Scan 9About Gilles & Jeanne:

Gilles & Jeanne studies, clinically and voluptuously, the progress of the French ogre, Gilles de Rais, the original Bluebeard, who was burned in 1440 for sorcery, sodomy and the slow slaughter of scores of innocent children… [AS Byatt, Sunday Times]

When did I first read this? 1989

What age was I? 27

How may times since then? Once again I’m surprised to find that this is the first time I’ve reread this novella

Thoughts about the book:

I was only vaguely aware of Gilles de Rais before reading this novella. My interest grew out of a fascination with Joan of Arc which peaked in the mid 1980s, and through Joan I inevitably came to Gilles, her companion in arms and a man who seems to have believed in her implicitly. And although much of the focus of this novella is the story of Gilles (by the very nature of his survival and his crimes), it also tells Joan’s remarkable and tragic story in some detail. In particular it paints a picture of Gilles as a changed man after witnessing Joan being burned at the stake, implying perhaps that this is what triggered his depravity.

Tournier’s view is that Joan’s arrival to persuade the King of France to fight had an immediate impact on Gilles and that he saw something significant in her:

Yet there was one man who recognised Jeanne at first glance, as soon as she entered the throne room. This was Gilles. Yes, he immediately recognised in her everything he loved, everything he had waited for for so long.

This is a short book but it in its brevity it gets straight to the point; Gilles himself hardly figures in the later sections but the people around him paint a picture of a man driven by obsession and desire, egged on by a misguided (at best) adviser who seems to believe that by aiding his master’s descent into hell he can bring him back redeemed from his sin.

And his crimes, if true are shocking in the extreme, and fed into the legend that became Bluebeard.

One of the things I hadn’t realised until fairly recently is that there is a view that Gilles, despite being found guilty of murdering many children, mostly but not exclusively boys, through his own confessions, the accounts of his confederates and the testimony of the parents of his victims, may have been the subject of a plot by the Church or other noblemen who desired his lands and wealth. We will probably never know, after all this time.

I can’t really explain why this version of the story  has had such a grip on me; I have read quite a few books about Gilles over the years but this is the one that had the most emotional resonance. The puzzle of Gilles, his descent from a great soldier and Marshal of France to serial killer, is compelling and as told here shows that even the most dreadful deeds can be turned into art.

This is the fourth book in my Big Re-Read project.