So first of all, I want to thank Richard Jacobs, the father of a friend of mine, who lived in the Ivory Coast for part of his life and accepted the task of translating the letters. Note that he is not a French scholar or historian, he did it out of the goodness of his heart. He mentioned it was more difficult than anticipated because the language was very difficult than the vocabulary he had used when speaking French-it is, after all, a 300 year old somewhat abstract love note. So without further ado, the first letter, "A Letter from Beauty to the Beast."
After a random and kind of confusing introduction about Beauty wanting to retire to a land with fish ponds, she turns to contemplating the nature of the Beast himself. First she remembers what it was like when he came to her as a Beast:
"You would come with the night, when the hour was never yet at the remaking of the day, but rather at the regret of its light. The beasts, as dreams and fog, belong first of all to obscurity, to the experience of that which undresses and undresses itself again. Well in advance of my seeing you, the memory of these recitals that came from elsewhere of the story of the marriage of the blood of the monster with the most beautiful of the beauties brought me to fear. I thought of you as being born of murder and a curse when actually you had only conquered your horrendous face as a reflection of your beauty in the mirror of your mother. For a long time, you remained for me one by whom mourning came. One who gave also to the sun a taste of wormwood." (all emphasis mine)
You'll notice Villeneuve doesn't shy away from hinting at what Beauty and the Beast do in secret, and those commenting on her version usually note that it is more sexual.
Beauty goes on, and it appears that by the time of the writing of these letters, their story has already become legendary, and she refers to it as a fable-
"You had no other name than that of Beast. It is the same for me who always carries only that of Beauty. Is it only, as certain ones pretend it to be, that there are no genealogies? No one precedes us in the legends, except it be in the days so ancient that I am not able to remember. Children found in other memories, we would have unheaped some sense under the fullness and the untying of our names. Or do you belong to the denseness of night en of secrets as I belong, me, of the morning and of white linen that I spread out in the yard? The names of men are more uncertain than those of things. To call yourself Beast, was to clothe yourself of everything that beasts are after the Fall and thus it was easy for you to make yourself the heinous, the most monstrous, the terror of death; and to call me Beauty, I brought all the women to like me, the fondness of their womb and their patient endurance, but also their beauty that, at times, to disguise the guile. Despite you and despite me, the fable wanted to make us models. It wanted that, when we would have ceased to live, because a person cannot live for ever, some one would remember you, my Beast, and another would remember me, your Beauty. Thus, the lovers, who will come after us, will forget that I was a young girl who loved the roses and who mistakenly judged the forest with the musty odor of bear; they will forget also that you were the unknown one, handsome as one paints Love, who appeared to me in a dream along the canal and, at the same time, this sad prince, a victim of the indecent passion of an old hag. We will thus remain Beauty and Beast, in accordance with what we ourselves wished, the fable that lasts forever."
A couple parts of this letter seem almost creepily prophetic, and makes me wonder if it was really the invention of Villeneuve herself. Beauty talks of future generations forgetting their stories, and while the fairy tale itself is alive and well in common knowledge, the details of Villeneuve's version are, indeed, almost forgotten. Very few people know of the Unknown Beauty speaks of-which is when the Beast would appear as his true, Princely self, to Beauty in her dreams. (Some people might recall this from the children's book version by Marianna and Mercer Mayer, which includes this plot element). Also, the modern reader might remember the old hag of the Disney version, but in fact Beauty is referencing the evil fairy who cursed the Beast (read more about the Beast's backstory in my archives).
"When you were the beast, you ask questions and you never respond. You were sown tied up into silence, and ordered a people statues and of maliciousness, who are only the semblance of men. From parrots also, (come) many colored echoes of our words. Were you not, at this strange season, similar to this lord who causes the body of this young wife to be taken under stony the on-looking of uncountable monsters? Someone caused me to know that he went to the point of giving to his dreadful watchmen traces of seduction that his sadness loaned to the prisoner. But, you, you have only to fear that my reflections in the deserted mirrors of your living rooms: left in the evening shadows that sleep brings on and that wakening obliterates, I was girded through absence and offered my arm only with a bracelet."
I think that the above bold section is referencing what many BATB scholars think was the "message" of the fairy tale from this period: to expose the cruelty of arranged marriages, especially when the husbands in question were older, perhaps uglier, and not necessarily trustworthy, yet being promised very young wives by their fathers. I'll admit I find many parts of this letter very confusing.
"Because, before becoming weak, you were, to be sure, incredible. Or, to speak otherwise, your face could only be considered insignificant so long as it carried the promise of being other things. I imagined you, at times, as a stranger to yourself, et to be so unreasonable and illusive, I wanted to unclothe you. Since I knew that you, by love, had removed your savage clothing, to change yourself into a man I rendered dead."
Again, references to sex, even when he was still a Beast.
"But nonetheless, I knew that you knew, from the terrible knowledge of the plants, you who were, perhaps, a rose before being a monster. You never ignored that you were neither a beast lost among men, nor a man lost among beasts. Not being one or the other, you were one and the other and you belonged to the list of revolved eras where humans had the necessity to live among all that lived under the sun, victims of the original desire of the gods. From other fables, more knowledgeable than ours, they would say, perhaps, that man is not far from the beast or that one and the other are taking turns and in our eyes are surfacing through the waves of the immense sea where we were fish. They will say this surprising thing that the destiny of man and the destiny of the beast was tied together because the hunter and the prey change places often and that I also was myself a beast before being a woman. Our obscure mouth, it seems, bristle up teeth to devour your happiness and it is possible that one day someone will write the history of the woman changed into a fox. I assure you today that it has entered my mind to wish you to be animal more than person, though the inaccurate is more unprecedented than the accidental."
This is the other passage that strikes me as being suspiciously modern. What does she mean by saying she was a beast before becoming a woman? And the last two sentences accurately portray the current trend in BATB retellings, which is to celebrate the animal in the Beast, even sometimes turning Beauty herself into a Beast.
" You taught me how to un-mix what seemed to be that which disguised all things. I knew that the image deceives, and our senses and our hearts. You taught me also to never consult my eyes. "
"You left me as soon as I refused to share my bed, I who never understood that you were the path to myself. Surprised by your docility, I believed you to be a stranger to conquering. Consequently, you left me to the world of images. Being absent from your human body, you presented yourself to the will of pictures and dreams so that I reap scattered images. Prisoner of your palace and its lazy courtyard of an inorganic sleep, I ruled, unknown to me, your life, because I retained the pieces scattered in one place or another on the mirror that only my love could piece together in a meaningful way. Never did I lose awareness that you were, in reality, my prisoner. Was it to have ascertained it that I finished by finding some pleasure being in your presence? And this pain, that takes hold of me when I see you as dead in the den that lightened my monkeys. Did I dream that or is it again a trick of the fable that wanted, according to its principles, that I abandon you before taking you as husband? I ignore this thought. The confusion of the dream is sweeter than that of reality. My tears on your inanimate body teach me that love is a toy that the child never possesses before he loses it."
So many interesting things to consider and ponder, I won't talk about these sections here, just highlight what I found most interesting.
The letter ends:
"Thus, your ring no longer has use to me. It suffices me to find you in the inner being of myself.
I will sleep with you again tonight. Something tells me that the hours will be more extravagant than all those that we have known. Do we not need to, in effect, go down together the steps of time?
That the night be good to us, Beast!"
Isn't this fascinating?!?
Part II, Beast's reply to Beauty, coming soon!
Illustrations by Eleanor Vere Boyle