, in the last of the "five old friends," Jack the Giant-Killer, Ritchie departs from Charles Perrault both in the length (more than 150 pages) and in the plotted complexity of her tale. She also chooses to retell a tale whose earliest-known print edition, The History of Jack and the Giants, was published by "J. White of Newcastle in 1711" (Opie and Opie 48). 4 Jack the Giant-Killer marks a turning point in Ritchie's fairy-tale writings. The stories in the 1874 volume are all short novels or novellas, and only two of the four texts, Bluebeard's Keys and Riquet à la Houppe, derive from the tales included in Perrault's late seventeenth-century collection. The literary history of the beanstalk-climbingjack, like that of the giantkilling Jack, begins in Great Britain (Opie and Opie 162). The last tale in Bluebeard's Keys and Other Stories is a retelling of Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy's "The White Cat," which appeared in her Contes nouveaux; ou, Les fées à la mode (1698). 5 Ritchie was evidently familiar with these Contes many years before she agreed to write an introduction to the English-language edition of The Fairy Tales of Madame D'Aulnoy6 Moreover, in rewriting fairy-tale plots for the entertainment of adult readers, Ritchie may be said to carry on the tradition inaugurated by Madame d'Aulnoy and other French women writers who transformed existing Italian, Oriental, and oral tales into literary fairy tales that were "serious commentaries on court life and cultural struggles ... in Versailles and Paris" (Zipes, Why Fairy Tales Stick 68). In both her short and novella-length revisions, Ritchie, too, engages the social and political issues of her day.

Yet another substantive difference demarcates the two collections. The novellas in the 1874 volume are all heralded by a prose poem titled "Argument." These epigraphic texts present a canonical version of the fairy tale that serves as a blueprint or model against which the reader may measure Rtchie's departures. Her tales are thus dialogically structured from the outset; they "talk back" to the old familiar stories that precede them. The "Argument" of Bluebeard's Keys, for instance, reiterates the usual prohibition and warning. As the husband hands over the keys before taking leave of his bride, he intones: "evil awaits her, / Curious, who shall look"; and shortly after, the narrator similarly declares: "Ah, what a vast ill on earth is caused by curious wifehood! / Quick she leapt . . . through gallery windings / Straight to the chamber door" (2). The cardinal sins of curiosity and disobedience will undergo a thorough reexamination in Ritchie's version. In fact, all four novellas in the later volume may be subtitled "Counter- Argument."

It is not only in Ritchie's increasingly subversive, and sometimes openly critical, commentary that the influence of Madame d'Aulnoy and her contemporaries may be found. In keeping with the custom of these earlier storytellers, Ritchie also almost invariably frames her fairy tales.7 The novella Bluebeard's Keys is no exception to this practice. …

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