One From the Archive: ‘The Beauty and the Beast’ by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve ****

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.9780062456212

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.

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‘Magda’ by Meike Ziervogel **

Magda, the debut novel by the founder of Peirene Press, tells the ‘brutal story’ of Magda, the wife of notorious Nazi Joseph Goebbels. Ziervogel has examined Magda’s story ‘as a vehicle to examine the psychology behind familial murder, and to explore deep-rooted and destructive relationships between mothers and their daughters’. ‘Seeking to understand the actions of a ruthless woman,’ the press release tells us, ‘Ziervogel adds context to Magda’s shocking story, encouraging the reader to view it with fresh eyes’.

9781907773402The book opens with the troubled aspects of the Goebbels’ lives present from the outset: ‘Magda enters Joseph’s study without knocking. Joseph is pacing back and forth… He doesn’t stop when his wife comes in’. Something unsettling makes itself known in the very bones of the story, and remains throughout. After this short scene, Magda gathers her and Joseph’s six children around her in order to tell them about the long journey they are about to embark on: ‘”We might pass Uncle Adolf’s house,” replies Magda. “But we are going further this time.”‘

In the next chapter, Ziervogel then goes on to examine Magda’s own upbringing, as a child of illegitimate status, in a strict Belgian convent. She paints a short picture of Magda’s troubled childhood, indoctrinated by the nuns, something of a bully ‘behind these thick convent walls’, and the way in which she continually self-harms. Magda is a very dark book, as one might expect given the subject matter, and Ziervogel highlights the way in which almost every character is troubled in some way. In fact, the entire book is filled with cruelty. Some of the scenes throughout are harrowing and rather horrendous, and the novella does not make for easy reading. These vignettes come like sharp shocks, and the sheer amount of cruelty which has been crammed into just a few pages is quite overwhelming at times.

In some ways, Ziervogel has been rather clever with her mixture of fact and fiction, but it becomes a little annoying as far as the reader is concerned, in that no allusion to, or explanation of, which elements are made up merely of poetic licence has been included. We learn very little about Joseph Goebbels throughout, an aspect which would certainly have made the story stronger. The scenes which include him gloss over his character somewhat, and whilst the novella focuses mainly upon Magda herself, the inclusion of her husband may have made her motives in the murder of her children a little clearer.

Magda is a short book, more a novella than a novel, and is split into eight different sections, which range from ‘The Preparation’ and ‘The Girl Behind the Convent Walls’ to ‘The Pillbox’ and ‘The Final Task’. Herein are where the problems lie. Ziervogel has attempted to use several different narrative techniques throughout – the third person omniscient, diary entries supposedly written by the fourteen-year-old Helga Goebbels, and a first person monologue from the perspective of Magda’s mother. These differing techniques are interesting to a point, but they do not effortlessly tie together. Some of the literary devices used are traditional, and others, as in the monologue, are not. Here, any movements made by Magda’s mother are shown in brackets – for example, ‘(The old woman adjusts her bag on her lap.)’ and ‘(She sniffles.)’. Again, the juxtaposition between two very conflicting ways of writing does not quite gel.

Whilst Magda is written well, some of the details throughout do not feel realistic. During the monologue of Magda’s mother, some sentences feel as though they would be more at home during an episode of Eastenders than in the conversation of an ageing woman after the Second World War: ‘At that moment I didn’t give a fig. About the neighbours or nothing’. Helga’s diary entries, too, do not feel realistic, and it is difficult to believe that a young teenage girl could write in the same vein as these letters to ‘Dear Gretchen’. The relationships which Ziervogel seems so keen to portray are often underdeveloped, and sadly feel rather cliched in consequence.

Magda is not a bad book by any means – in fact, its concept is incredibly interesting – but there is too much going on, both in terms of style and storyline, to enable it to come to fruition and reach its full potential. The scope of the novella feels a little too overambitious, and one cannot help but think that the book would have been more engaging in its current style had it been double, or even triple, its length. The execution of the story is not tight enough and therefore feels a little lacking at times, and it is as though the story is trying to do too much in too restricted a space.

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‘Tru & Nelle’ by G. Neri ****

‘Long before they became famous writers, Truman Capote (“In Cold Blood”) and Harper Lee (“To Kill a Mockingbird”) were childhood friends in Monroeville, Alabama. This fictionalized account of their time together opens at the beginning of the Great Depression, when Tru is seven and Nelle is six. They love playing pirates, but they like playing Sherlock and Watson-style detectives even more. It s their pursuit of a case of drugstore theft that lands the daring duo in real trouble. Humor and heartache intermingle in this lively look at two budding writers in the 1930s South.’

To Kill a Mockingbird is still my favourite novel of all time; I still remember how awestruck I was at its beauty when I first read it as a nine-year-old.  I’m a big fan of Truman Capote’s too; I have read all of his work at this juncture, and have adored almost all of it.  When I found out about G. Neri’s fictionalised account of the childhoods of Nelle Harper Lee and Truman Streckfus Persons – Nelle and Tru – then, I just had to read it.

25897850-_uy400_ss400_The opening paragraph which Neri has crafted sum the pair up perfectly: ‘When Truman first spotted Nelle, he thought she was a boy.  She was watching him like a cat, perched on a crooked stone wall that separated their rambling wood homes.  Barefoot and dressed in overalls with a boyish haircut, Nelle looked to be about his age, but it was hard for Truman to tell – he was trying to avoid her stare by pretending to read his book’.

The entirety of Tru & Nelle is beautifully written, and Monroeville immediately springs into vivid life.  Neri has a deft hand in appealing to all of the senses from the outset, and one is soon aware of the sights and smells which made up the worlds of the children.  A lot of factual information about the pair has been slipped in, making Tru & Nelle feel incredibly realistic.  Although the book is aimed at a younger (‘juvenile’) audience, in no way does the prose feel simplistic or dumbed down.  The mystery element which was woven in worked very well, and gave an extra layer of focus to the whole.  The dialect is handled well, and the novel is well stylised; entertaining, evocative, creative, and historically accurate.  A must-read for all fans of Tru and Nelle’s.

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