For the most part, the French salon fairy tale writers all knew each other, at least casually, and all worked from more or less the same sources: oral tales heard in childhood, classical mythology, and collections of Italian fairy tales, in particular Giambattista Basile’s Il Pentameron and Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. So it is not surprising that many of their tales end up sharing some, shall we say, strong similarities, and in some cases nearly identical plots—or even, as with Beauty and the Beast, abridgements of another author’s original tale. What can be surprising is how and why these tales differ—as a look at two French versions of “Riquet with the Tuft” show.
Catherine Bernard (1662?-1712) worked primarily as a playwright, eventually becoming the most successful woman playwright of her era. She also wrote three novels and multiple poems. None of this earned her all that much money, however, and she was primarily supported through winning literary prizes and by the patronage of nobles at Louis XIV’s court. Although at least one of these patrons seems to have urged her to focus on poetry, her otherwise precarious position presumably encouraged her to express herself through fiction, rather than the non-fictional essays, satires and poems that got many of her fellow writers exiled. The subversive fairy tales written by the scandalous and occasionally exiled Madame d’Aulnoy provided a perfect model. Her “Riquet with the Tuft” appears in her third novel, Ines de Corduve, published in 1696.
Possibly inspired by short story collections set within a framing story, such as Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Giambattista Basile’s Il Pentameron, Ines de Corduve features a fairy tale between the eponymous character and a rival. Bernard may also have been inspired by listening to the fairy tales told in many of the salons, and, like her fellow authors, may even have recited “Riquet with the Tuft” at a salon prior to including it in her novel — thus creating it for oral presentation. Though it’s also entirely possible, given her tale’s ending, that she never recited it at all prior to including it in her novel. I can’t help but think that someone might have suggested one or two changes if she had.
Bernard opens her tale in Grenada—a very real place, if one safely outside of France—where a nobleman finds himself with a major problem: his beautiful daughter is also extremely stupid, enough, Bernard adds, “to make her appearance distasteful.” Uh, ouch. This is probably one of the cruelest statements about the mentally disabled to appear in French salon fairy tales, though that’s partly because, apart from occasional descriptions of characters falling into deep despair, in general, French salon fairy tales tended to avoid the subjects of mental disability and mental health entirely. It’s made worse a few sentences later, when it becomes clear that Mama, the beautiful daughter in question, knows that people don’t like her very much—but can’t figure out why.
By this time it should be fairly clear that this is not necessarily going to be a comforting thing for people with disabilities, mental or physical, to read. You’ve been warned.
A few sentences later, and Mama runs into a man with a hideous appearance—in Bernard’s terms, virtually a monster. Mama wants to flee, but doesn’t. The man—Riquet—informs her that they have something in common: he’s hideous, which repels people, and she’s stupid, which also repels people, but if she wants, he can make her intelligent—if she agrees to marry him within a year. She agrees. Riquet gives her a little rhyme to chant. It works. Very soon she is intelligent, surrounded by lovers—and in love.
Only not with Riquet, and not with someone her parents approve of, either. Arada is good looking, but not wealthy—and, of course, Mama’s promised to someone else. Not that her parents know that, but in an aside, they do find themselves rather wishing that Mama had never gained a mind at all—and try to warn her about the dangers of love.
At the end of the year, Riquet returns, offering Mama a choice: she can either marry him and become the queen of the gnomes, or she can return to her parents, without her intelligence. She has two days to decide. Two days later, Mama, intelligent enough to know that she will lose Arada if she loses her intelligence, reluctantly agrees to marry him.
This is not Beauty and the Beast. The marriage goes badly. Mama despises her husband, and soon enough, contacts Arada, letting him know that she is in the gnome kingdom. Arada comes to her, cheering her up—which immediately rouses the suspicion of Riquet, who changes the conditions: Mama will be intelligent at night—when she is with Riquet—and stupid during the day—when she is with Arada. Mama responds by drugging Riquet. Riquet in turn transforms Arada into a visual double of himself, leaving Mama unable to tell which one is Riquet, and which Arada. Which in turn rather makes me doubt this supposed intelligence Riquet gave her—surely, she could figure out which one was which after a few questions? But apparently not: Mama ends up with two husbands, not knowing which one she can speak to openly. Bernard is not sympathetic:
But perhaps she hardly lost anything there. In the long run, lovers become husbands anyway.
It’s an abrupt, brutal, and rather unsatisfactory ending for all three characters—perhaps especially Arada, the complete innocent here, who did nothing more than fall in love with a woman who kinda failed to tell him that she was already engaged to a gnome—a gnome who, moreover, was the only reason she was capable of speaking intelligently. But also for Riquet, who meant well, and ended up trapped in a miserable marriage, judged mostly by his looks, and yes, even for Mama, not always the most sympathetic character here, but who, it seems wanted to be normal and to fit in—and found herself miserable after choosing to try to be more like other people.
It is perhaps more than pertinent to note here that Bernard herself was born into a Huguenot family, and did not convert to Catholicism until 1685, just months before Louis XIV reversed the Edict of Nantes, making the Protestant faith illegal again. (We know the specific date since even at the age of 22 or 23, Bernard had made enough of a literary name for herself that her conversion was noted in a French paper.) I’m not saying that Bernard converted only to ensure that she could remain at court and write, just that the timing is slightly suspicious. Nor I am suggesting that Bernard wrote highly flattering poems about Louis XIV solely in hopes of getting a pension, just noting that she did write highly flattering poems about Louis XIV and did receive a small pension from him. Her defenders, after all, noted that prior to the pension, she had won multiple poetry prizes and was thus a worthy literary recipient of this pension. So let us not judge. On the other hand, Bernard’s tale suggests that she knew all too well the dangers and stresses of attempting to fit in where you do not fully belong.
Charles Perrault’s version, also called “Riquet with the Tuft,” was published a year later—along with Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, and other tales—in his Histories ou contes du temps passe (1697). It’s not entirely clear if Perrault and Bernard were working from the same oral source, or if Perrault simply chose to rewrite Bernard’s story, with or without her permission. What is clear is that he had a very different approach to the tale.
Perrault begins by transforming Riquet from the ugly gnome with powerful magic of Bernard’s tale to a very human prince, if one born so ugly that a few people doubt he’s human. Luckily, a fairy explains that the little Riquet is so intelligent that he’ll be able to charm everyone anyway, despite his looks. It’s a bit difficult to figure out how, exactly, she can be so sure about this, given that he’s just a squalling newborn when she makes this pronouncement, but, fairies. In any case, her prediction turns out to be completely true. And possibly an echo of Perrault’s own experiences at Versailles, where, based on various portraits, a number of downright hideous people managed to overcome that particular issue and become powerful, influential and even popular.
It would perhaps miss the point entirely if I noted that many of those people had money or powerful relatives.
Riquet also receives a powerful gift: whoever he chooses to love will seem equally intelligent, just because he’s in love.
Meanwhile, over in the next kingdom, the royal family is dealing with one beautiful but stupid daughter, and one ugly but intelligent daughter. The dismayed family turns to a fairy for help, who notes that she can’t do much about the looks, but will give the beautiful daughter one gift: whoever she chooses to love will seem beautiful just because she’s in love.
You can probably guess, at this point, where this story is going—indeed, the main advantage Bernard’s tale has over Perrault’s is that her story is considerably less predictable, even if Perrault’s story is more charming, comforting, and, well, a lot more fun — partly thanks to its much happier ending. The beautiful princess finds herself incredibly jealous of her ugly but more popular sister, to the point of feeling that she would willingly give up all of her beauty for half of her sister’s intelligence. Fortunately enough, for all of Riquet’s supposed intelligence, he turns out to be remarkably fixated on looks, falling in love the beautiful princess based on her portraits alone. When, after arriving at her kingdom, he finds her melancholy, he is surprised. When she explains that her unhappiness stems from her lack of intelligence, he notes:
There’s no greater proof of intelligence, madam, than the belief that we do not have any. It is the nature of the gift that the more we have, the more we believe we are deficient in it.
I sense a slight—a very slight—slam at some of his fellow courtiers here, though neither Riquet nor Perrault are rude enough to name names. In any case, the princess is not intelligent enough to be convinced by this, so, as in Bernard’s tale, Riquet offers to make her intelligent—if she’ll agree to marry him within a year. The princess agrees. She returns to her court, dazzling everyone with her new wit—including a rather handsome prince that she can’t help being more than a bit into. Her parents approve, assuring her—in direct contradiction to the more usual situation with nobility and royalty—that she can choose a husband for herself.
One year later, a far more thoughtful princess meets Riquet out in the gardens. She notes that she was uncertain about marrying him back when she lacked intelligence; does he really want to marry her now that she’s more intelligent—and thus, harder to please? He asks if she has any other issues with him beyond his appearance. She assures him that she doesn’t. He points out that she has the power to make anyone she falls in love with handsome with a single wish, which she makes. And with that, they live happily ever after, intelligently and beautifully, although Perrault points out that some people—not naming names, you understand—claim that this was less magic, and more love, which transformed all of Riquet’s flaws to heroic, handsome points in his favor.
I concede the possibility, but I also have to note the difference between the two tales: Bernard, who never married, and remained on the outside of the French court, and who converted from the religion of her home to the established religion of her court, not only presents a woman who, for all her intelligence, is unable to see beyond appearances, but also leaves us with a deeply unhappy marriage. Perrault, who enjoyed an extremely successful, social climbing career at court, assures us that true love can allow us—or, at least princesses—to see beyond initial appearances, and fall in love with people who may appall us on a purely superficial level. One of them, I think, would have believed the story of Beauty and the Beast. The other would not.
Charlotte Bernard stopped publishing in 1698, reportedly turning to prayer and the study of religion instead, with the royal pension providing just enough to live on, to save her the necessity of publishing. She died fourteen years later, in 1712. Twenty years after her death, her work became the subject of a major and nasty literary fight, where some critics, mostly friends of Voltaire, claimed that Bernard’s two plays, Laodamie, reine d’Epire (1689) and Brutus (1690), had actually been written by her (probable) cousin Fontenelle, as other critics, mostly enemies of Voltaire, claimed that Voltaire had copied various passages of Bernard’s Brutus – and that Bernard’s play was better. An infuriated Voltaire announced that most of Bernard’s Brutus had absolutely, positively been written by her cousin, and was not very good anyway, stirring up the fight all over again. For a time at least, Bernard was better known as a subject of this controversy rather than for her own work or for her fairy tales, until the 1980s when she once again became a subject of academic research.
It might have comforted her to find out that Charles Perrault’s version of her tale followed her into obscurity. Even in its initial publication, the tale never achieved the same popularity as Cinderella or Puss-in-Boots, or even his disturbing Donkey-Skin. It was translated with his other tales into English, but for whatever reason, English readers also failed to warm to the tale. Andrew Lang, who happily included Perrault’s other tales in his collections, including Donkey-Skin, left this one out.
It’s rather a pity: ugliness is so often associated with wickedness in fairy tales that it’s refreshing to see it depicted here as something that can be associated with good, in tales where beauty, for once, is not regarded either as a hallmark of goodness or even as something particularly desirable, and where intelligence is worth sacrificing almost everything for—even the chance of future happiness.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.