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I've been doing some research into Beauty and the Beast, which meant picking up Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve's long version, The Story of Beauty and the Beast (1740), which unlike the more familiar tale, does not end with the transformation of the beast into a human, but instead goes on and on and on, and then on and on and on, and then, just to not change, goes on and on for a bit more, as nearly every character explains, at length, just how they got there and how everything happened and why fairies sometimes need to turn into serpents and so on.

It's not all bad – Andrew Lang, for one, used details from Villeneuve's version to supplement Jean-Marie Leprince de Beaumont's better known version, largely because so many of those details both fill the tale with magic and root it in reality. For instance, Beauty has a little room with windows that can show her different parts of the world, allowing her to watch entertaining fairs, operas, and – in an unexpected touch – palace revolutions in Istanbul. Unexpected because this is about the only real-life political event she does view, in a story filled with political events—wars, marriages in powerful kingdoms, questionable laws and so on.

And other details: The way all of the wealthy, noble characters sip chocolate, not coffee or tea, for breakfast and sometimes at night. (Needless to say, I approve.) The way that the arrogant, "My son can't POSSIBLY marry a merchant's daughter! He's TOO NOBLE! But I'll foist her off on one of my nobles to show my gratitude!" queen, absolutely obsessed with rank, is also a warrior queen, successfully leading armies in the field. And that near obsession with rank – Beauty and her prince only get her happy ending because as it turns out (in this version) Beauty is not really a merchant's daughter, but the daughter of a fairy and a king, a stunt that can only be pulled off because the merchant's family decided to wet-nurse their real child, and didn't know that child well enough to recognize when she had been replaced. Absolutely no one blinks at this tale – or the really horrible moment when the fairy tells the merchant that Beauty isn't his daughter and therefore he has no right to treat her so – or caress her. (This is non-incestuous caressing, although some of the other caresses mentioned are slightly more questionable.) They don't blink because that part of the story sounds all too plausible.

Several other themes weave in and out of the work. This is very much the story of working women – every woman except Beauty and her evil not-really-her-sisters sisters works, despite their upper and noble class status, and even Beauty and the unsisters are forced to do some farm chores, before Beauty sits down at her harpsichord (this is unintentionally hilarious, and no, I have no idea why, after the family of 12 children has supposedly lost everything, they chose to lug various expensive musical instruments out to what is called "the saddest abode in the world" where everyone, gasp, has to do chores. It's very sad, but you'd think that if they could save the harpsichord they could save a scullery maid or two.)

But Villeneuve is not really interested in the difficulties of the peasant life. (She also appears to have no idea of what peasants actually do, but that's ok.) What she is interested in is the tug between work and motherhood. Her women are faced with horrific choices: do your job and abandon your child, or, stay with the child – and risk losing your life, freedom and job.

The human queen chooses her job – running her kingdom and leading armies. As a result, her son is transformed into the Beast. The fairy queen chooses her child. As a result, she is imprisoned, forced to change back and forth into a serpent (I'll skip over the reasons for this) and thus loses the child – becoming so depressed her sister is terrified that she will commit fairy suicide or go completely insane.

When Beauty and the Beast hear these stories (at, as I mentioned, GREAT LENGTH), they not surprisingly decide that they'd rather avoid both work and children and instead focus on just being happy in their enchanted castle. The fairies are not in favor of this, forcing them to come out and rule from time to time. They remain happy only by taking several vacations.

Far too often we hear the claim that the struggle between work and motherhood is some sort of new thing, a consequence of women entering the workforce. It isn't, as Villeneuve graphically shows. Even in 18th century fairy tales.


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Mari Ness

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May 2015



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