Thursday, March 13, 2014

Sibling relationships in Beauty and the Beast

Ever since young Kristin read Robin McKinley's Beauty, I've had this half-dream of writing my own novel version of "Beauty and the Beast". Early attempts proved to be mostly my rewriting of McKinley's story and I realized I'm not especially talented at writing fiction. However, I always wanted to flesh out the relationship between Beauty and her sisters more. In the traditional fairy tale, they're black and white-Beauty good (almost sickeningly good) and sisters bad, unrealistically so-much like Cinderella and her evil stepsisters. In contrast, in both of McKinley's novels (including Rose Daughter) Beauty's sisters are not only loving and supportive, but appear to have no flaws whatsoever. But I always thought there was a lot of potential for exploring complex sibling relationships, especially when the youngest is obviously favored by the parent and given the nickname "Beauty."

Villeneuve's 1740 version is actually fairly moderate as far as fairy tale relationships go (remembering, of course, that her story isn't truly a fairy tale, but a more complex novella). In nearly every other version, including the Beaumont, when the family becomes impoverished and moves, the older sisters refuse to do any housework, and Beauty does everything. However, in Villeneuve, the sisters begrudgingly help, although they are not as cheerful as Beauty. Her cheerfulness actually spurns more bitterness towards her, and anyone who grew up with siblings can relate, I think...
W. Heath Robinson

As opposed to Beaumont's Beauty (written 16 years later), who is more the picture of the perfect hard-working woman. She rises at four in the morning to do all the work. Yet, both authors acknowledge that it was difficult for Beauty, at first. I feel like a lot of children's versions just portray her as cheerful all along, and I'm glad they both recognize how difficult a transition that would be, despite how much inner character you had. Beaumont writes: "In the beginning she found it very difficult, for she had not been used to work as a servant, but in less than two months she grew stonger and healthier than ever...on the contrary, her two sisters did not know how to spend their time; they got up at ten, and did nothing but saunter about the whole day."

Yet one phrase in the Villeneuve I found especially surprising: "she knew, by a strength of mind seldom found in her sex, how to conceal her sorrow, and rise superior to her adversities." (emphasis mine) To those familiar with fairy tale history, Villeneuve and many of her French salon fellow writers were actually strong feminists, despite what this phrase sounds like. I remember coming across a similar attitude in other early feminists, like Charlotte Bronte-initially they weren't necessarily pushing for all women to be treated better. In fact many feminists had the same negative stereotypes about women in general that men did-the difference was that they saw themselves as exempt, and more "manly." Baby steps to feminism...
Angela Barrett

In general in Villeneuve, there's numerically more of everything. More siblings (six sons and six daughters, as opposed to three and three in Beaumont-and most later versions drop the sons all together). Also, everything takes a longer amount of time, as might be expected in a much longer story (63 pages in the Surlalune book, but that's with really small print! Beaumont is only 7 pages). For example, the family only spends a year in poverty in Beaumont, but two years in Villeneuve.

Then comes the scene where the daughters ask favors from their father. I always thought is was pretty unnatural for Beauty not to want anything. Certainly something I can't personally relate to. Both authors make it clear that Beauty, being wiser than her sisters, knew that her father wouldn't recover as much money as her sisters envisioned. The emphasis wasn't really on materialism at all, but practicality-many modern/children's versions emphasize Beauty's innate goodness and contentment as the reason she didn't want new clothes and accessories.

In Villeneuve, when Beauty's father asks why she has been silent, she first responds that all she desires is for him to return in good health. After pressing, she admits she might like a rose. Of course, that first response wouldn't do anything to improve sibling relationships. Beaumont, for the sake of summary and/or a personal choice, omitted the first, kiss-up request and went straight for the rose. She even says in the narration, however, that Beauty didn't even care for a rose particularly-she just knew what Villeneuve's Beauty should have known in hindsight, "lest she should seem by her example to condemn her sisters' conduct, who would have said she did it only to look particular."
Marianna Mayer

When Beauty's father does return with the rose and the tragic story of how he got it, the sisters' bitterness and jealousy is brought into full light. Beaumont's sisters say, "Do but see the pride of that little wretch-she would not ask for fine clothes, as we did; but no truly, Miss wanted to distinguish herself." Villeneuve's sisters go into a whole speech about how they won't let themselves be punished for what was Beauty's fault-"this is the fruit of the self-denial and perpetual preaching of this unhappy girl!" The sisters had already speculated that their father, with his obvious favoritism, would have granted only Beauty's special request and not their own (which proved correct, if only because he didn't have the money to satisfy them).

When it came time for Beauty to leave, Beaumont's sisters rub their eyes with onions to force tears. Yet Villeneuve's sisters, while she condemns them in the narration for their "ugly jealousy" and hatred, they even soften when Beauty says goodbye, which draws "a few tears from their eyes" and left them "for the space of a few moments almost as distressed as their brothers." Again, a little more complexity/realism to her characters.

After Beauty's sojourn in the castle and return home, Villeneuve's sisters are all too ready to get rid of Beauty. They remind her of her "duty" to return to the Beast. No wonder, though, for all of their suitors have immediately fallen in love with Beauty since her return home and will now have nothing to do with them.

Beaumont's sisters are more devious. They try to trick Beauty into staying too long and breaking her promise to the Beast by, for once, being kind to her. They hope the Beast will finally devour her.

Versions of Cinderella vary in the justice done to the sisters at the end of the tale. Sometimes they are cruelly punished, other times forgiveness reigns. Villeneuve's story concludes, for the sisters, with their suitors deciding to have them-not that they wouldn't have wanted Beauty, but being taken, they saw how much affection she showed for her sisters and decided they weren't such a bad deal after all.

W. Heath Robinson
Beaumont has a more bleak end for the sisters. They are condemned to be statues at Beauty's castle gates and behold her happiness, unless they can let go of the malice in their hearts.

Translations of both the Villeneuve and Beaumont found in Surlalune's Beauty and the Beast: Tales From Around the World


  1. Lovely post! The book illustrated by Marianna Mayer has long been one of my favorites - so evocative and intense, yet not without dark-tipped magic and whimsy. Cheers.

  2. Thank you so much! Glad you enjoyed the post. The Mayer version is popular for a reason! It's incredibly well done. I myself didn't even appreciate many aspects of it until I did more research. If you haven't seen it you should check out my post on Jerry Griswold's analyzing of the illustrations-

  3. Sweet! It's a great post - I did notice the color contrasts between the two focal places, and I noticed a lot of roses - but the color difference in roses eluded me! How very beautiful. Thank you and cheers!

  4. Can't believe I only just read this post!

    For a long time now I've had a novel in the works (but hardly any progress made, we're in the same boat!), a retelling of BATB from the perspective of one of her sisters. It explores ideas of sibling rivalry, jealousy and inadequacy. If I ever get around to writing the rest of it, I'd love to hear what you think!

    1. How exciting! I would definitely love to read it some day!

  5. I too am working on a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. In my version, Beauty is blind, and is basically raised by her sisters. The eldest is like a mother to her, and the middle one is extremely protective. They get to play a pretty big role in the climax and sisterly bonding is a huge part of the book. The three are very close - however, my story eliminates the favoritism completely. She might get more attention, but it's not good attention.

    1. Ooh-a blind Beauty would be a fascinating aspect to explore!