This short novel is a delightful mix of fairy tale and tall tale, with a healthy sprinkling of both humor and the macabre in it. The cast of characters includes a doting father, a wicked stepmother, a lovely daughter, a dashing but deceitful suitor, Mike Fink, a band of thieves and a hick named Goat. If you enjoyed Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird or Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, The Robber Bridegroom should be on your reading list.
The tale begins in antebellum Louisiana with a wealthy but kindly planter named Clement Musgrove traveling home after concluding a lucrative business transaction. A chance encounter with a mysterious fellow traveller named Jamie Lockhart, who saves his life, leads Clement to confide the story of his life to Jamie. We learn of Clement’s first marriage, the horrific circumstances of his first wife’s death at the hands of “the Indians” (told with every stereotype of savagery you can imagine) and Clement’s new life with the ugly, greedy and forceful Salome. Salome’s business instincts and drive push Clement toward success as a planter, but her jealousy of Clement’s beautiful daughter Rosamond is equally strong and leads her to make a deal with the village dimwit Goat. Salome sends Rosamond out daily to a dangerous part of the wood to collect herbs in the hope that she will meet her death. Goat’s task is to follow her and bring back proof of her death. Then Salome will make him rich enough to take care of his mother and sisters. One day, a robber, his faced stained with berry juice to disguise his identity, comes upon Rosamond and steals her very clothes from her, leaving her naked. The next morning the same robber comes upon her, steals her away and ravishes her. Eventually, Rosamond ends up living with the robber and his men in the woods. Clement is distraught at the loss of his daughter, Salome is angry that she’s not dead, and Jamie Lockhart promises to help Clement track down the robber with a promise from Clement that if he succeeds, he will have Rosamond as his bride.
In Rosamond and Salome, Welty has created two strong but flawed independent women. They really are the most interesting characters of the lot. They both seem unconcerned with others’ opinions of them. When the robber gives Rosamond a choice between going home naked with dishonor or having him kill her to spare her shame, she opts to live without any qualm whatsoever. She also rather enjoys her time with the robber and doesn’t put up any sort of struggle to get away from him. Salome, while selfish and greedy, has found a way to get exactly what she wants out of life despite harrowing earlier experiences that might have destroyed the will of others. She fears no one and even scares the natives with her bold assertions of her own might. While she is a stand-in for the “wicked stepmother” and “evil witch” tropes, one can’t help but feel a grudging respect for her in the end.
The identity of the berry-stained robber is revealed early in the story, but I wouldn’t wish to spoil the fun for another reader. There are, in fact, a few cases of mistaken or unrecognized identity in the story, which lead to some rather farcical situations. Ultimately, this is a love story and the question is whether or not the lovers will recognize each other and be united, and whether the bad guys will get their comeuppance. The tales of Snow White and of Cupid and Psyche seem to have inspired Welty, and they make the story a lot of fun to read. Violence and bawdiness make this more adult fare though. The Robber Bridegroom is Welty’s unique fairy tale and a very entertaining read.