I’m a sucker for Beauty and the Beast retellings. Whether on page or on screen, there’s something about the story which means I could read it again and again.
And others seem to agree – it’s one of the most popular fairytales out there!
But I only realized recently how little I knew about the origins of this fairytale. I love recounting to people how dark fairytales were before they went through the Disney sanitizer – I’m quick to tell others about the red-hot shoes in Snow White, the Little Mermaid turning into sea foam – but found I knew nothing about the origins of Beauty and the Beast.
So I did some research…
The best known retelling
The best-known version of Beauty and the Beast, which forms the basis of the story most of us are familiar with, was written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont shortly after the publication of the original tale.
Published in 1756 as a story for younger readers, in this simplified version, a ruined merchant is forced to move his daughters and sons to a life of poverty in the countryside after his ships are wrecked at sea. While most of his children resent their changed circumstances, the youngest daughter, Beauty, does her best to keep the household clean and fed.
Shortly afterwards, the merchant received word that one of his lost ships has been found. While his other children beg for expensive clothes, Beauty is reluctant to ask for anything at all. Reluctantly, she eventually asks for a rose.
The merchant’s trip is futile. Caught in a storm on his journey home, he stumbles upon a mysterious castle. No one appears to live there but he finds a warm fire, food, and a bed to sleep in. The next morning, seeing roses growing in the garden, he remembers Beauty’s request, and picks her a rose.
This enrages the beast who owns the castle, who agrees to let the merchant go if he will send one of his daughters in his place.
Beauty, the kindest of her siblings, agrees to go. She expects to be eaten, but instead is given luxurious chambers, good food and entertainment. She sees no one apart from the Beast, who joins her for dinner each evening. Each evening he asks her to marry him, and each evening she says no.
After several months, Beauty pleads that she misses her family. The beast allows her to return home for a visit, but warns her if she is late in returning, he will die of grief.
Jealous of Beauty’s finery on her return, her sisters trick her into staying longer than she attended, thinking that the beast will eat her in his fury.
However, when Beauty returns late, she finds instead that the beast is on his deathbed due to his grief for her. This makes her realize that she loves him, and she begs him to live so she can marry him as he asked.
Instantly, he transforms back into a prince, and he and Beauty are married.
The jealous sisters? Condemned to be living statues outside the castle.
The original tale
The original Beauty and the Beast story, La Belle et La Bête, was written by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve and published in La Jeune Américaine, et Les Contes Marins in 1740.
In this original version, again we have the merchant taking a rose from a garden, and the beast demanding he send one of this daughters in his place.
Here it gets slightly more complicated. When Beauty arrives at the castle, she is visited in her dreams by a lovely woman who urges her to look past appearances, and also by a handsome prince who she falls in love with. A series of windows open to reveal theater and opera. Monkeys act as servants, and use parrots to perform a play.
She does not really enjoy conversations with the beast, finding his questions stupid, but she begins to feel guilty for turning down his requests to marry him, since he has provided her with so much.
The beast eventually allows Beauty to return home to visit her family, and her father advises her to marry the beast next time he asks her, but she disagrees with him. She eventually dreams that the beast is dying, and the woman returns to her dream to tell her that she is late in returning to the castle and the beast is dying.
Beauty returns to the castle to find the beast apparently dead. She manages to revive him, and agrees to marry him. It becomes clear the man she has dreamt about is in fact the beast, who returns to the form of a man.
The story then turns to the complicated backstories of both Beauty and the beast when the prince’s mother protests that Beauty is of too low birth to marry her son.
It is revealed by the woman who visited Beauty in her dreams – who turns out to be a fairy – that Beauty is the daughter of a king (that she’s the prince’s cousin, in fact) and a good fairy. Threatened by a wicked fairy who wanted to marry the king, Beauty was swapped with a merchant’s dead daughter in order to keep her safe.
It then transpires that the Beast was a young prince who had lost his father. His mother, the queen, was forced to go to war to defend the kingdom, and leaves him in the care of yet another wicked fairy. As he grew older, the fairy tried to seduce him, and when he refused her, she transformed him into a beast.
The story behind the story
It’s speculated that Villeneuve’s tale was inspired by the true story of Petrus Gonsalvus. He was born in the Canary Islands in 1537 and had hypertrichosis, which caused thick hair to grow all over his body.
This resulted in him being treated as a curiosity, treated as a “wild man” before eventually being gifted to King Henry II of France when he was 10 years old.
Henry and his wife, Catherine de Medici, chose to educate him as an “experiment”, so that he learned to speak, read and write several languages.
After Henry’s death, Catherine married him off to the daughter of a court servant – and they remained married for over 40 years, and had seven children together.