First published in October 2017.
2017 seems a fitting year in which to read The Beauty and the Beast, as Disney released its live action blockbuster just a few months ago. I did love the cartoon film as a child – my particular fondness, of course, was for the tiny chipped teacup and the glimpse of Belle’s library – but was very underwhelmed by the new interpretation. Regardless, I had never read Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s original story before, and made up my mind to do so, tying it in with this year’s Reading the World Challenge.
I’m sure everyone already knows the story of The Beauty and the Beast, but if not, I will offer a short recap. The tale of a merchant opens the story; once prosperous, he has lost his fortune due to one catastrophe after another. He moves his sizeable family – six daughters and six sons – to a secluded house which he owns, one hundred miles away. Of the effects which this has upon the merchant’s largely spoilt and self-obsessed daughters, de Villeneuve writes: ‘They thought that if they wished only for a husband they would obtain one; but they did not remain very long in such a delightful illusion. They had lost their greatest attractions when, like a flash of lightning, their father’s splendid fortune had disappeared, and their time for choosing had departed with it. Their crowd of admirers vanished at the moment of their downfall; their beauty was not sufficiently powerful to retain one of them’. The girls have no choice but to ‘shut themselves up in their country house, situated in the middle of an almost impenetrable forest, and which might well be considered the saddest abode in the world.’
The family’s youngest daughter, sixteen-year-old Beauty, is the anomaly. She has so much compassion and empathy for her family, and is a refreshing addition to a brood of rather horrid, vain girls. She in fact shows strength in the face of the family’s new-found adversity: ‘She bore her lot cheerfully, and with strength of mind much beyond her years’. When her father has to undertake a long journey in the hope of reclaiming some of his former possessions, her sisters clamour for new dresses and finery. Beauty simply asks him to bring her back a rose. Her father is subsequently caught in a snowstorm which disorientates him, and seeks shelter in an enormous, grand castle. He finds no inhabitant, but regardless, a meal is presented to him in a cosy room. He – for no explicit reason – decides that, with no sign of an owner about, the castle must now belong to him.
The merchant becomes rather cocksure, and decides to kill two birds with one stone, taking a rose for his beloved younger daughter from the castle’s garden. It is at this point that he is given his comeuppance, and reprimanded by the Beast, the castle’s owner: ‘He was terribly alarmed upon perceiving at his side a horrible beast, which, with an air of fury, laid upon his neck a kind of trunk, resembling an elephant’s…’. The Beast pardons him only in exchange for one of his daughters. When the merchant describes his plight, five of his six daughters are, unsurprisingly, selfish, and believe that he should sacrifice himself for their benefit. Beauty, however, steps up to the mark, and is taken to the castle to live with the Beast.
The Beauty and the Beast has been so well plotted, and has many elements of the traditional fairytale in its favour. Despite this, it goes further; its length allows de Villeneuve to really explore what could be termed magical realism. The vivid dreams which Beauty has are beautifully depicted, and tension is built at times. I found The Beauty and the Beast just as enjoyable as I would have as a child. The magic which weaves its way through the novel cannot fail to draw one under its spell; there are talking animals, enchanted mirrors, and things which appear and disappear. The talking crockery and candelabra are very much Disney additions; the novel reads as a far more fresh, and less gimmicky, version of the story.
I am pleased that I chose to read the unabridged version of de Villeneuve’s story, which was published in its original French in 1740. This particular edition has been translated and adapted by Rachel Louise Lawrence, who has very much retained a lot of its antiquity. The sentence structure is quite old-fashioned – charmingly so, in fact. The writing and translation here are fluid and lovely. I would urge you, if you’ve not seen the film, to pick up this delightful tome instead. There is so much substance here, and it should definitely be placed alongside children’s classics such as The Railway Children and Mary Poppins.