Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Beaumont on Arranged Marriages

I've tried to find more infomation on the lives of the women who made the story of Beauty and the Beast so famous, Madame de Villeneuve and Madame LePrince de Beaumont, but it seems very little is known of them. In The Meanings of Beauty and the Beast, Jerry Griswold extracts two main facts of Beaumont's life that played into her version of the story.

Madame LePrince de Beaumont
First, arranged marriages. The topic of whether or not marriages should be practical and economical, as they had been before, or a result of mutual affections, was a big issue of the early 18th century. Beaumont herself had been married to a "dissolute libertine" (haven't been able to find anything more specific than that) and the marriage was unhappy and annulled two years later. Some critics have interpreted the tale of Beauty and the Beast as a comfort for girls who were being given in marriage to older men who might seem to be beastly, giving them hope that their spouses were really gentle and princely. Yet why would Beaumont present this view, if her own arranged marriage had been so unhappy?

According to Griswold, when you look at the facts of the story, Beaumont isn't really affirming arranged marriages-yet neither is she promoting being carried away by romantic passions. Griswold says, "at first the story seems to present something like an arranged marriage. When Beauty comes to the Beast's castle, her situation resembles that of a maiden whose hand is being given to the seigneur by her father."
Yet I beg to differ. Precisely the opposite was true at this point in the story-Beauty's father would not hear of her going initially, but Beauty herself insisted and would not be persuaded otherwise. Other animal bridegroom tales have a more forceful father (or mother), with the maiden reluctant, but here we already see Beauty using her own free will, determined to save her father's life despite his admonitions.

From then on the story makes it more clear that this is not a typical arranged marriage-the Beast asks for Beauty's hand, giving her the power of choice. Not to mention that he makes her mistress of the castle and grants her every little desire instantly.

Yet in the end, Griswold points out that Beauty was never actually in love with the Beast. When Beauty feels convicted of betraying the Beast by staying away from the castle longer than the promised time, she muses, "it is true that I don't feel infatuated with him, but I do feel gratitude, respect, and friendship." This is kind of disappointing for those of us who like to think of it as a beautiful love story, although later Beauty tells the Beast "I thought I only wanted to be your friend, but the grief I now feel convinces me that I cannot live without you." So this is still more than an obligation to return a favor.

I really think this is forward thinking of Beaumont. When a cultural idea is shifting, we tend to go from one extreme to another, which is why the response against arranged marriages usually resulted in an unrealistic and really quite unhealthy idea of shallow love at first sight. Yet Beaumont takes a more balanced middle ground. And though at first Beauty's logic appears too unfeeling, it's not so easy a question. Though I'd like to think you can have that "spark" in a relationship as well as practical factors, my friends and I are asking each other questions much along these lines as we navigate the dating world. What is realistic to look for in a relationship? You don't want to expect too much and never be satisfied, but neither do you want to settle.

The other facet of Beaumont's life Griswold discusses is the fact that she was a governess, and therefore the tale is very didactic-over and over Beauty's work ethic and selflessness are applauded, and the negative qualities of her sisters condemned. It can come across as too preachy to the modern reader, but Griswold also makes the comparison to Jane Eyre and the Story of a Governess-like Cinderella, Jane Eyre overcomes the barrier of social class between herself and her master and ends up united with him. Beauty also rises from poverty to become a queen. This is significant because in Villeneuve's story, we learn that Beauty was really originally not only royal, but born of a fairy, yet Beaumont left this part out-so her Beauty is not being restored to her rightful status, but earns her rise in status because of her character.

*And don't forget, the giveaway ends Monday, the 28th!
Illustrations by Eleanor Vere Boyle

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate your insights into this. I agree that Beaumont takes a practical though not altogether heartless approach to love and marriage. I like it very much.