Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson

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Welcome back to Fairy Tale Friday!  We were going to have a retelling of “Rapunzel” as the first post of July since that won the popular vote.  However, there was an issue with the library and after waiting a long time, I decided to just buy it myself.  I now have my copy, but I still have to read it.  So in the meantime we’ll look at a retelling of one of the runners-up: “Bluebeard.”

Side note: yes, I did print that picture from the internet.  Apparently there aren’t any illustrated versions of “Bluebeard” hanging around in my personal library or the public one.  I wonder why…

My Rating: 4 stars

Warning: Contains spoilers

As a Retelling:

Strands of Bronze and Gold begins with our protagonist, Sophia, coming to live at the plantation of her godfather, Monsieur Bernard de Cressac, after the death of her father.  This itself is a deviation from all versions of the original story, which all feature the heroine going to the Bluebeard character’s house as either his bride or his betrothed.  In the most well-known version of the story by Charles Perrault, the heroine first visits Bluebeard’s country house in a group of several ladies who stay for a week.  After a week of fun and parties in Bluebeard’s lavish and expensive home, the heroine gets over her initial aversion to him and agrees to marry him.  Sophia is similarly enamored when she arrives at Wyndriven Abbey, the English manor M. Bernard had reconstructed in Mississippi.  Sophia immediately falls in love with the Gothic building and is taken in even more when she sees the luxurious and beautiful items inside.  Though it becomes clear to the readers early on that M. Bernard’s feelings toward her surpass that of godfather and guardian, Sophia remains unaware, attributing his more forward actions to his French background.  She does eventually become engaged to M. Bernard, but it is unwillingly.  By this point she is afraid of him and wants to leave, but her family needs the money he can provide and Sophia is willing to sacrifice herself to help them.  However, unlike in the fairy tale, she never actually marries him.

Nickerson portrays M. Bernard as extremely charismatic and manipulative, which is in keeping with how Bluebeard appears in the fairy tale.  In just the first few chapters, we see him charm and dazzle Sophia with his worldliness and attention to her.  He’s quickly able to convince her to come out of mourning early by appealing to her vanity, which seems harmless at first.  However, as the story goes on, we see how dangerous he really is.  He has a volatile temper that he can only keep in check for so long, and he becomes violent when he loses it. We see this fairly early on when he discovers some old love letters a boy had written to Sophia.  M. Bernard is also controlling, not allowing Sophia to attend church and withholding the letters her brothers and sister send her.  He wants all of her attention to himself and can’t even stand sharing it with the cat Sophia falls in love with.  In a scene of true horror, Sophia finds her poor cat dead and hanging from a noose in the woods.  She tries to convince herself that M. Bernard couldn’t have killed the cat, but we as the readers know better.  It’s our first glimpse of exactly how violent he can become.  In addition to his personality, we must also discuss M. Bernard’s appearance.  While he does not have an actually blue beard as in the fairy tale, his hair and beard are black with some silver, which gives it a blueish look.  We find out later in the story that he’s actually referred to as Bluebeard in the nearby town.  There is one major difference in M. Bernard’s looks and Perrault’s Bluebeard: M. Bernard is described as the most handsome man Sophia has ever seen.  In contrast, due to his beard, Bluebeard is considered ugly by all the ladies.  The heroine is only able to look past the beard after seeing his splendid country house.  However, there is precedent for a Bluebeard character to be attractive.  In the Italian tale “How the Devil Married Three Sisters,” the devil transforms himself into an handsome man in order to convince the girls to marry him.

“Bluebeard” has often been considered a warning against female curiosity, and Nickerson makes use of this theme.  Sophia’s curiosity is a major part of her personality.  She is constantly asking questions, and she immediately develops an interest in the various locked doors in the house.  Early on when she is asking M. Bernard questions about some of the servants, he calls her curiosity a nuisance and tells her essentially to mind her own business.  However, we as the readers do not see it this way, but rather as a positive trait.  It is, after all, part of what helps save her life.  While Bluebeard only gives his keys to his wife once, M. Bernard gives Sophia his keys several times.  Instead of one forbidden key, there are three: one to the churchyard gate, one to the chapel inside the churchyard, and one to the folly.  He tells her they are forbidden because they are unsafe.  Unlike Bluebeard’s wife, Sophia does not immediately gravitate to the forbidden areas.  Instead, she explores the locked rooms she is allowed access to in hopes of finding more information about M. Bernard’s previous wives.

Most variations of the fairy tale give us very little information about the wives.  Perrault’s story only tells us that Bluebeard had been married several times and no one knew what happened to them, which is a bit alarming.  In some versions, including the previously mentioned Italian one and a Scottish one called “The Widow and Her Daughters,” the brides are all sisters.  There are also several variants that do not specify the murdered women were married to the Bluebeard characters.  This includes the English “Mr. Fox” and the German “The Robber Bridegroom.”  The heroines of both stories are engaged to murderous men and see them killing other ladies, but there is no mention of the other women marrying the men.  Nickerson sticks to Perrault’s version in this regard, but she provides us with a great deal of information on M. Bernard’s four previous wives.  Sophia is not originally aware that he has been married so many times or that he is a widower.  She arrives expecting to find a Madame de Cressac only to find out that the first women to bear the title supposedly fled with a lover and the next three all died. The housekeeper tells her the basic information on them and the official stories on what happened, but Sophia also learns a great deal on her own.  She even finds signs of them in her bedroom, including a strand of hair and the name Adele carved into a piece of furniture.  While exploring the attics, she finds the belongings of the other women along with portraits of them and strands of their hair; all four of them had red hair, just like Sophia.  As time goes on, she feels a connection to them, referring to them as her sisters, and even starts to see their ghosts.  They warn her away from M. Bernard, and she soon realizes that she will meet their same fate if she stays at Wyndriven Abbey.

Sophia does eventually enter both forbidden areas of the estate.  The first is the folly, which she does enter out of pure curiosity, like Bluebeard’s wife.  However, she does not find the door locked nor does she find dead bodies.  Instead, she finds Bernard and a room full of explicit artwork he refers to as his “Temple of Love.”  He tries to force himself on her and she only escapes due to the arrival of a servant.  After this encounter, Sophia decides she cannot stay there and resolves to escape.  M. Bernard leaves that same day on business and gives her his keys again.  She uses them to enter his bedroom to search for money and instead finds the teeth of the murdered wives.  She goes to the chapel to find the bodies in order to expose M. Bernard after she escapes.  In Perrault’s story, the forbidden room is cover with blood from the dead women it contains.  Nickerson’s scene isn’t quite so gory, but is horrifying in it’s own way.  All that really remains of the murdered people are their bones, the clothes, and some dried blood stains on the floor.  A major difference between the fairy tale and this novel is the way in which M. Bernard finds out about Sophia’s discovery.  Bluebeard realizes his wife entered the room when he returns and sees a blood stain on the key.  Nickerson does not use this.  Instead, a slave who knows about the murders and has helped with them in the past follows her and locks her in the chapel until M. Bernard returns.

Nickerson’s ending deviates greatly from all versions of the fairy tale as well.  In Perrault’s, the wife is able to hold Bluebeard off long enough for her brothers to arrive and save her.  While her brothers and sister do come visit Sophia, they are not around to help her in the confrontation.  In fact, part of what sets off the events of the ending is M. Bernard angrily sending them away.  However, we do see a version of Perrault’s ending in a nightmare Sophia has.  She dreams about being in terror and asking her sister if she could see their brothers coming.  In other versions of the story, the heroine outwits the Bluebeard character and escapes or, as in “Mr. Fox” and “The Robber Bridegroom,” escapes his house unnoticed and reveals everything the next day at the marriage celebration.  Sophia, on the other hand, fights M. Bernard off and escapes into the woods.  Forests can often be a place of terror, and Sophia even compares it to the one in “The Robber Bridegroom” in the first chapter.  However, over the course of the story, it becomes her place of refuge.  It is where she goes when she needs to get away from the confines of the house and M. Bernard, and it is where she meets her love interest, Gideon Stone.  In the end, the forest continues to be a safe place for her.  While he chases Sophia through the woods, M. Bernard steps in one of the traps he has set for poachers and dies of his injuries.

My Thoughts:

I didn’t realize this was a Gothic novel going into it, so that was a great surprise!  Most people on Goodreads had shelved it as historical fiction and fantasy.  While there is the obviously supernatural aspect of the ghosts, I wouldn’t describe this as fantasy at all.  The ghosts are very understated and more akin to those in books like The Turn of the Screw than ones you’d find in fantasy novels.  I really appreciated this since I love the Gothic genre (It’s actually part of what my MA dissertation was on).  Nickerson also does an excellent job building the atmosphere.  One of the key concepts of the Gothic novel is creating a sense of dread for the reader.  She builds the story and reveals aspects of M. Bernard’s personality and history slowly, and the reader watches in horror as Sophia falls into an abusive relationship that we know could be the death of her.  It’s upsetting, but expertly done and the best aspect of the book.

I also really enjoyed Sophia’s character arc.  She’s extremely naive at the beginning as well as a bit vain and even a little silly.  She’s easily taken in by M. Bernard’s charms and all the expensive items he gives her.  But she’s a good person who clearly cares about people, even if she doesn’t know the best way to help them.  As the story goes on, she has to learn to navigate M. Bernard’s moods and keep him from getting upset.  She loses her naivety and becomes disillusioned with the extravagances of Wyndriven Abbey.  However, she retains her kindness and need to help others.  She finds little ways of helping the slaves at the estate and is ultimately willing to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of her brother.  She is thinking of others even as she makes her escape.  She wants to find the bodies so M. Bernard will be brought to justice, keeping him from hurting anyone else and providing closure for his murdered wives.  She also resolves to escape alone instead of going to Gideon for help because she knows it would put him in danger.  When it’s all over, she wants to use Wyndriven Abbey and the money she’s inherited to continue helping other people.  She’s a sweet, likable character that I enjoyed watching grow.

My biggest problem with the book is that despite the slow build of most of the story, some aspects felt incredibly rushed.  The romance between Sophia and Gideon is one example.  Nickerson gave their relationship very little time in comparison to the relationship between Sophia and M. Bernard, and I found it hard to believe that they were really in love with each other.  I also found the final chapter disappointing.  After all the build up, we don’t even actually see M. Bernard die.  He dies weeks later due to the injuries he received from the trap.  There is also apparently a great deal of scandal after everything is brought to light, and we don’t get to see any of it.  Instead, it is related to us by Sophia and Gideon in conversation.  I wish we had gotten to see everything instead of hearing about it later.  It caused the ending to fall quite flat for me.

Other Reading Recommendations:

The starred titles are ones I have read myself.  The others are ones I want to read and may end up being future Fairy Tale Friday books.  I haven’t read many retellings of this tale, so there aren’t as many starred ones as usual.

Other Retellings of “Bluebeard”:

More Retellings by Jane Nickerson:

About the Fairy Tale:

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