It is a red-letter day when a new English language biography of Gilles de Rais appears; the last was Leonard Wolf's serious and largely accurate, but entirely soulless, effort over a third of a century ago. Valerie Ogden's book promised so much, notably a sympathetic fresh interpretation of Gilles' life, but it is a sad disappointment. Like so many biographers before her, she has been led down the primrose path that leads to the ubiquitous Bibliophile Jacob and his “more circumstantial” copy of the trial record. Ogden does not list him among her sources, but it is not necessary to read the Bibliophile, Paul Lacroix, to be seduced by him. Bossard, for his own transparent reasons, accepted this obvious forgery as a genuine text; most biographers and novelists since have been strongly influenced by the Bibliophile, either by reading him directly or via Bossard and his imitators.
Ironically, the fatal flaw of this Bluebeard book is a lack of curiosity, specifically about sources. Ms Ogden dismisses Prouteau's radical biography as a “novel”, which indeed it is in parts, but is happy to cite Huysmans' novel Là-Bas and even Tragedy in Blue by Richard Thoma, which is nothing but a short story. Huysmans, like the Bibliophile, has much to answer for when it comes to muddying the waters of Raisian studies. The life of Gilles de Rais has long been obscured by myths, mostly created by these two writers and retailed unthinkingly by almost all subsequent biographers. Ms Ogden is no exception. So Gilles is arrested by Labbé and makes his witty pun, as invented by Lacroix; only here the joke is botched because “abbé ” is mistranslated as “priest”. And of course the Bishop of Nantes veils the crucifix, just as Huysmans had him do in an elaboration of a less dramatic moment in Lacroix.
Really, this is a book out of its time. It would be wrong to criticise it for failing in something it never set out to do, and I am fully aware that I come at it from an opposing camp. However, it must be said that slowly public opinion has shifted in favour of a revisionist stance, and it seems impossibly quaint in the 21st century to read a text that fully accepts the validity of an Inquisition trial with the use of torture. Ogden never fully faces the twentieth century movement towards rehabilitating Gilles de Rais; the only revisionist writer she addresses is Reinach, who is easy to discredit. Fleuret, Bayard and Prouteau, who make a more detailed case, are ignored. In particular, she cannot bring herself to mention the 1992 retrial that resulted in his unofficial acquittal. The ostrich position is never a good look; a writer can accept the verdict of the modern tribunal or argue against it, but to simply pretend it never happened is a wilful denial of reality.
Gilles is a difficult topic for a modern writer in any case. Roland Villeneuve could happily wallow in sodomy and black magic in the Satanism-obsessed 1970s; in the 21st century, sodomy is a taboo word and nobody believes in magic. Leaving only murder, repositioned as a response to that fashionable diagnosis Post Traumatic Shock Disorder. “Somehow he became a homicidal sexual psychopath”. There is a world of evasion in that word “somehow”. The psychology is vague and fails to gel. Because Ogden has fallen for some rather bizarre, novelettish fantasies about Gilles' childhood and youth, he is presented as a latent psychopath from his earliest days. He is then traumatised by some unknown event, possibly the death of Jehanne d'Arc, resulting in PTSD. However, since the primary trait of a psychopath is lack of human feelings, it seems unlikely that this could happen. The PTSD theory is a good one, but it remains a theory; there is no evidence at all to back it up. It is one more author attempting to explain away the complete transformation of Gilles' character which supposedly took place in 1432.
The errors are manifold. At one point we are told, wrongly, that brother René de la Suze was born the year before his parents died, in 1414. In the chronology, the date is correctly given as 1407; but this is said to be the same year as Jehanne, who was famously not yet twenty when she died in 1431. She was actually born in 1412. At another point, a horrible mistranslation has Henriet suggesting the idea of killing children by cutting their throats, as if this would never have occurred to a serial killer in the five years or so before his valet was initiated. This is not merely a mistranslation; it is a strong indication, and not the only one, that Ogden is not at all familiar with the trial record, which is her only primary source, either in French or in English. She also conflates the two exhumations that allegedly took place at Champtocé and Machecoul; in her account, Roger de Bricqueville arranges his peep-show at the former and the latter never takes place. This is simply sloppy reading of the text, or possibly an ill-judged attempt to simplify the story by removing a confusing duplication. What it is not is a serious attempt at writing history.
A thread that runs through the book is Gilles' apparent obsession with the “black planet” that ruled his destiny. Several times Ms Ogden stresses that he mentioned it more than once, that both his valets heard him talk about it, that Gilles himself hinted at it in his out-of-court confession. Not so. It is mentioned once only, by Henriet at the ecclesiastical tribunal; this is one of the few points on which his and Poitou's evidence differs. Neither is there any implication that this was a regular theme with his master; he said it once. Allegedly.
This biography occupies an uneasy no-man's-land between genuine history and novel. There are impossible descriptions that seem to come from works of fiction and at every turn we are told what Gilles is wearing – at one point, “rose-pink tights”. Some of this comes from the Bibliophile Jacob, who has Gilles wearing first white and then black before the court at symbolic moments; though here the details are elaborated upon, Gilles is seen in five different shades of white and later in three shades of black, including “corbeau-damask”. There is a lurid and completely uncanonical description of Poitou's initiation, involving hanging from a hook and a “serrated” dagger, and also one of Ms Ogden's not-infrequent lapses of tone which has this young boy described as “sinewy and stunning” and “this loopy young man”. Almost all of the missing boys have a couple of words of description, which would be perfectly justifiable in a novel but has no place in a historical work. It also makes this section of the book conspicuously formulaic and adjective-heavy. More worryingly, the murders are dealt with in a manner that is gleefully gruesome (“slashing and bashing”) and not wholly accurate – that Gilles squatted in the entrails of his victims was an exaggeration by Huysmans, and there is no mention of “violated anuses” in the trial record; sodomy is not necessarily buggery. On a lighter note, the poor people are said to decorate their hovels with henbane flowers – of all the flowers they could have chosen, this is possibly the least likely, as henbane is poisonous in all parts and even its scent is intoxicating. A sceptic might remark that this is one explanation for some of the more outré testimony.
It would be tedious to continue. Inaccuracy, minimal grasp of the facts as related in the trial documents, a fatal weakness for a well-turned myth, poor translations from the French (Memory of the Heirs is clunking as well as incorrect) numerous verbal infelicities (“ominous omens” should never have made it past the first draft), and most of the accents missing from the names, which does not add to the authority of the book. At the end, Valerie Ogden explains how she came to be interested in Gilles de Rais; she is related by marriage to a family who claim descent from him, although they “run away” when she tries to question them. One can hardly blame them at this point. It is tempting to wonder if her in-laws were playing a joke on her, since de Rais had only one daughter, who was childless, and the family died out completely in 1502. As she would have known if she had read Bossard attentively. Although Ms Ogden has dutifully parroted the Abbé's official myth that Gilles was named “Bluebeard” because of his war-horse, or barbe, which was bluish-black, she clearly clings mutinously to the Bibliophile's description of him as literally blue-bearded, since these self-styled descendants have “cobalt-blue hair”...
Read a sample of the book here