Technically speaking, Beauty and the Beast is not quite a tale as old as time—time, after all, more or less got going right after the Big Bang, well before anyone was telling any fairy tales at all. But in human terms, the story of Beauty and the Beast is very old indeed, with literary roots stretching well back into antiquity, making this arguably the second oldest story in this Read-Watch, after the stories of Hercules.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that in the original literary version, the Beast isn’t a Beast at all, although some people think he is.
That version was first written down by second century author Apuleius (sometimes referred to Lucius Apuleius Madaurensis) in a book called Metamorphoses, better known today as The Golden Ass. It’s the one novel that has survived from the Roman period, thus garnering significant attention, both for the overall novel, and for the story told in its center, that of Cupid and Psyche.
Images of Cupid—or Eros in Greek—and Psyche predate the novel, suggesting that Apuleius may not have invented the original story. Since we have no other written sources, however, it’s possible that he did create a new story, inspired by the images he saw on vases and paintings. Certainly the Cupid of the story is not quite like the Cupid or Eros that appears in other tales—even if Apuleius’ Cupid soon became a major subject of later artworks.
Regardless, the final result is almost pure fairy tale—though the fairies in this tale are Roman deities, and the enchanted realms visited by Psyche are inhabited not by fairies, but by the dead. Several elements appeared in later European fairy tales: Psyche is the youngest and the most beautiful of three sisters; she gains the enmity of a supernatural mother-in-law; and to win her husband, she must complete a series of impossible tasks: separating out a huge mound of grains and beans (as later seen in some versions of Cinderella and various tales featuring grateful animals); gathering golden wool from killer sheep; gathering water from the river Styx; and visiting the underworld to gather a beauty remedy from Proserpina, queen of the dead, something that—thanks to Psyche’s curiosity and her own desire to beautiful, almost kills her by sending her into a torpor.
(Incidentally, Apuleius, I don’t mean to overreact here, but are you actually trying to suggest that the best way for women to become or regain their beauty is for them to spend some time in a coma? Great.)
Psyche, despite her beauty—so extraordinary that people are worshiping her instead of Venus, goddess of love and beauty—cannot find a husband. Distressed, her father consults the oracle of Delphi, despite the oracle’s historical predilection for saying incredibly depressing things. Living right down to its reputation, the oracle announces that Psyche is destined to marry a monster that neither gods nor humans can resist. From this and other ancient tales, I have no idea why people didn’t just burn the oracle of Delphi down to the ground, but I digress. Anyway, everyone responds to this cheery announcement by leaving her on the top of a mountain, dressed in funeral clothes. Very supportive, everyone. Very supportive.
Fortunately for Psyche, she is whisked away by the nice gentle West Wind to a magical palace of gold filled with invisible servants ready to fulfill all of her commands. The otherwise lovely 1855 translation by Thomas Bulfinch glosses over the next part, where Psyche, worried about her virginity, finds her marriage thoroughly consummated in the darkness. She spends the next few days crying, as do her sisters; finally, her mysterious husband agrees that her sisters can visit. Psyche, like her later Victorian translators, initially decides to gloss over the situation, but in a later visit, tells her sisters the truth: she has never seen her husband. They freak out.
The original Latin has a sidenote here, left out of some translations, where the sisters complain that their own husbands don’t respect them and then detail just why, a horror show of marital captivity, refusal to pay bills, forced labor, and sexual dissatisfaction. For all that this is in the end a story arguing for love, and arguing that spouses can fall in love with each other after marriage, it’s also a story well aware that many marriages in the Roman Empire went badly for women.
Anyway, sidenote over, the sisters persuade Psyche that she must—she must—see her husband’s face, and although by this point, she is in love with him, she tries—and loses him, at least until she can complete those impossible tasks, and earn his love. Naturally, he blames her, and she is cast out into the world to wander looking for him.
Love—that is, Cupid in this story—not always the nicest guy. Sure, he claims he doesn’t have a choice here, but do we believe him?
Making matters just a touch worse, the entire narrative point of including this story in The Golden Ass is to convince a young girl that really, getting raped by pirates is just fine and will work out great for her.
Anyway. This part of the novel ended up passing through multiple oral and literary traditions, eventually appearing in several languages in different forms, most notably in East of the Sun, West of the Moon, which kept most of the elements of the original tale, just changing the unknown monster into a white bear, and changing the tasks—and who has to complete said tasks—and The Dark King, a Sicilian version that changed Psyche into one of the poorest peasants in Sicily, if still beautiful, placed the enchanted palace well underground, and primly did not marry the girl and her invisible, enchanted husband off until the very end of the tale—after he’d tossed her out to wander Sicily in rags.
Indeed, in these stories, generally the most decent of the husbands turn out to be the ones enchanted into the shapes of beasts, the men that have to be rescued by love. It was perhaps these examples that caught the attention of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (1695-1755), the first to write the story of Beauty and the Beast as we know it today in literary form, as a long, tedious novella (very long, do not read) contained in her even longer, even more tedious work, Les Contes marins ou la jeune Americaine (1740) (again, very long, don’t read).
Like many of her fellow French salon fairy tale writers, de Villeneuve came from the minor nobility and led an unconventional life. She married a lieutenant colonel who also came from the minor nobility; after his death, she moved to Paris, and eventually, into the house of poet Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon, left bitter after years at the court of Versailles, a man she did not marry. Instead, following the advice of his son, the novelist Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon, she turned to writing to supplement what was apparently a small or nearly non-existent income. A few years after the younger de Crébillon gave her this advice, he ended up in a French jail for writing a novel believed to contain attacks on certain high ranking French officials; he was later exiled from Paris for writing what has been termed an erotic political novel. Undaunted, de Villeneuve kept writing.
Her experiences, and quite possibly those of the de Crébillons, left her with both a certain cynicism and an awareness of the issues faced by aristocratic women of the upper and lower nobility. Both of these appear in the very first pages of her novella, which note the vicissitudes of fortune. When Beauty’s supposed father loses his fortune, the hoped for marriages of his six daughters all completely collapse. They may be beautiful and charming, but without money, that is not enough. De Villeneuve had seen enough of life to be aware of how many people respond to misfortune. Not well, even if, as in this case, the misfortune involves downgrading to a “country” life, which means—gasp—woolen gowns, and the sons having to do—more gasps—physical labor (not detailed)—all while keeping a harpischord and various fine instruments.
(The fine instruments, by the way, baffle me. De Villeneuve tells us that the family’s mansion burns down and they lose everything and have to move to, and I quote, “the saddest abode in the world,” and almost everybody has to work as a servant (the older sisters just cry) and yet, a few paragraphs later, Beauty is happily playing away on various fine and, yes, even in the era, very expensive instruments. You’d think that since they saved the harpsichord, they also could have managed to bring along a servant, but apparently not. Moving along.)
From here, the familiar elements enter the story: the rose, the enchanted castle, the infuriated beast, and Beauty travelling to the castle to save her supposed father, with one unexpected twist: in this version, the story does not end when Beauty kisses the Beast and restores him to his rightful place, but goes on. And on. And on. And then, on. And then, just when you think it can’t possibly continue for any longer, it goes on.
It’s long, is what I’m saying, even if it’s filled with fascinating little details. I thoroughly approve of the way everyone sips chocolate instead of coffee or tea, for instance—morning, and sometimes in the evening. I also love the way Beauty, in the midst of her own issues, stops everything to watch palace revolutions in Istanbul through a magical window. And as tedious as her story is, I love the portrait of the warrior queen, who appears in the second, much longer part of the story, caught between concern for her son and the job she must do of saving the kingdom is a fascinating one, especially since she’s not just a warrior queen, but also a major snob, convinced that Beauty doesn’t deserve to marry her son, since Beauty is (supposedly) the daughter of a merchant. Oh, the queen is certainly grateful, and she’ll happily toss Beauty off to some noble or other, you understand, but not that grateful.
But this isn’t just a tale of snobbery, chocolate, transformation, and revolutions in Istanbul: Beauty and the Beast is, above all, the story of working women and the choices they must make. Nearly every woman in this story, including the aristocrats, has a job, and every woman struggles, not always successfully, with balancing work, life, marriage and children. The failures, when they happen, are disastrous for themselves and their children alike. (And also for the poor countries overrun by wars in the middle of all this.)
The human warrior queen chooses her job—and is forced to watch her beloved son be transformed into a beast (and, in an even more dreadful moment, come close to marrying a merchant’s daughter I hope you all appreciate how awful she thinks she is, although to its credit, the text disagrees.) The fairy queen chooses her family—and finds herself imprisoned, forced to change back and forth into a serpent, and separated from her daughter, who ends up with the merchant. It is brutal, and compassionate, a tale of the difficult choices faced by women, and the restrictions and rules places upon them that forces them to make these choices in the first place. It helps, too, that both women are deeply flawed characters who make mistakes—but who then do everything in their limited power to correct these errors. Perhaps not surprisingly, the least tolerable character in the story is not the main villain (another woman) but the one older woman, a fairy, who does not have children, and who does not face quite the same heartbreaking choices, even as she runs around to try to fix matters.
Also, in the story: a lot of caressing, which at one point almost seems to be heading right into a major incestuous orgy (it doesn’t) and eventually led me to start shouting STOP CARESSING EACH OTHER AND JUST GET ON WITH IT at the book.
Almost inevitably, whenever I bring any of this up, especially the warrior queen, the chocolate, and the caressing, people want to read the story. And I can only respond with, don’t. It’s tedious. Very, very, tedious. It was left to another French writer, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, to salvage the story and turn it—almost—into the version we know today in English. I say almost, because although several English collections use straightforward translations of de Beaumont’s version, others use Andrew Lang’s version, a mix of both de Beaumont and de Villeneuve, which first appeared in The Blue Fairy Book in 1889.
De Beaumont, unlike de Villeneuve, was born into straitened circumstances, and began working as a teacher at a very young age to support herself. She managed to obtain a job as a singing teacher in a ducal household, where she married a Monsieur de Beaumont. The marriage was a disaster—de Beaumont allegedly picked up a venereal disease and liked orgies, which shocked his less allegedly prim and proper wife—and the marriage was annulled after only two years, something highly unusual for the period. The following year de Beaumont fled to England, seeking employment as a governess. The position paid poorly, and she began to write, a career she continued even after a second, more successful marriage.
Her version of Beauty and the Beast was a moralistic one written for children, originally published in 1756 in Le Magasin des Enfants, which published several of her tales. De Beaumont ruthlessly excised all of the post-kiss parts of de Villeneuve’s tale, and also ruthlessly trimmed quite a lot of the pre-kiss parts of de Villeneuve’s tale as well—no one in her story has time to sip chocolate or watch palace revolutions. De Beaumont also removed several of Beauty’s supposed brothers and sisters, creating a more manageable family of three sons and three daughters, and focused her story not on the issues facing women, but on the importance of judging by reality, not appearances, a lesson she herself had apparently learned the hard way. Her story urges girls to value virtue over beauty and wit, another lesson she herself had apparently learned the hard way. She also turned Beauty’s envious sisters into stone statues, in an echo of the fate of the sisters in The Golden Ass—while reassuring children that yes, the sisters could become human again, if they learned to recognize their faults.
She made one other significant change: in her version, Beauty remains the daughter of a merchant. (In the de Villeneuve version, Beauty is raised by a merchant family, but turns out to be the daughter of a fairy and a king, fortunately enough because did I mention the snobbery? Oh, yes, the snobbery.) De Beaumont was well aware that young middle class girls of her time, like aristocratic ones, could also be married off to men they barely knew. Her tale speaks to those fears, assuring them that—if they were virtuous and obedient, they could find happiness in marriage.
I bring all this up because, for very valid reasons, Beauty and the Beast has often been read as a tale urging women to look, not just beyond ugly appearances, but ugly behavior (in both versions, after all, the Beast imprisons Beauty), a tale that assures women that they have the power to transform beasts into men, a tale often contrasted with Bluebeard, which clearly states that yes, if a man has had several wives and has a weird look and gives you strange instructions about keys and doors, running away is hands down your best option, whatever you may think about the bonds of marriage, especially if you do not have brothers who can rescue you in time.
Whoops, I went off track there. As said, this reading has a certain validity, especially since the Beasts in both versions of this tale are, well, Beasts—terrifying not just Beauty, but her father. Her sisters, however wrong their motives, are not entirely wrong when they ask Beauty not to return to him. And yes, Beauty’s kiss does transform the Beast.
But I would argue that the tales themselves are more complicated than that. That these are tales written by women who knew the dangers of abusive men, and understood that their world did not always offer easy choices, or simple answers. That in de Villeneuve’s tale, abusers appear everywhere, sometimes in disguise, sometimes not, that the law and duty and honor and virtue can often be difficult. That in de Villeneuve’s tales, the choices faced by women—including Beauty—are not so simple. And that de Beaumont, who insisted so strongly on virtue over appearance, had been married to a man she considered a monster, and she had survived. She wanted her readers to know that they could survive as well, and that may be the greatest message that shines through both tales.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.