The brains behind 'Beauty and the Beast'

Anchorage Daily NewsJanuary 7, 2012 

The musical "Beauty and the Beast," which opens at Atwood Concert Hall on Thursday, has a distinguished pedigree. Brilliant composers, directors and writers have been drawn to the fable. The Disney film on which the musical is based was the first animated movie to receive an Academy Award nomination for best picture.

Yet few artists associated with "Beauty and the Beast" are as interesting -- and unknown -- as Jeanne Marie Leprince de Beaumont (various spellings can be found), the woman who gave us the most familiar version of the story.

Though the plot type appears in ancient folklore (both the Nordic "East of the Sun and West of the Moon" and the Alaska Native "Woman Who Married a Bear" are variants) and others published accounts before hers, Beaumont's "Beauty" is the one we know. It has made her the most-read female author of the 18th century and remains so famous that she's regularly credited with creating the whole fairy tale from scratch.

Yet, in a sense, she did.

Belle, the "Beauty," is different from Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel and other characters who largely endure their troubles until they can be rescued. She has to make hard choices, look beyond convention, take action and discern what's real by employing her own well-trained brain.

A lot like Beaumont herself.

REMARKABLE CAREER

Beaumont was born in 1711 in Rouen, France, to a lower middle-class family that experienced poverty. Brothers and sisters were shipped off to orphanages and disappeared. When her mother died, 11-year-old Jeanne Marie was sent to a convent where she was able to study and then teach.

She became the instructor to the children of a local noble. She lived a fairly lavish life and, some say, indulged in several romantic adventures.

When she married, her employer paid a generous dowry to her husband. But the groom blew the money on revels. The marriage was annulled -- not a minute too soon for Beaumont, as her ex would eventually die from venereal disease.

The dissolution left her destitute. She accepted work as a governess in England, where every rich girl had to be fluent in French. There she began a remarkable international literary career.

Beaumont's epistolary novels -- fiction written in the form of an exchange of letters -- and her collections of essays and didactic stories that she called "magazines," earned her a following throughout Europe. A publisher as well as an author, she edited work by Voltaire among other contributors.

Her contemporaries placed her "serious" books alongside the works of Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom she influenced.

She remarried and, after 16 years in England, returned to the continent where she lived comfortably and wrote profusely. She's thought to have died in 1780.

NO FLUFF, NO SNARK

Two themes dominate Beaumont's writing. One is her conviction that a tolerant but orthodox moral Christianity, open to scientific discovery and dedicated to human rights, is necessary for civilization. (Voltaire stormed out of her literary stable after disputes over religion and, undoubtedly, his own caustic tongue.)

The other is that girls should be educated to the same standards as boys.

When she arrived in England, she was outraged by the fluff being taught to young ladies in lieu of literature, logic, science and arithmetic. Many of her pieces are dialogues between wise woman and female students who are encouraged to think through problems.

That note is sounded in the first lines of "Beauty" when we're told that Belle's father "being a man of sense ... spared no cost for (his children's) education." Belle's older sisters mock her "because she spends the greatest part of her time in reading good books."

When the father falls on hard times and must move with his family to the country, Belle gets up at 4 a.m. to do the chores and "after she had done her work, she read."

Finding herself at the Beast's castle, she is less impressed by the magnificence of the decorations than by "a large library, a harpsichord and several music books."

The Beast, too, is a sober spirit. "I don't like flattery, and I prefer people say what they think," he remarks. He and Belle converse "very rationally, with plain good common sense, but never with what the world calls wit."

Beaumont didn't have much use for wit, which we might call "glibness" or "snark." One of Belle's sisters "married a man of wit, but he only made use of it to plague and torment everybody, and his wife most of all."

She didn't have much use for Belle's jealous, rude, prideful sisters, either, calling them "wicked creatures" so insincere that they "rubbed their eyes with an onion to force some tears when they parted with their sister."

In her telling, these sisters scheme to keep her from the Beast and are eventually turned into statues, immobile but still sentient and tormented by Belle's happiness. They might break the spell by repenting, but the author holds out slim hope for that. "Pride, anger, gluttony and idleness are sometimes conquered, but the conversion of a malicious and envious mind is a kind of miracle," she writes.

MODEL OF HUMANITY

Contemporary taste may find Beaumont a little preachy, in the style of the era. But her admonitions stem from pragmatic observation.

Though fully able to whip out a snippy riposte, Beaumont preferred clarity and simplicity in her prose. That's one of the reasons her "Beauty and the Beast" is the one the world has embraced.

The first published account of the tale, by another French novelist, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, was long and aimed at adult readers. It involved wars, evil seductresses and heaps of coincidence. Her heroine is revealed to be the long lost offspring of a king and a fairy.

In contrast, Beaumont's Belle is neither a noble woman nor a lucky peasant, but the daughter of a merchant whose misfortunes come about not because of enchantments or battles but because of lawsuits. Academics note that a true middle class heroine is almost unheard of in the fairy tale genre.

Though Beaumont borrowed many of Villeneuve's elements, she boiled the story down to its essentials and made it more real. For example, instead of a spell-breaking kiss or tears, Belle revives the nearly dead Beast with a no-nonsense bucket of water poured on his face.

A woman of the enlightenment, Beaumont downplayed magic. Supernatural elements were included, but incidental to the main thrust -- recognizing the good qualities of the inner person. In her version the real transformation is not in the monster, but in the intelligent girl who reasons that virtue is what counts in a husband and in life.

Aside from "Beauty and the Beast" and a few similar fairy tales remembered, mostly, in France, Beaumont is little read today.

Recent feminist scholars, however, are taking a renewed interest in Beaumont's writings and educational philosophies. And the literary world is slowly rediscovering a thinker who was a model of humanity, talent, self-control and -- as she described Belle -- "the mistress of a great deal of resolution."


Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332

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