A man I used to like once told me he was still in love with everyone he’d ever loved. I didn’t comment, but that remark enraged me to the bone. Nothing so straightforward as jealousy, it was more of an ideological thing, I think. A romantic totalitarianism that would, in my case, be dropped at the first hint of actual violence. However, bear with me; if true faithfulness in love requires the renunciation of former partners, isn’t it simply a very strict kind of fidelity, to put all old loves out of the world altogether?
Cast in this light, the old fairy tale villain Bluebeard --the French counterpart to the English Mr Fox--almost becomes a rational figure. One could deconstruct and reassemble his story for hundreds of years (and we have been). Rule number twenty of Andreas Cappelanus’ Rules for Lovers states: A man in love is always apprehensive. And whatever else Bluebeard is, he’s certainly apprehensive. Every time he gets married he has to prepare himself to murder a wife who will inevitably become hysterical once she realizes the extent of his faithfulness. One wonders what would come of an alliance between Bluebeard and Snow White’s stepmother. Surely Snow White’s stepmother is the only woman in any world, real or imagined, who could look into Bluebeard’s bloody chamber and smile with appreciation. For him I am truly the fairest of them all, she would tell herself.
So much for that great love. Perhaps the best match for Bluebeard, the best way to contain his ‘apprehensiveness’, is a woman who is both his friend and adversary. Someone who sees his wickedness and reproaches him for it – but at the same time, this someone sees his uncertainty as proof of his potential goodness. And so I devised Mary Foxe. In this book, Mary proposes that she and Mr Fox play a game in which they write themselves into love stories, taking different roles, seeking and finding and losing each other in different ways. Mr Fox agrees, but only because he’s sure he’s going to win.
But it isn’t that simple. Mary is imaginary, and Mr Fox is married to Daphne, a bored and intelligent woman who jumps into the game with both feet. The nine stories they create form a debate about the elusiveness of romance and its slanted promises—the anxieties at the heart of every fairy tale. They’re essentially an argument between a man, his wife, and the feminine aspect of his psyche. Ultimately the only way to handle their fearful connection is to trust each other. To borrow a line from the original fairytale, the Foxes must be bold, be bold, but not too bold.