❉ We peer over the walls of Manderfield for a look at filmmaker Anna Biller’s stunning debut novel.
“Biller’s modernised take on a classic folktale and fairytale
With a plotline that explores femicide framed within the genre of Gothic romance, filmmaker/auteur Anna Biller continues to explore serious subject matter within her own glamorous, colour-saturated world. Super Amanda peers over the walls of Manderfield for an early, no spoilers look at Bluebeard’s Castle, Anna Biller’s stunning debut novel.From mass-market high street authors (Victoria Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney) to the lecture halls of Oxford and Cornell (Emily Brontë, Mary Shelley et al), Gothic romance has enthralled readers for centuries. Its cover art arrived with the advent of the mid-century drugstore in the States and the railway bookstore in Great Britain. Stunning paintings of beautiful women running away from castles in long flowing gowns attracted even the most casual browser on the High Street, becoming essential to the Gothic aesthetic. Not to be confused with “Fábio embracing women in low cut gowns” or 1980s “bodice ripper” art, the fearful beauties fleeing cliffside castles evoke femininity, suspense and primal fear. Painted in deep otherworldly shades of blue, violet and green, the heroine of the story was invariably running towards tentative safety and the hope of a new tomorrow.
Therefore, it’s fascinating that Anna Biller’s cover heroine (modelled by the beautiful artist Miss Miranda Barrie) isn’t fleeing, but pausing to reconsider. Bluebeard’s Castle, too, asks the reader to reconsider a topic that few fiction writers will touch today: femicide. The reasons why women stay in abusive relationships, and why men abuse and kill us, are presented in a Gothic storyline. With this unsettling premise, Biller’s modernised take on a classic folktale and fairytale
There is an underlying animus on the part of some critics to reduce Anna Biller’s oeuvre to camp. That assertion is reflexive and inaccurate. Camp is badly executed art that’s somehow appealing (think William Shatner’s spoken word/Shakespeare/Classic rock album The Transformed Man), or when an artistic attempt at highbrow entertainment turns unintentionally tacky, funny or derivative (again; see Shatner’s The Transformed Man).
While Anna’s debut feature film Viva (2007) was a critique of Southern California suburbia, The Playboy Philosophy etc., and how all of those respective cultural phenomena veered into riotous 1970s camp, Viva was directed through a very serious female lens. The daily realities of misogyny, rape and sexual harassment during the sexual revolution are not light or derivative topics. With Bluebeard’s Castle, too, it’s important not to conflate Biller’s meticulous recreation of genre with camp. Biller’s intention is to demonstrate how easily women are swallowed whole and buried alive in abusive relationships by predatory males. In short, there’s nothing funny or campy about femicide.
Bluebeard’s Castle is set in modern-day England, and Biller writes with a strong and charmingly unpretentious knowledge of British culture.) Judith, a self-described plain Jane and bestselling Gothic romance novelist, is in turn the personification of the walking wounded due to severe abuse at the hands of her dysfunctional upper-class parents. Growing up in the shadow of her favoured sister Anne, a stunning model socialite, hasn’t helped either. Although Judith is bright, intelligent and confident in her successes as a novelist, she has yet to be intimate with a man. She’s also become a fervent Catholic as a means to process and relive her deep childhood trauma. At first the Catholic references seem as if they may have been included merely for
There are few villains in recent years that are as intrinsically cruel and evil as Gavin Garnet. He lives by the Charles Manson credo of, “Don’t find the women who are broken. Find the women who are almost broken.” Gavin lures Judith in with all the bombastic tools of a vile seducer. Great sex, clothing, alcohol, bespoke lingerie, travel and his bizarrely touching and maudlin proclamations of love for her. He literally sweeps her off her feet and into Manderfield Castle, all the while baring his own soul and childhood agonies to her. This last point is important because it builds a deep trust within Judith’s heart and mind, binding her further to his needs; not because he wants to bond with a fellow survivor, but sheerly to make his childhood traumas more important than Judith’s own. The courtship is a whirlwind, and soon they’ve settled into connubial bliss at a sprawling country estate in Somerset.
The conspicuous consumption enjoyed by Judith at Manderfield Castle plays an important part in the plot, as do the descriptions of some exquisitely ostentatious, heart-throbbing sex, and endlessly beautiful parties and possessions. Luring a woman with cash and gifts is the prime tool that abusive men like pimps and groomers use to keep women and girls hooked. Upon this men build a framework of abuse and degradation, with an eventual conduit to financial exploitation. Gavin Garnet also uses BDSM to further his takeover of Judith’s heart, body and finances. It isn’t kink-shaming on Biller’s part to use this plot device, as there’s nothing actually kinky about Gavin Garnet. The opposite of a Dom, he observes none of the rules, safe words or ethics involved in BDSM, nor any of the deep respect required. Even the more dangerous outer limits of BDSM known as Edge Play wouldn’t qualify, as trust and openness are required between both parties to attempt such risks.
Bluebeard’s Castle demonstrates how abusive intimate relationships exist all around us, be they in silence or out in the open. Femicide is a centuries-old horror that continues unabated. In 2021, the United States Department of Justice estimated 4,970 female victims of murder and non-negligent manslaughter in 2021, 34% of whom were killed by an intimate partner. (By comparison, about 6% of the 17,970 males murdered that year were victims of intimate partner homicide. UN estimates of certain Asian and Latin American countries are even higher.) Thus, it’s disturbing to read a few of the early notices stating that it’s “hard to believe a successful woman like Judith could stay in an abusive relationship for so long and keeps forgiving him.” This is why feminism requires constant vigilance: because misogyny is so acceptable and mainstream that the more blatant it is, the harder it is for women to see.
Bluebeard’s Castle is a truly great novel, and the shocking subject matter shouldn’t deter the reader from enjoying Anna Biller’s erudite and witty prose. It’s a delightful page-turner; multilayered and multi-dimensional. A modern-day Gothic romance about a Gothic romance writer, living within a Gothic horror novel, with a white Persian feline named Romeo that you’ll never forget.
Because Anna Biller originally wrote Bluebeard’s Castle as a feature film, the plot moves very rapidly. It’s fascinating and educational to read a novel adaptation of screenplay, when usually it’s the other way around. This alone makes Bluebeard’s Castle required reading for screenwriters and amateur writers alike who might bypass the entire Gothic romance genre. The prose is at times is grandiose and shocking, yet ultimately it stays even-handed. While a book of this nature is a risk in any era, it’s safe to say that Anna Biller can now add novelist to her sensational register of artistic achievements.
❉ ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ by Anna Biller is published in the UK 10 October 2023 by Verso Fiction, RRP £12.99.
❉ Super Amanda was born into a third generation musical family with her father producing the Rock Fusion Prog band Automatic Man for Island records (1976). She views reading and seeing A Clockwork Orange at age 13 as the most transformative experiences of her adolescence. Her favourite filmmakers (among many) are Anna Biller, Ken Russell and Lindsay Anderson. Malcolm McDowell and Sophia Loren are her favourite actors. The Who, The Bonzos and Mono Neon are her jams.