Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Beauty and the Beast and Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve

Beauty and the Beast Tales From Around the World was a challenging book to edit since it has an even wider scope of stories than Cinderella Tales From Around the World does. What do I include and what do I discard (at least until a companion book, maybe) and how do I organize it all?

Over the next several days I will be discussing the types of tales that appear within, but I know that the straightforward ATU 425C: Beauty and the Beast tales are of the highest interest to everyone here. There are less of these tales and for an excellent reason since they have a definite, known literary start. And, yes, the ATU 425C is the most familiar tale thanks to all of the many iterations from Disney to Cocteau to thousands of versions in print.

From my introduction to Beauty and the Beast Tales From Around the World:

It has a discernible birth and history, beginning in 1740 with Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve, a French writer influenced by the fairy tales written by women and men, such as Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy and Charles Perrault, in the French salons during the earlier part of the century. Perrault, in fact, is sometimes mistakenly credited with writing the tale.

Villeneuve’s work is more novella than simple tale with its elaborate prose and numerous details, including stories told within stories. Her narrative is far from complete upon the Beast’s transformation into a man. Then we meet his mother and learn his backstory as well as Beauty’s own hidden history, for she is not the true daughter of a merchant, but a princess in disguise herself. All of this combines into an elaborate literary creation, not a traditionally truncated folktale. Villeneuve imagined new material, uniquely her own, while incorporating traditional folklore elements, many of which exist in the version we are most familiar with today. She writes about romantic love and marriage while exploring themes like women’s marital rights, although those themes are somewhat hidden in most English translations of the tale.

Two different English translations of Villeneuve’s tale are presented in this collection. The first one, by Ernest Dowson, was first published in 1908. It is one of the most accurate translations of Villeneuve’s content into English, including elements often changed or omitted in other translations. However, Dowson’s language is less ornate than Villeneuve’s and doesn’t capture the same essence as another favored translation, one by J. R. Planché, first published in 1858.

Planché’s translation includes footnotes by the present editor to show where he modified the text, changes he briefly touches upon in his comments to his Victorian audience. The changes, although small, are far from minor for they change an essential element of the tale. Instead of asking Beauty to marry him each night—a familiar refrain in modern versions of the story—the Beast asks Beauty, “May I sleep with you tonight?”

The question, while risqué, is not merely suggestive or erotic. It implies control and choice for Beauty over her own body and sexuality, something that was not legally hers or that of any woman who was handed over as property in marriage to a husband in centuries past. The Beast is no true beast since he never forces his physical desires upon her despite any rights implied by her presence in his home in what today may be considered a common law marriage, although the construct didn’t exist in Villeneuve’s time.

Another important change is in the Beast’s transformation scene. Beauty finally agrees to sleep with the Beast and marry him in the original Villeneuve. The Beast then sleeps beside her during the night, although no other activities beyond Beauty’s mysterious dreams are described. When she awakens the next morning, a man—one whom she has come to love in her dreams—is sleeping beside her instead of the Beast. 

Including both translations felt important, so I gave up 121 pages in Beauty and the Beast Tales From Around the World to them, 15% of the book. So now they are in one place for comparison and contrast. I even added footnotes to help cross reference the transformation scene in both which is significantly different as I described in my intro.

Planché's translation is the more common one--it is the basis for the version that appears in Beauties, Beasts and Enchantments: Classic French Fairy Tales edited by Jack Zipes, which has the "Marry me?" instead of the "Sleep together?" question.

I very briefly considered a brand new translation but realized I wasn't going to be adding or enhancing what these two together do. My French translation skills are adequate but they aren't going to compete with either of these worthy versions. I did translate other stories for the collection though and am tempted to do several more in the future, especially from the French, where the varieties are surprising.

As I edited and proofed both translations, I grew to appreciate Villeneuve's artistry and desire to wrap up all the loose ends of the story. In her version, we know why the Beast is a beast. We know why Beauty is chosen for him--for she is--and there is no sense of malice from the Beast at all. Everything except for Beauty's ultimate choice of her husband is planned. She still has freedom of choice there, but all else is orchestrated behind the scenes by a powerful fairy.

But I'll admit to my greatest disappointment in Villeneuve's story--Beauty is not a commoner, but a hidden away princess, the daughter of a forbidden marriage between a king and a fairy. Romantic, yes, but disappointing for those of us who often revel in her middle class status. She has no idea who she really is and I feel sympathy for her adopted family who learn she is not really theirs, but essentially a changeling for a dead baby. But Beauty doesn't fail to love and include them in her joy and future so there is a redeeming message for those in families with adoption in them.

While we're here, too, I'll add links and discussion to Tales of Faerie and Kristin's post about the Beauty and the Beast epilogues. Those are not included in Beauty and the Beast Tales From Around the World although I am considering them for the potential companion book I keep mentioning. They are less about the story-- and although fascinating to fans--they don't greatly enhance the study of Animal Bridegroom tales themselves.


  1. Will this be available as a print copy, too? I have your whole collection so far, and very much want this one, but I just can't read digitally.


  2. Never mind....I just found my answer.