‘Curiosity is a charming passion but may only be satisfied at the price of a thousand regrets; one sees around one a thousand examples of this sad truth every day. Curiosity is the most fleeting of pleasures; the moment it is satisfied, it ceases to exist and it always proves very, very expensive’.
‘Bluebeard’ in Bluebeard, Angela Carter, Pg.9
Whenever I visit a bookshop, as I did last Saturday at the wonderfully refurbished Foyles in London, I always make a point of checking how many Angela Carter books they offer. Although I have amassed quite a large collection it is always a lovely surprise when I find something I don’t already own. This time I found a small Penguin’s Mini Modern Classics of Angela Carter’s Bluebeard, for only £3 (although it is incredibly short)! These retellings of Charles Perrault’s classic fairy tales offer ‘playful and subversive’ English translations, turning what was originally an oral tradition of story-telling into a more modern and updated equivalent.
The selection of tales in Bluebeard originally derive from Carter’s 1977 publication of The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault. From the well-known tale of Bluebeard – which makes a more rich and indulgent reappearance as The Bloody Chamber a couple of years later – to the lesser-known stories of Ricky with the Tuft and The Foolish Wishes, these stories are a lot more stripped back and simplified than what we are used to from Carter.
‘Once upon a time, deep in the heart of the country, there lived a pretty little girl whose mother adored her, and her grandmother adored her even more. This good woman made her a red hood like the ones that fine ladies wear when they go riding. The hood suited the child so much that soon everybody was calling her Little Red Riding Hood’.
‘Little Red Riding Hood’ in Bluebeard, Angela Carter, Pg.11
Although Carter’s translations are not always entirely accurate, she still sticks surprisingly close to Perrault’s original fables. Charles Perrault, who was a wealthy lawyer at the court of Louis XIV, chose to record oral fables that he and his contemporaries would have been familiar with, immediately placing them in a literary genre that would transcend his own artistic license and time. From Ladybird Books to Disney films, fairy tales have become entrenched in Western consciousness, though often presenting stereotypical gender differences. In Bluebeard, Angela Carter’s selection of tales stick closely to Perrault’s straightforward prose, yet they characteristically champion the female underdog and end with witty morals that can easily be applied to the modern day:
Children, especially pretty, nicely brought-up young ladies, ought never to talk to strangers; if they are foolish enough to do so, they should not be surprised if some greedy wolf consumes them, elegant riding hoods and all.
Now, there are real wolves, with hairy pelts and enormous teeth; but also wolves who seem perfectly charming, sweet-natured and obliging, who pursue young girls in the street and pay them the most flattering attentions.
Unfortunately, these smooth-tongued, smooth-pelted wolves are the most dangerous beasts of all’.
‘Little Red Riding Hood’ in Bluebeard, Angela Carter, Pg.14
It is easy to see these translations as the beginning of Carter’s fascination with the fairy tale form and there is no doubt that Charles Perrault’s fables greatly influenced The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories published two years later. As Carter wrote in a 1983 article for Gender and Writing:
‘Reading is just as creative an activity as writing and most intellectual development depends upon new readings of old texts. I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the old bottles explode’.
‘Notes from the Front Line’ in Shaking A Leg, Angela Carter, Pg.45-6
Bluebeard is the perfect introduction to the explosively shocking retellings of fairy tales Angela Carter is so famous for in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories.