La Belle et la Bête – Old as Time

straparola_ritrattoI see the Disneys are dragging out Beauty and her Beast for a new iteration.  It was, of course, ever so, and long before animation and CGI

Scholarly types generally agree that the first iteration of the timeless tale came from the works of Venetian Giovanni Francesco Straparola (1480-1558), a somewhat shadowy figure who thought to follow the success of Boccaccio’s Decameron with a new collection of short stories (the Pig King is the entry in question).  As it happened, he was quite right, and his stuff sold rather well. We may assume he lived happily ever after. As one does in Italy.

VilleneuveA copy of the book was presumably kicking around the household of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (1685 – 1755).  She was a member of France’s minor aristocracy, less wealthy than she might have been.  She came to marry a fellow aristo, an unfortunately silly man whose losses at the tables and general mismanagement of their joint inheritance prompted her to petition for separation after a mere six months. He died soon after, freeing her from her albatross, but doing nothing to restore her personal fortunes.  These continued to head down hill.

The class system has its advantages, if one is advantageously placed.

Crébillon_Père_2One day, she  met  Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon (1674-1762) a popular and respected playwright and eventually member of the Academie Francaise; some thought him superior to Voltaire.   She moved in with him. And took up writing.

Her tale (one of many) was a long and complicated shaggy dog story, but it was in keeping with the tastes of the age and earned her a reasonable return on investment. From all evidence, she, and he, working together in his capacity as royal  literary censor, appear to have lived happily ever after. As one does in France.

debaumontThe story was in due course filched by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (1711-1780), another Frenchwoman, but of a more modest rank. To earn her keep, she headed off to England and worked as a governess. To educate her charges, she began writing children’s stories, scouring earlier writers for inspiration. Her version is closest to that familiar to modern audiences.

She had her travails, starting with a failed first marriage, which happily produced one daughter.   Her own personal beast, however, was the appalling Frenchman Thomas Pichon (1700-1781), a man notorious for seduction and betrayal of both women and his own country.

ThomasPichonAs a civilian bureaucrat in French Canada, the “Judas of Arcadia”  sold out French Canadian interests to the English in  Father Le Loutre’s War and so been forced to retire to London. Here he managed to beguile de Beaumont, parking himself in her quarters while he tended his own affairs.   After a few stressful years, she returned to France, leaving him to hang out with new friends like John Cleland, author of Fanny Hill.  He lived quietly with his books and small circle of Francophone colleagues.  Conscience caught up to him in his declining years; the comforts of the Protestant religion did not entirely ease it.  He died trembling.

She, on the other hand, with her daughter and son-in-law, we may assume  managed to live happily ever after.  As one does in France.

CocteauAnd so on down the ages, inspiring the modern Renaissance man Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) and his film, after which it it flies across the Atlantic, the U.S. heartland, and judders to an uneasy end in L.A.


Madame de Villeneuve’s The Story of the Beauty and the Beast: The Original Classic French Fairytale

Marie Laure Girou Swiderski, “La Belle et la Bête? Madame de Villeneuve, la Méconnue,” Femmes savants et femmes d’esprit: Women Intellectuals of the French Eighteenth Century, edited by Roland Bonnel and Catherine Rubinger

Pierre Bagot, Marie Le Prince de Beaumont, lettres à Thomas Pichon

J. C. Webster, Thomas Pichon, “the spy of Beausejour,” an account of his career in Europe and America



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