Literary Hero of the Month: November 2016: Beauty from ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (‘La Belle et la Bête’) by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (1740)

Ok, so this may seem a bit of a random choice for #LHOTM, but ‘Beauty and the Beast’ remains one of my favourite fairy tales, not because of its lush, rather sensual nature, but also because of it’s independent heroine. The original fairytale Beauty (or, as she is known in the infamous Disney film version, Belle) is beautiful, kind, compassionate and loving to her father- all traits you might expect. She is, however, also capable of choice- rather than being forced into an unwanted marriage with the Beast, or forced- as in some darker tales- to maim herself, abandon her family, become destitute, etc.- against her will, she CHOOSES to stay with the Beast, as she feels it is the right thing to do. In the original fairytale by  Barbot de Villeneuve, Beauty is the youngest daughter of a wealthy merchant who has been emasculated by her older, far more greedy sisters. About to depart for a voyage, the merchant father asks each of his daughters what they would like him to bring back as a gift for them. One wants shoes, one wants a new comb…but Beauty only wants a single fresh rose. The sisters tease Beauty for her choice (the ‘Cinderella’ parallels are clear,) and yet Beauty remains resolute. The father departs on his voyage, but finds out he has been tricked- there is no reason to go after all. The journey back takes him deep into a dark and dangerous wood, and there he finds the apparently-abandoned palace of the Beast.

A hidden figure opens the giant doors and silently invites him in. The merchant finds tables inside laden with food and drink, which seem to have been left for him by the palace’s invisible owner. The merchant accepts this gift and spends the night there. The next morning as the merchant is about to leave, he sees a rose garden and recalls that Beauty had desired a rose. Upon picking the loveliest rose he can find, the merchant is confronted by a hideous ‘Beast’ which tells him that for taking his most precious possession after accepting his hospitality, the merchant must die. The merchant begs to be set free, arguing that he had only picked the rose as a gift for his youngest daughter. The Beast agrees to let him give the rose to Beauty, but only if the merchant or one of his daughters will return.

The merchant is upset, but accepts this condition. The Beast sends him on his way, with wealth, jewels and fine clothes for his sons and daughters, and stresses that Beauty must never know about his deal. The merchant, upon arriving home, tries to hide the secret from Beauty, but she pries it from him. Beauty accepts responsibility for her own actions and willingly goes to the Beast’s castle. She makes an autonomous choice which, I feel, differentiates her from passive fairytale heroines and princesses such as Aurora/Talia (‘The Sleeping Beauty’.) The Beast receives her graciously and informs her that she is now mistress of the castle, and he is her servant. He gives her lavish clothing and food and carries on lengthy conversations with her. Every night, the Beast asks Beauty to marry him, only to be refused each time.

For several months, Beauty lives a life of luxury at the Beast’s palace, having every whim catered to by invisible servants, with no end of riches to amuse her and an endless supply of exquisite finery to wear. Eventually, she becomes homesick and begs the Beast to allow her to go see her family. He allows it on the condition that she returns exactly a week later. Beauty agrees to this and sets off for home eat her alive. Beauty’s heart is moved by her sisters’ false show of love, and she agrees to stay. The cunning, conniving sisters however, play on Beauty’s good nature, and trick her into staying even longer, breaking her promise to the Beast.

Beauty begins to feel guilty about breaking her promise to the Beast and returns to the palace. She  is horrified to discover that the Beast is lying half-dead from heartbreak near the rose bushes her father had stolen from. In an unusual display of emotion, Beauty weeps over the Beast, saying that she loves him- truly and completely, despite his beastly form. When her tears fall on him, however, he is transformed into a beautiful prince.  The Prince informs her that long ago a wicked fairy turned him into a hideous beast, after he refused to let her in from the rain, and that only by finding true love, despite his ugliness, could the curse be broken. He and Beauty are of course married and they live happily ever after together. Beauty not only chooses her own mate, she chooses him in spite of his repulsive, savage appearance, seeing instead the good underneath. This is why she is this month’s LHOTM.

There have also been some fascinating retellings and analysis of the Beauty and the Beast tale. For instance:

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