Thursday, March 25, 2010

Debunking some myths about the Villeneuve

I had read everything I could online about the history of "Beauty and the Beast" before I finally got my own copy of the de Villeneuve. The impressions I had gotten of it from other people were surprisingly very different than my own.

The first myth people have about the Villeneuve version is that it doesn't exist. Usually (at least in fairy tale collections) Madame LePrince de Beaument gets all the credit for having written "Beauty and the Beast" in 1756, published in Le Magasin des Enfants. Her version is definitely a classic, but it's more of a summary of the story Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve had already written in 1740, included in Les contes marins ou la jeune Americaine.
Villeneuve's version is much longer and includes more overall detail, including episodes of what Beauty does each day in the castle (and this AWESOME mirror system that lets her see any play, ballet, or social event anywhere in the world--imaginative predecessor to t.v.?) as well as the back stories for Beauty and the Beast, which I will describe in a later post.

Critics generally talk about how the Villeneuve version is long-winded and too detailed. Maybe because I was given low expectations, I didn't think so at all. It's long compared to a typical fairy tale, but it was interesting and held my attention. It really helped to answer questions I had had about the tale: Why was the Beast turned into a Beast? Why does he flip out when the father steals a rose? (Answers will come later)
illustration by Anne Anderson

Terri Windling has an excellent article on basically everything you'd need to know about "Beauty and the Beast" in a nutshell, including summaries of all the most influential versions. (Though I just sang Disney's praises a couple posts ago, I'm pretty sure that if I had seen the Disney BatB after knowing the Villeneuve/Beaument version, I'd feel the same way. Sort of like why I'm avoiding seeing The Princess and the Frog.)

But it's from this article I got several misunderstandings. She says:

"De Villeneuve's Beauty and the Beast, over one hundred pages long and published for adult readers, is somewhat different than the shorter version we know today. As the story begins, Beauty's destiny lies in the hands of her father, who gives her over to the Beast (to save his own life) and thus seals her fate. The Beast is a truly fierce figure, not a gentle soul disguised by fur — a creature lost to the human world that had once been his by birthright. The emphasis of this tale is on the transformation of the Beast, who must find his way back to the human sphere. He is a genuine monster, eventually reclaimed by civilité, magic, and love — and it is only then that Beauty can truly love him. In this story, the final transformation does not occur until after Beauty weds her Beast, waking up in her marriage bed to find a human Prince beside her."

It's not so much wrong facts as confusing wording. Item 1: Beauty's father "gives her over to the Beast (to save his own life)." This makes it sound like some oral versions where the Father literally just hands his daughter over and doesn't seem to care either way. But Villeneuve's father exclaims, "Could I be so inhuman as to save my own life at the expense of one of my children's?" Yet lest he be painted as squeaky clean, his next comment is "Under what pretext could I bring her here?" as if he's sort of considering it (although I think this comment was just to get the Beast to say she needs to come willingly or not at all).
Then, when the father tells his story, Beauty insists on going to take his place in the castle, and "the father was the only one who would not consent to his youngest daughter's plan." Only after his other daughters accused him of being sorry he wasn't going to be rid of them instead did he get more passive. But even then, during the journey to the castle, "offers her the opportunity a hundred times to dismount, saying he would go on alone." He says, "Think about it...there's still time. This monster is more terrible than you can imagine..." so I really wouldn't call this "giving his daughter over to save his own life."
Item 2: "The Beast is truly a fierce figure, not a gentle soul disguised by fur..." and following. Except he's...not. He looks scary, certainly his first impression on the father is less than favorable (as with every version.) The Beast's backstory gives detail to how innocent he really is, but towards Beauty he is a perfect gentleman (other than proposing marriage every night, which is also in Beament's version.) On night one of Beauty's stay in the castle, the Beast accepts her in place of her father because she is willing, and sends her father home with trunks full of presents. One night two, the first official marriage proposal, she shrieks, "Oh! heavens, I'm lost!" to which he replies, "Not at all. But without frightening yourself, reply properly. Tell me succinctly yes or no." She replies no, and "Well, since you don't want to, I'll leave you, " the "docile monster replied." Night three: "Wish for whatever you want, and you shall have it. You're very pretty."

Etc. I would pretty much call him a "gentle soul disguised by fur."

Illustration by Walter Crane

Item 3: "In this story, the final transformation does not occur until after Beauty weds her Beast, waking up in her marriage bed to find a human Prince beside her."

This makes it sound like Beauty goes through with a traditional wedding night with an animal. Not so. What really happens is, she accepts his proposal and goes to bed like any other night. They're just engaged, not married. She dreams about the Prince, who she's been courting with in her dreams the whole time, and wakes up with him lying beside her. That's all. No bestiality here.
Overall, I was surprised by how similar the Beament is to the Villeneuve, Beament just changed minor details and cut out a lot. I enjoy them both.


  1. Thank you for posting this! I am writing a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling, and read Villeneuve's version to see what elements I had not been exposed to in the more common versions of the story. I had read that article, and was surprised to see that I found none of them true. I was worried I read the wrong version, haha! So I was very happy to find your response to it, and to learn I did indeed read the Villeneuve version. Thanks again for posting this!

  2. I adore Beauty and the Beast retellings! I'd love to hear more about your story!

    And I just can't understand why there is such a huge discrepancy between different translations of the Villeneuve, or scholars' interpretations of the Villeneuve...I had the same reaction too, wondering if we were all talking about the same story!

  3. Hi! I'm new to your blog and I'm wondering if you could email me the titles and places I can find the Villeneuve versions of B&TB. Your B&TB posts has been a God send for me, a person who is delving deeper into the story (and is plain sick of Once Upon A Time's insult to the tale)

    Much love and respect,
    DJ Rocca

  4. Can you tell me where you obtained the Villeneuve text of B&B? I'm not willing to spend money on the Zipes collection of French fairy tales.

  5. I wrote this post quoting from the Zipes translation, although I've since found issues with it, as I wrote about here-

    This is the only English translation I know of. I went to the Library of Congress to look at the French text for the above post, although my fiancé has since found that same text online somewhere. I'm currently trying to find someone willing to translate parts of it for me. Sorry if that doesn't help much-I can ask my fiancé to find the link to the book he ordered if you're interested in obtaining the French

  6. As someone who DOES read French, I would love the French version! I've been searching all week and have only found too-short versions, and after comparing Phantom of the Opera with its original French, I don't trust the English one!