Archive for April, 2012

It’s funny how very often pondering one thing will lead on to quite another. Recently I was thinking about how much great English literature has been written by women – novels in particular. I don’t mean the oh-so-sensitive Jane Austin or the bodice-rippers of the Bronte sisters, but rather women who wrote wonderful books but didn’t avoid the harsh social and political realities of the times in which they lived  or about which they wrote. Women such as Elizabeth Gaskell, George Elliot and Mary Shelley, there are many more.  One of my own favourites was Mary Webb.

Mary Webb's Precious Bane

Mary Webb was a Shropshire writer and she beautifully evokes a sense of place. In her last novel, Precious Bane (1924), set at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, that place is Sarn Mere. It is a fictitious village on a small lake (‘mere’) in the flatlands of northern Shropshire:

There’s a discouragement about the place. It may be the water lapping, year in and year out–everywhere you look and listen, water; or the big trees waiting and considering on your right hand and on your left; or the unbreathing quiet of the place, as if it was created but an hour gone, and not created for us.

Prudence Sarn and her brother Gideon are burying their father and the coffin is standing by the grave. The mourners had all ‘drank good health’ to their father from the ‘big pewter tankard full of elderberry wine’, which was all their mother had been able to afford. But ‘at the coffin foot was our little pewter measure full of wine, and a crust of bread with it, but nobody touched them.’

One of the mourners, a certain Sexton, then stepped forward and asked:

 ‘Be there a Sin Eater?’

And Mother cried out —

‘Alas, no! Woe’s me! There is no Sin Eater for poor Sarn. Gideon gainsayed it.’

Mary Webb’s narrator Prudence then tells us what a sin-eater was:

Now it was still the custom at that time, in our part of the country, to give a fee to some poor man after a death, and then he would take bread and wine handed to him across the coffin, and eat and drink, saying —

I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man, that ye walk not over the fields nor down the by-ways. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul.

And with a calm and grievous look he would go to his own place. Mostly, my Grandad used to say, Sin Eaters were such as had been Wise Men or layers of spirits, and had fallen on evil days. Or they were poor folk that had come, through some dark deed, out of the kindly life of men, and with whom none would trade, whose only food might oftentimes be the bread and wine that had crossed the coffin. In our time there were none left around Sarn. They had nearly died out, and they had to be sent for to the mountains. It was a long way to send, and they asked a big price, instead of doing it for nothing as in the old days.

So Gideon said: ‘We’ll save the money. What good would the man do?’ But their mother ‘would not be comforted’ because her husband ‘had died in his wrath, with all his sins upon him’. ‘He had died in his boots, which is a very unket thing and bodes no good.’ So when Sexton calls out once again, ‘Be there a Sin Eater?’:

Then a strange, heart-shaking thing came to pass. Gideon stepped up to the coffin and said –

‘There is a Sin Eater.’

‘Who then? I see none,’ said Sexton.

‘I ool be the Sin Eater.’

He took up the little pewter measure full of darkness, and he looked at Mother.

‘Oot turn over the farm and all to me if I be the Sin Eater, Mother?’ he said.

‘No, no! Sin Eaters be accurst!’

‘What harm, to drink a sup of your own wine and chumble a crust of your own bread? But if you dunna care, let be. He can go with the sin on him.’

With grave misgivings the mother eventually relents; to save her husband’s soul from Satan: ‘If there’s none else to help, let his own lad take pity.’ Gideon wants to make sure that his mother will give him the family farm if he acts as his father’s sin-eater. ‘Yes, yes, my dear!’, she says, ‘What be the farm to me? You can take all, and welcome.’

Then Gideon drank the wine all of a gulp, and swallowed the crust. There was no sound in all the place but the sound of his teeth biting it up.

Then he put his hand on the coffin, standing up tall in the high black hat, with a gleaming pale face, and he said —

‘I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes nor in our meadows. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. Amen.’

There was a sigh from everybody then, like the wind in dry bents. Even the oxen by the gate, it seemed to me, sighed as they chewed the cud.

But when Gideon said, ‘Come not down the lanes nor in our meadows,’ I thought he said it like somebody warning off a trespasser.

Of course Gideon had made a type of Faustian pact to get the farm, his bane is gold, which he sets of to acquire quite regardless of the harm he will do to others. He is, of course, cursed and doomed.

Precious Bane is a wonderful book but what concerns me here is the idea of sin-eaters. Although sin-eating was particularly prevalent in Wales and the English border counties (including Shropshire) it was also found around other parts of Britain and Europe. It even found its way to America.

In a 1926 book entitled Funeral Customs we read:

Professor Evans of the Presbyterian College, Carmarthen, actually saw a sin-eater about the year 1825, who was then living near Llanwenog, Cardiganshire. Abhorred by the superstitious villagers as a thing unclean, the sin-eater cut himself off from all social intercourse with his fellow creatures by reason of the life he had chosen; he lived as a rule in a remote place by himself, and those who chanced to meet him avoided him as they would a leper. This unfortunate was held to be the associate of evil spirits, and given to witchcraft, incantations and unholy practices; only when a death took place did they seek him out, and when his purpose was accomplished they burned the wooden bowl and platter from which he had eaten the food handed across, or placed on the corpse for his consumption.

In the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica we are told:

A symbolic survival of it (sin eating) was witnessed as recently as 1893 at Market Drayton, Shropshire.  After a preliminary service had been held over the coffin in the house, a woman poured out a glass of wine for each bearer and handed it to him across the coffin with a ‘funeral biscuit.’ In Upper Bavaria  sin-eating still survives: a corpse cake is placed on the breast of the dead and then eaten by the nearest relative, while in the Balkan peninsular a small bread image of the deceased is made and eaten by the survivors of the family. The Dutch doed-koecks or ‘dead-cakes’, marked with the initials of the deceased, introduced into America in the 17th century, were long given to the attendants at funerals in old New York.

Richard Munslow's Grave in Ratlinghope -'The Last of the Sin-Eaters'

So in fact sin-eaters hadn’t quite died out at the end of the Napoleonic wars when Mary Webb’s novel is set. Prudence even tells us that ‘they had to be sent for to the mountains’. In England it seems the last sin-eater only died in 1906 in the village of Ratlinghope, this is indeed in the South Shropshire ‘mountains’ – in A E Housman’s ‘Blue Remembered Hills’. His name was Richard Munslow. Mr. Munslow, it seems, wasn’t a poor person or a beggar but a well-to-do farmer who ‘appears to have taken on the job after losing 3 of his children in a Whooping Cough outbreak.’ One can only imagine the tragedy of this.

Recently his grave had fallen into a bad state and the locals of Ratlinghope raised £1,000 for its restoration. Even the BBC reported in 2010 on the special service held in Ratlinghope Church in honour of this ‘the last of the sin-eaters’:

Frowned upon by the church, the custom mainly died out in the 19th Century.

The Reverend Norman Morris, the vicar of Ratlinghope, a village of about 100 residents on the Long Mynd near Church Stretton, led the “God’s Acre” service at St Margaret’s Church.

Mr. Morris said: “It was a very odd practice and would not have been approved of by the church but I suspect the vicar often turned a blind eye to the practice… This grave at Ratlinghope is now in an excellent state of repair but I have no desire to reinstate the ritual that went with it”

Aren’t Anglican vicars such lovely understanding people today! Maybe previous vicars had turned a blind eye, though as sin-eating was seen as akin to pagan witchcraft maybe quite a few were burned as heretics as well. Isn’t it rather ironic that our nice vicar has ‘no desire to reinstate the ritual that went with it’ although the whole of Christianity is based on the belief that Jesus Christ ‘died for our sins’ – just as the sin-eaters took the sins of the dying or dead upon themselves. Every week Catholics can confess their sins and be absolved and during every Mass Christians literally drink the blood of Christ and eat his body. So not much difference there.

But what is this concept of sin? Christianity tells us that because of the ‘original sin’ we are all ‘fallen’ and every one of us is born sinful, even little children. Even kindly Anglican vicars will still come into your house and tell you that your small daughter is a sinner and that you must acknowledge this before baptism. What bunkum. A good boot up the behind is I think in order.

For me the word ‘Sin’ has become so contaminated by religious dogma that we might as well abandon it. I prefer the equally graphic word ‘Evil’. Perhaps the best definition I have heard of evil is that it is the total absence of empathy. Only people or institutions who lack empathy can commit the individual and group atrocities we witness throughout the world every day.

We don’t need sin-eaters any more, whether of the Gideon Sarn kind or the Christian kind. Whether we call things sins or evil, people and institutions need to be held responsible for the acts they commit in this life, not absolved from them every Sunday or on their death bed so they can go to heaven.

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Throughout most of history ordinary people have not joined armies and navies willingly, much less joined up to fight their rulers’ wars, wars that had no rhyme nor reason for them. In feudal times ordinary folk were obliged by their lords to follow them to war. More recently, for example in the First World War, when whipping up patriotic fervour didn’t suffice to produce enough cannon-fodder (and it didn’t) people were conscripted – which just means being forced to go and fight.

Press Gangs – A common way to get people to fight wars that they didn’t want to

Another handy tactic employed for centuries in England was ‘impressment’. The Royal Navy paid groups of armed thugs – called Press Gangs – to roam the streets and seize ordinary citizens (often but not always sailors) against their will, and usually fiercely resisted, and carry them off like convicts to serve as ‘Tars’ in vile and dangerous conditions in His Majesty’s Navy. If they ever made it home alive they could easily find themselves impressed yet again.

By 1793 seventy-five percent of the crews of British vessels consisted of prisoners of war, convicts and those forced into service. Of course the English people resisted such tyranny, as they always have, but to little effect. But that’s another story.

I came across a poem published in 1794 at the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars that I found very moving:

The Tender’s Hold or The Sailor’s Complaint

While Landmen wander uncontrol’d,
And boast the rights of Freemen,
Oh! view the tender’s loathsome hold,
Where droop your injur’d Seamen:
Dragg’d by Oppression’s savage grasp,
From ev’ry dear connection;
‘Midst putrid air, Oh! see them gasp,
Oh! mark their deep dejection.

Blush then, Oh! blush ye pension’d host,
Who wallow in profusion,
For our foul cell proves all your boast
To be but mere delusion.

If Liberty be ours, Oh! say
Why are not all protected;
Why is the hand of ruffian sway
‘Gainst Seamen thus directed?
Is this your proof of British rights?
Is this rewarding bravery?
Oh! shame to boast your Tars’ exploits,
Yet doom those Tars to slavery.

Blush, then, etc.

But just return’d from noxious skies,
And winter’s raging ocean,
To land the sun-burnt Seaman flies,
Impell’d by strong emotion.
His much-lov’d KATE, his children dear,
Around him cling delighted,
When, lo! th’ Impressing Fiends appear,
And every joy is blighted,

Blush, then, etc.

Thus from each soft endearment torn,
Behold the Seaman languish,
His wife, his children, left forlorn,
The prey of bitter anguish.
‘Reft of those arms, whose vigorous strength
Their shed from want defended,
They droop, and all their woes at length
Are in a workhouse ended!

Blush, then, etc.

Mark then, ye minions of a court,
Who prate of Freedom’s blessing,
Yet every hell-born war support,
And vindicate Impressing,
A time will come, when Things like you,
Mere baubles of creation,
No more will make mankind pursue
The work of devestation.

Blush then, Oh! blush, ye pension’d host,
Who wallow in profusion,
For our foul cell proves all your boast
To be but mere delusion.

The Cambridge Intelligencer (September 6, 1794)

Even the conservative ‘Romantic’ poets Wordsworth and Shelley were repulsed by the Press Gangs. Wordsworth in Guilt and Sorrow (1793-1794) tells the oppression of:

A Sailor he, who many a wretched hour
Hath told; for, landing after labour hard,
Full long endured in hope of just reward,
He to an arméd fleet was forced away
By seamen, who perhaps themselves had
shared
Like fate; was hurried off, a helpless
prey,
‘Gainst all that in his heart, or theirs
perhaps, say nay.

While Shelley in The Voyage (1812) tells of an impressed sailor’s return home, only to be impressed again and told:

                                   . . . oh! your wife
“Died this time year in the House of Industry
“Your young ones all are dead, except one
brat
“Stubborn as you—Parish apprentice now

We need to hear more about how Englishmen (and for that matter every other nationality) have been forced to fight against their will since ‘civilization’ arose. As Walter Benjamin once wrote:

There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.

Even in our scientific age we humans still tell stories, indeed it seems we need to tell stories. Stories to try to make sense of our lives and stories to try to understand our world. Rational, scientific stories will quite often suffice. Many of these are illuminating and beautiful, numinous even. We have the wonderful story of human evolution, the story of relativity and quantum physics, the stories of the diversity of life and the unfolding story of the origins of the universe. Yet sometimes we try to grasp other insights, truths even, which are not yet illuminated by science. We tell stories to ourselves and to others, in literature, in music, in art and even using legends and myths.

La Barbe Bleue – Charles Perrault

One type of story is the fairy tale. Some of these find their origin in the mists of time and some may even have been based on real events, though these are well-nye impossible to recover. At first largely orally transmitted, only later were these tales written down. In the English-speaking world we tend to think that our most famous fairy tales come from the Germanic world, from the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen. But many of our favourite tales were first written down by a Frenchman in the seventeenth century. His name was Charles Perrault. You might be surprised to know that it was Perrault who first brought us Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty and Puss in Boots. Another tale that Perrault first wrote down was Bluebeard. It’s a story that I have returned to on and off over the last twenty years; first in the Brothers Grimm version, later in Béla Bartók’s 1911 opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and more recently yet again in Perrault’s original. What does it mean? Of course there can never be an answer to this question; so what does it mean for me? But first Perrault’s Bluebeard itself:

Bluebeard

 There was once a man who had fine houses, both in town and country, a deal of silver and gold plate, embroidered furniture, and coaches gilded all over with gold. But this man was so unlucky as to have a blue beard, which made him so frightfully ugly that all the women and girls ran away from him.

One of his neighbors, a lady of quality, had two daughters who were perfect beauties. He desired of her one of them in marriage, leaving to her choice which of the two she would bestow on him. Neither of them would have him, and they sent him backwards and forwards from one to the other, not being able to bear the thoughts of marrying a man who had a blue beard. Adding to their disgust and aversion was the fact that he already had been married to several wives, and nobody knew what had become of them.

Bluebeard, to engage their affection, took them, with their mother and three or four ladies of their acquaintance, with other young people of the neighborhood, to one of his country houses, where they stayed a whole week.

The time was filled with parties, hunting, fishing, dancing, mirth, and feasting. Nobody went to bed, but all passed the night in rallying and joking with each other. In short, everything succeeded so well that the youngest daughter began to think that the man’s beard was not so very blue after all, and that he was a mighty civil gentleman.

As soon as they returned home, the marriage was concluded. About a month afterwards, Bluebeard told his wife that he was obliged to take a country journey for six weeks at least, about affairs of very great consequence. He desired her to divert herself in his absence, to send for her friends and acquaintances, to take them into the country, if she pleased, and to make good cheer wherever she was.

“Here,” said he,” are the keys to the two great wardrobes, wherein I have my best furniture. These are to my silver and gold plate, which is not everyday in use. These open my strongboxes, which hold my money, both gold and silver; these my caskets of jewels. And this is the master key to all my apartments. But as for this little one here, it is the key to the closet at the end of the great hall on the ground floor. Open them all; go into each 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, you may expect my just anger and resentment.”

She promised to observe, very exactly, whatever he had ordered. Then he, after having embraced her, got into his coach and proceeded on his journey.

Her neighbors and good friends did not wait to be sent for by the newly married lady. They were impatient to see all the rich furniture of her house, and had not dared to come while her husband was there, because of his blue beard, which frightened them. They ran through all the rooms, closets, and wardrobes, which were all so fine and rich that they seemed to surpass one another.

After that, they went up into the two great rooms, which contained the best and richest furniture. They could not sufficiently admire the number and beauty of the tapestry, beds, couches, cabinets, stands, tables, and looking glasses, in which you might see yourself from head to foot; some of them were framed with glass, others with silver, plain and gilded, the finest and most magnificent that they had ever seen.

They ceased not to extol and envy the happiness of their friend, who in the meantime in no way diverted herself in looking upon all these rich things, because of the impatience she had to go and open the closet on the ground floor. She was so much pressed by her curiosity that, without considering that it was very uncivil for her to leave her company, she went down a little back staircase, and with such excessive haste that she nearly fell and broke her neck.

Having come to the closet door, she made a stop for some time, thinking about her husband’s orders, and considering what unhappiness might attend her if she was disobedient; but the temptation was so strong that she could not overcome it. She then took the little key, and opened it, trembling. At first she could not see anything plainly, because the windows were shut. After some moments she began to perceive that the floor was all covered over with clotted blood, on which lay the bodies of several dead women, ranged against the walls. (These were all the wives whom Bluebeard had married and murdered, one after another.) She thought she should have died for fear, and the key, which she, pulled out of the lock, fell out of her hand.

After having somewhat recovered her surprise, she picked up the key, locked the door, and went upstairs into her chamber to recover; but she could not, so much was she frightened. Having observed that the key to the closet was stained with blood, she tried two or three times to wipe it off; but the blood would not come out; in vain did she wash it, and even rub it with soap and sand. The blood still remained, for the key was magical and she could never make it quite clean; when the blood was gone off from one side, it came again on the other.

Bluebeard returned from his journey the same evening, saying that he had received letters upon the road, informing him that the affair he went about had concluded to his advantage. His wife did all she could to convince him that she was extremely happy about his speedy return.

The next morning he asked her for the keys, which she gave him, but with such a trembling hand that he easily guessed what had happened.

“What!” said he, “is not the key of my closet among the rest?”

“I must,” said she, “have left it upstairs upon the table.”

“Fail not,” said Bluebeard, “to bring it to me at once.”

After several goings backwards and forwards, she was forced to bring him the key. Bluebeard, having very attentively considered it, said to his wife, “Why is there blood on the key?”

“I do not know,” cried the poor woman, paler than death.

“You do not know!” replied Bluebeard. “I very well know. You went into the closet, did you not? Very well, madam; you shall go back, and take your place among the ladies you saw there.”

Upon this she threw herself at her husband’s feet, and begged his pardon with all the signs of a true repentance, vowing that she would never more be disobedient. She would have melted a rock, so beautiful and sorrowful was she; but Bluebeard had a heart harder than any rock!

“You must die, madam,” said he, “at once.”

“Since I must die,” answered she (looking upon him with her eyes all bathed in tears), “give me some little time to say my prayers.”

“I give you,” replied Bluebeard, “half a quarter of an hour, but not one moment more.”

When she was alone she called out to her sister, and said to her, “Sister Anne” (for that was her name), “go up, I beg you, to the top of the tower, and look if my brothers are not coming. They promised me that they would come today, and if you see them, give them a sign to make haste.”

Her sister Anne went up to the top of the tower, and the poor afflicted wife cried out from time to time, “Anne, sister Anne, do you see anyone coming?”

And sister Anne said, “I see nothing but a cloud of dust in the sun, and the green grass.”

In the meanwhile Bluebeard, holding a great saber in his hand, cried out as loud as he could bawl to his wife, “Come down instantly, or I shall come up to you.”

“One moment longer, if you please,” said his wife; and then she cried out very softly, “Anne, sister Anne, do you see anybody coming?”

And sister Anne answered, “I see nothing but a cloud of dust in the sun, and the green grass.”

“Come down quickly,” cried Bluebeard, “or I will come up to you.”

“I am coming,” answered his wife; and then she cried, “Anne, sister Anne, do you not see anyone coming?”

“I see,” replied sister Anne, “a great cloud of dust approaching us.”

“Are they my brothers?”

“Alas, no my dear sister, I see a flock of sheep.”

“Will you not come down?” cried Bluebeard.

“One moment longer,” said his wife, and then she cried out, “Anne, sister Anne, do you see nobody coming?”

“I see,” said she, “two horsemen, but they are still a great way off.”

“God be praised,” replied the poor wife joyfully. “They are my brothers. I will make them a sign, as well as I can for them to make haste.”

Then Bluebeard bawled out so loud that he made the whole house tremble. The distressed wife came down, and threw herself at his feet, all in tears, with her hair about her shoulders.

“This means nothing,” said Bluebeard. “You must die!” Then, taking hold of her hair with one hand, and lifting up the sword with the other, he prepared to strike off her head. The poor lady, turning about to him, and looking at him with dying eyes, desired him to afford her one little moment to recollect herself.

“No, no,” said he, “commend yourself to God,” and was just ready to strike.

At this very instant there was such a loud knocking at the gate that Bluebeard made a sudden stop. The gate was opened, and two horsemen entered. Drawing their swords, they ran directly to Bluebeard. He knew them to be his wife’s brothers, one a dragoon, the other a musketeer; so that he ran away immediately to save himself; but the two brothers pursued and overtook him before he could get to the steps of the porch. Then they ran their swords through his body and left him dead. The poor wife was almost as dead as her husband, and had not strength enough to rise and welcome her brothers.

Bluebeard had no heirs, and so his wife became mistress of all his estate. She made use of one part of it to marry her sister Anne to a young gentleman who had loved her a long while; another part to buy captains’ commissions for her brothers, and the rest to marry herself to a very worthy gentleman, who made her forget the ill time she had passed with Bluebeard.

There are myriad later versions of Bluebeard, many with a darker ending as we shall see. Interpretations abound. Perrault himself liked to add little moral tags to his tales. At the end of Bluebeard he wrote two:

                  Moral

Ladies, you should never pry,—
You’ll repent it by and by!
‘Tis the silliest of sins;
Trouble in a trice begins.
There are, surely—more’s the woe
Lots of things you need not know.
Come, forswear it now and here—
Joy so brief that costs so dear!

                  Another Moral

You can tell this tale is old
By the very way it’s told.
Those were days of derring-do;
Man was lord, and master too.
Then the husband ruled as king.
Now it’s quite a different thing;
Be his beard what hue it may—
Madam has a word to say!

Later Freudian and Jungian psycho-analysts couldn’t resist the tale. As you might imagine their interpretations all centred around keys and locks (read penises and vaginas) and around the blood on the closet key that couldn’t be wiped off (read defloration). But let’s not bother ourselves further with such bunkum.

In more recent times, Bluebeard has become a favourite story for feminists. Dozens of retellings have appeared – from Angela Carter and Margaret Attwood for example – and hundreds of interpretations offered. I wouldn’t dream of stepping on their turf.

Such stories can be interpreted in many ways and no one is right. In fact the word interpretation is probably not very helpful. I prefer to see them as parables or allegories which for us somehow mirror or illuminate a perhaps obscure, but nonetheless real, facet of our own life and our own world. It is in this way that I offer this short muse on Bluebeard.

Bluebeard’s new wife is not named by Perrault, so I will use the name given to her by Bartók in his opera – Judith.

Judith said to them, “Listen to me. I am about to do a thing which will go down through all generations of our descendants”. Book of Judith 8.32

What had become of Bluebeard’s wives?

Judith and her sister were at first repulsed by Bluebeard’s ugliness. ‘Adding to their disgust and aversion was the fact that he already had been married to several wives, and nobody knew what had become of them.’ They felt that something was wrong, what had become of his wives? But Bluebeard was, after all, rich and he entertained Judith, her relatives and many young people in the neighbourhood for a week in just ‘one of his country houses’. ‘The time was filled with parties, hunting, fishing, dancing, mirth, and feasting. Nobody went to bed, but all passed the night in rallying and joking with each other.’Judith was seduced by all this splendor and fun. His beard became less blue and even though she had sensed an evil she persuaded herself that ‘he was a mighty civil gentleman’.

When we are children we have an innate sense of right and wrong, it is biological. For sure our parents, our schools and our communities will ‘socialize’ us with more morality – sometimes for the good, often not. Just like Judith we can sense evil and we shy away. But then we are shown all the things we might have if we can just overcome our repulsion. All the cars, the houses, the clothes, the food and the holidays we can have. Judith must agree to marry Bluebeard, which she does despite her misgivings. We agree to join the great capitalist, consumerist frenzy despite an inkling that there’s something darker hidden just out of view. For both Judith and us, if we comply and obey then we are promised we will receive the precious keys to the cupboards in the castle, and all they contain. We can have it all so long as we submit and obey.

When Bluebeard goes away on a trip he ‘desires her to divert herself and make good cheer’. He gives her all the keys, keys to wardrobes, strongboxes and rooms where all his fortune and luxuries can be found. There is only one small catch, he forbids her to enter ‘the little closet’. If she does, he says, ‘you may expect my just anger and resentment’. Judith promises to obey. We know, of course, that hidden behind the closet door a horror lurks. Judith doesn’t know this yet.

Once Bluebeard is gone all her friends arrive to enjoy the castle. ‘They had not dared to come while her husband was there.’ They marveled at all the luxury and ‘they ceased not to extol and envy the happiness of their friend’. She really did seem to have been given the keys to happiness and everything one could desire in the world. But Judith had made a Faustian pact with Bluebeard, even if she was only dimly aware that she had. The price of the keys was to obey and not to question what lay hidden below the glittering surface.

Many of us do this in our own lives. We obey and we don’t question, and in return we (or some of us) can luxuriate in the good things of life. Yet we still feel something is not quite right, we know there is some type of knowledge, some type of insight that is being kept from us. Who really is Bluebeard? What really is the nature of the society we live in?

Judith is ‘curious’ and ‘impatient’. Although she knows she will be punished, she just must use the key to the little closet to see what’s inside. What is Bluebeard’s secret? We too are curious to find out what is hidden from our view. What are the hidden secrets of our society?

Having come to the closet door, she made a stop for some time, thinking about her husband’s orders, and considering what unhappiness might attend her if she was disobedient; but the temptation was so strong that she could not overcome it. She then took the little key, and opened it, trembling. At first she could not see anything plainly, because the windows were shut. After some moments she began to perceive that the floor was all covered over with clotted blood, on which lay the bodies of several dead women, ranged against the walls. (These were all the wives whom Bluebeard had married and murdered, one after another.) She thought she should have died for fear, and the key, which she, pulled out of the lock, fell out of her hand.

Bluebeard’s wife opens the little closet

This was the secret. Bluebeard’s Heart of Darkness. His life, her life and the castle were all built on the blood of others. As Mr. Kurtz said while dying: ‘The Horror! The Horror!’

In our own lives too we might one day find that the life we lead, the jobs we do, and the luxuries we enjoy are all based on violence and death. Violence towards other humans, violence to other living beings and violence towards the earth. Once we are aware, once we are conscious of the horror, we want to put the genie back. Yet, no matter how frightened we are, we can’t

Judith was scared. What would happen to her if Bluebeard found out she had been disobedient? She notices that the closet key she had dropped was ‘stained with blood’. Desperately she tries to put the genie back in the bottle. ‘She tried two or three times to wipe it off; but the blood would not come off.’

Out, damned spot! out, I say!…. Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.   Lady Macbeth in Macbeth by William Shakespeare

The brothers kill Bluebeard

At first we want to deny what we have seen. When Bluebeard comes back Judith returns all the keys except the one for the little closet, which she tells him she’s left upstairs. Bluebeard is not deceived, he knows she has discovered his secret and disobeyed his orders – his orders to refrain from looking into the heart of darkness. When he sees the blood on the key Judith says she doesn’t know how it got there, but Bluebeard replies: ‘I very well know. You went into the closet, did you not? Very well, madam; you shall go back, and take your place among the ladies you saw there.’ Judith knows she must pay the price for her Faustian pact with the devil. She too must join his other victims. When her pleading and her feminine wiles have no effect on Bluebeard’s determination that she ‘must die’, she begs for a little time because she know her brothers should be arriving and may save her. They come just in the nick of time and run Bluebeard through with their swords. Perrault ends his tale:

Bluebeard had no heirs, and so his wife became mistress of all his estate. She made use of one part of it to marry her sister Anne to a young gentleman who had loved her a long while; another part to buy captains’ commissions for her brothers, and the rest to marry herself to a very worthy gentleman, who made her forget the ill time she had passed with Bluebeard.

Or in the usual phrase: they all lived happily ever after.

Judith dies in Bartok’s Duke Bluebeards Castle

Béla Bartók’s rather misogynist opera ends more darkly. Rescue doesn’t come and despite Judith’s pleas for mercy Bluebeard kills her. Bluebeard: ‘Thou art lovely, passing lovely. Thou art the queen of all my women. My best and fairest. (‘Judith goes the way of the other women’) Henceforth all shall be darkness, darkness.’

So what are we to do once we have seen into the heart of darkness? Whether this is our own personal darkness or that of the society in which we live. In Joseph Conrad’s novel, Mr. Kurtz’s dying cry of ‘The Horror!’ was both a cry for what he had become and for the society that had made him so. Is there no hope of rescue because we have sinned, as in Bartok, or if we use all our wit and guiles can we delay the end until help arrives? Or should we like an existential philosopher despair and withdraw? The answers must be personal.

Perhaps for each of us the most important question is: ‘Who is Bluebeard?’, or even, ‘What is Bluebeard’. If we don’t see the enemy as the evil it is our fate will probably be sealed… unless we have some brothers to rescue us.