“Once upon a time there lived a man who possessed fine houses in town and in the country, dishes and plates of silver and gold, furniture all covered in embroidery, and carriages all gilded...” So opens the tale of Bluebeard in Charles Perrault’s original version of the story, but unfortunately, the man also had a stack of dead wives in all of those gilded houses, as he had a nasty habit of killing off the women he loved.
Read the last Bookslut on Pricing Beauty and what modeling can tell us about real-world economics.
The titular Mr. Fox of Helen Oyeyemi’s latest novel, also titled Mr. Fox, plays Bluebeard, although the women he kills off are fictional characters in his novels. He’s a writer who can’t stop slaughtering women in his books, and so his muse comes to life to have a conversation about this. The two spin a series of tales about love and violence, sex and murder, while trying to find a different dynamic. Some of these stories are more successful than others, but Oyeyemi should be proclaimed as bold for taking on such complicated material.
I talked to Oyeyemi about her latest book, why she keeps returning to fairy tales as her inspiration, and what to do with all those female corpses in our books.
How did you personally first come across the Bluebeard story, and why string out variations of it for your latest novel?
I can't remember when I first read Bluebeard, but I wasn't very pleased with it. The heroine doesn't rescue herself, and on the whole, didactic stories make me feel very stubborn. For years I filed Bluebeard under “Bedtime stories for the criminally insane.” I know he gets his comeuppance at the end, but I still think it very strange for Perrault to present the story as a tale that chided women for nosing about in their husband's affairs. How can female curiosity be worse than being a wife killer?
Then I read Du Maurier's Rebecca and that tilted my perspective on the story—the heroine is radically altered. She doesn't run away from her Bluebeard, she's actually drawn by his inaccessibility and the violence of their romance. It was a whole new Bluebeard for me, and I wanted to have a go at that the narrative in my own way.
I wanted to write a straight thriller, but it was too daunting—Rebecca and Jane Eyre are more than straight thrillers, but the thriller element adds to what makes them compelling. So I floundered until I found the English fairy tale Mr. Fox, which is essentially a variant of Bluebeard and features a battle of words between the heroine, Lady Mary and the serial killer, Mr. Fox, which ends in his death. Then I had two characters and a way in. For me, a battle of words is a battle of stories, so that's what I did. I'd have liked the book to be called Mr. Fox or: Twist Him & Twist Him, but it doesn't quite have a ring to it.
The tale of the stack of dead wives has certainly popped up in literature before. Mr. Fox seems weave in a lot of allusions to these stories, from the fairy tales to du Maurier's "Rebecca" [in your story of Dr. St. John]. How much reading and research did you do before you started writing?
Quite a bit. I read essays and consulted the online Journal of Mythic Arts, and I read fiction and poetry inspired by Bluebeard—Marina Warner's From the Beast to the Blonde, Anne Sexton's poetry collection Transformations and Margaret Atwood's essay “Fitcher's Bird” are stand-outs in terms of influencing the way I set about Mr. Fox.
I wanted to talk a little about the statement Mr. Fox appears to be making about the use of the violent deaths of women in entertainment, particularly Mary's remark "It's obscene to make such things reasonable." Is this something that has bothered you for some time?
I'm not sure that Mr. Fox does make a firm statement for or against the violent deaths of women in entertainment. I'll be thrilled if it draws yet more attention to gratuitous feminine death as a strangely inevitable centerpiece to the popular imagination—I'll be thrilled if it adds to the fund of narratives that question the legitimacy of such a centerpiece.
The aspect that I found most fun whilst writing was the sparks between Mary and Mr. Fox over the necessity of the “death and the maiden” trope. I sided with both Mary and Mr. Fox to some extent, because as a reader and film watcher, I find the death and the maiden trope spectacular when it's properly done—for example, when it feels organic to the story and doesn't participate in a dodgy aesthetic. All I ask of a story about the murder of a woman, or the murder of several women, is that it doesn't imply that her death was beautiful, or that the murdered woman is in some way more beautiful or potent or interesting in death. That's a terrible lie, and I don't want to hear it. People tend to be at their most beautiful and potent and interesting when they're alive.
So in that sense I'm with Mary Fox, who is a zealot about that sort of thing. However, Mary Fox would probably ban all books in which a woman dies, and I wouldn't go that far. The other side of the argument is that people do these things, kill each other, and you can't not write about it, and I agree with that. But Mr. Fox is not especially serious—I feel duty bound to warn any prospective readers of this fact—and I think it's partly because it pokes fun at many of its authors notions of romantic love. More than anything I see it as a kind of anti-manifesto.
A lot of your work seems to carry the message that the stories we tell play out in our lives. In this book there's the writer who kills off his heroines, and then there's the man who behaves a certain way toward his wife and his imaginary mistress, and those two are very much related. Do you think that's a fair representation?
I suspect Mr. Fox's behavior toward his wife and his muse is more to do with him being a writer and therefore a solitary beast than it is to do with him being an inherently violent man. His psyche is a concern, though—the stories he tells are in some ways a manifestation of that, and I think part of Mary's concern—which is really his own concern—is that he's nowhere near being the kind of writer that he'd like to be, that he could be. Mary presents the way he kills off his heroines as stale, and that horrifies him, the thought of his work getting stale.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.