From my tumblr.
On re-reading Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve’s original Beauty and the Beast
, I noticed some remarkable similarities between the characters of Beauty, the Beast/Prince, and Beauty’s parents. I realised that the theme of apearance vs reality goes even deeper than the ‘don’t judge a book by it’s cover’ message of the commonly told tale. In Madame de Villeneuve’s story, Beauty is revealed to be a hidden princess, and her mother is a fairy who disguised herself as a shepherdess and married a king. I know of two English translations of Madame de Villeneuve’s version online: one by Ernest Dowson
and one in Four and Twenty Fairy Tales
by J. R. Planché. Planché’s version is slightly bowdlerised; he changes ‘Will you sleep with me?’ to ‘Will you marry me?’
It’s a common enough story - a prince falls for a commoner, but they are not permitted to marry. The commoner turns out to be long lost royalty, the marriage is on and there’s a happy ending. Beauty and the Beast
appears to follow this plot, but there’s a twist - every marriage is agreed to before the reveal of the apparently lower-status person’s true standing.
The King is the only character out of the four (Beauty, Beast, Fairy, King) who does not wear some sort of disguise at any point. He falls in love with a shepherdess. He never knows that she is a fairy, and thus higher in rank than him. Beauty’s aunt (the fairy shepherdess’s sister) makes a point of emphasising that everyone in the kingdom may marry who they love, regardless of social status. It’s a little strange to me that the Queen (the Beast/Prince’s mother and the sister of Beauty’s father), presumably having come from that culture, makes a big issue out of the Prince marrying a commoner, but her objection and eventual acceptance was necessary to emphasise the point about love regardless of social status.
The Fairy falls in love with the King. As a mortal, he is below her station, and she suffers severe penalties when the marriage is discovered. Her marriage is finally sanctioned when she firstly performs a service for the Queen of the Fairies, and secondly undergoes the serpent test, rising in status among the fairies so that she may marry who she pleases without penalty.I wrote about the serpent ordeal earlier.
Perhaps it is meant as a parallel to the Prince’s experiences as a beast. The fairies must first lower themselves to the status of a lowly crawling creature before rising in status among their peers. The Prince goes through his ordeal and meets his beloved Beauty, while the Fairy goes through something similar in order to finally be with her husband.
The Beast appears to be, well, a beast. Beauty, as a human being, objects to marrying him and prefers the Fair Unknown of her dreams. Her gradual realisation of his gentle nature and her adopted father’s advice lead her to accept him before she is aware of his true nature as a prince.
Beauty appears to be a commoner. The Prince doesn’t care one bit about her social status and is determined to marry her. His mother objects, insisting that he should only marry royalty, and the Prince is in such despair that he asks to become a Beast again, so that his social status should be no obstacle to his marriage to Beauty. Luckily, Beauty’s fairy aunt convinces the Queen to accept their marriage. It is only after
the Queen agrees the Beauty’s aunt reveals that Beauty is a princess.
There is one more character who wears a disguise - the Wicked Fairy who transformed the Prince into a beast. She falls in love with the King, Beauty’s father, and disguises herself as a queen in order to win him. A queen would be a suitable match for a king, but he is having none of it. He forever loves his shepherdess wife. A good match in rank is not necessarily a good match in love.
Beauty, the Beast-Prince, and the Fairy all hide who they are, appearing to be lower in social status than they were born to. All of them find love while in their disguised state, and their lovers do not learn the truth until after agreeing to marriage. These parallels and musings on status were lost in Madame de Beaumont’s simplified adaption. I wish that Madame de Villeneuve’s fascinating work was better known.