Welcome, as always, dear readers.
I’m teaching Dracula again,
Bram Stoker’s (1847 -1912)
wonderfully-imagined novel of 1897, and, as always when I teach a work more than once, something new pops out at me. This time it was a passage from Chapter II. Jonathan Harker, clerk for Peter Hawkins, a solicitor, who has an office in Exeter, in southwest England, has been sent by his employer across Europe to Transylvania (now part of Romania), to help the new owner of an English estate with the necessary paperwork. This owner is a nobleman of the region and lives in a semi-ruined castle. At first, he seems a charming host, saying to Jonathan:
“You may go anywhere you wish in the castle, except where the doors are locked, where of course you will not wish to go. There is reason that all things are as they are, and did you see with my eyes and know with my knowledge, you would perhaps better understand.”
And this is what caught my attention. Where had I read something like this before? And then Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book (1889)
fell off the shelf, opening to this:
“Here,” said he, “are the keys of the two great wardrobes, wherein I have my best furniture; these are of my silver and gold plate, which is not every day in use; these open my strong boxes, which hold my money, both gold and silver; these my caskets of jewels; and this is the master-key to all my apartments. But for this little one here, it is the key of the closet at the end of the great gallery on the ground floor. Open them all; go into all and every one of them, except that little closet, which I forbid you, and forbid it in such a manner that, if you happen to open it, there’s nothing but what you may expect from my just anger and resentment.”
The speaker here is rather unusual in appearance, in regard to his facial hair.
So—Stoker also knew Blue Beard.
Although the story has earlier antecedents, including folktales, the modern form first appears in Charles Perrault’s (1628-1703)
Histoires ou Contes de Temps Passe avec des Moralites (“Stories or Fairy Tales of Time Past with Some Moral Lessons”) with a subtitle: Les Contes de ma Mere L’Oye (“The Fairy Tales of My Mother Goose”)
If you’re unfamiliar with the story, the main points are:
1. a wealthy nobleman tries to marry one of two sisters, who are put off by his beard and by the fact that, although the nobleman is known to have been married before—and more than once–no one seems to know what happened to those former wives.
2. eventually, the younger of the two, having seen the nobleman’s lavish life style, is persuaded to accept him.
3. after the wedding, he tells her that he must leave for a time, on business, entrusting her with a set of keys for various rooms in his castle.
4. he tells her that she may use any key to enter any room but one—and then sets off on his trip.
5. she invites female relatives, including her sister, Anne, to visit and see what luxury she now commands—but can’t stop thinking about that one room.
6. she slips away from her relatives, key in hand, opens the door, and steps into a room the floor of which is covered in congealed blood and at the walls are the bodies of those previous wives.
7. In her surprise and terror, she drops the key and it’s immediately coated with blood. She desperately tries to clean it, but it’s a magic key and, when the nobleman returns and demands his keys, he discovers the blood and says that she must now join the other wives.
8. she begs for a few moments of prayer with her sister, which he reluctantly grants, and is rescued at the very last moment by the arrival of her two brothers,
who kill the nobleman, leaving her a widow with a large fortune—and a back room in need of a drastic cleaning.
It’s interesting that Stoker, having, it seems, made use of the idea of locked rooms in Chapter II, continues the idea of danger in forbidden rooms in Chapter III, where he warns Jonathan:
“ ‘Let me advise you, my dear young friend—nay, let me warn you with all seriousness, that should you leave these rooms you will not by any chance go to sleep in any other part of the castle. It is old, and has many memories, and there are bad dreams for those who sleep unwisely. Be warned! Should sleep now or ever overcome you, or be like to do, then haste to your own chamber or to these rooms, for your rest will then be safe. But if you be not careful in this respect, then’—He finished his speech in a gruesome way, for he motioned with his hands as if he were washing them.”
Needless to say, Jonathan goes exploring, forces a door which is not actually locked, spends time in the room within, and—but perhaps, like Stoker, I should maintain the suspense and we’ll continue this in our next post…
Thanks, as always, for reading,
Avoid temptation, when possible,
And know that, as ever, there’s
(If you’d like to see Perrault’s original French text, here it is: https://fr.m.wikisource.org/wiki/Histoires_ou_Contes_du_temps_pass%C3%A9_(1697)/Original/La_Barbe_bleue Here’s the Blue Fairy Book, as well: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/503 )