Monday, February 23, 2015

Beauties, Beasts, and Enchantment

Marina Warner's 'Once Upon a Time' has many things to recommend it, not least of which is an excellent bibliography. I have a reasonable collection of fairy tales and folklore but the only version of Beauty and the Beast I had was Angela Carter's take on it.

From Cupid and Psyche, through the more chivalrous versions of the loathly lady story, and of course Beauty and the Beast this has always been one of my favourite fairy tales. Carter nails it's appeal in both 'The Courtship of Mr Lyon' and 'The Tiger's Bride'. The first is a fairly traditional telling but in 'The Tiger's Bride' the beast stops pretending to be a man and beauty is transformed into a tiger too. Of course it's nice for Beauty when the Beast is revealed to be a handsome prince, or at least it's the outcome you expect as a child, but it's thrilling when Beauty becomes the Beast.

'Beauties, Beasts, and Enchantment' is a collection of classic French fairy tales translated and introduced by Jack Zipes. It's a hefty doorstop of a thing and my copy appears to be some sort of print on demand edition. The illustrations have suffered a bit because of this - some, though not all, look like photocopies - the text is fine, so I'm very happy with it. There are 2 versions of Beauty and the Beast. The first by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve is very, very, long (a good 80 pages; novella, almost novel length) it's also extremely complex (even confusing) with the beast/princes entire back story and the revelation that Beauty was adopted, her true parents being a fairy and a mortal king. Whilst it really does tell us a lot about the manners and attitudes to social class in France in the middle of the 18th century it also left me with a profound sympathy for Beauty's jealous sisters.

The second telling is the far more famous Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont version (basically the one that everybody knows). It is essentially de Villeneuve's story stripped down to it's basics (it's a much more manageable 10 pages) and focusing on a moral message for young ladies; industriousness, modesty, diligence, self sacrifice - these are the virtues she celebrates. The number of the merchant's children has even been shrunk from an extravagant dozen to a rather more prudent 6.

The version of the loathly lady that first captured my imagination was the marriage of Sir Gawain. It boils down to this; the king has to answer the question "what thing it is all women most desire?". The answer proves elusive until an old hag promises to tell him in return for marriage to an attractive young knight. Sir Gawain steps up to the mark and the answer is duly given. Women, it turns out, most desire to have their own will. On their wedding night Gawain (struggling manfully to show an adequate amount of enthusiasm for his bride) is stunned when she is revealed as a lovely young woman. There is an enchantment but he now gets to choose - beautiful by day, or by night. Very sensibly Gawain gives his wife the choice which entirely breaks the enchantment.

Leprince de Beaumont apparently meant her improving tale to reconcile girls to the idea of arranged marriage, the magic of the story is that Beauty continues to make choices, and that it lends itself so well to that most pernicious of female fantasies; that the love of a good woman can change a man.


  1. Fascinating review, as ever, Hayley!

    I remember first reading that story of Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady in a children's picture book and loving it, I don't remember how they skirted round what was going on on the wedding night. :) A nice variation on the 'love of a good woman' theme you mention.

    I haven't read either of those versions of Beauty and the Beast, although I have read a few other fairy tales written by women in eighteenth-century France, and they aren't at all like the Grimm sort of story are they? Much more complex and reacting more directly to social mores of their times. Have you read The White Cat? I'm very fond of that one.

  2. I think in the version I first remember it went along the lines of her asking to be treated as if she were young and beautiful which is a neat way of skirting the issue with younger children - I can't remember what I thought that meant at the time. The French stories are very different and much more revealing of social mores as you say, the White Cat is in this collection so I'll read it when I get home tonight.