As Sophie Allera points out in her excellent casebook on La Belle et La Bête, editorial scrupulousness has never been a priority among those who publish fairy tales or other matter intended for children. And thus small changes percolate, coming up from under the surface like bubbles in a child’s fizzy drink, evolving new words from misprints, upsetting the rattletrap apparatus of punctuation, and of course suffering from the heavy hand of what is tellable to children and what is not, a set of norms that has changed even in my time. Thus, the story that appeared in La Magasin des enfants in 1756, an apparent transformation, itself, of the beast of the 300 some page baroque novel by Madame de Villeneuve, is not only about metamophosis (and it is in shapeshifting that one encounters at least one of the gods, as I pointed out in my last post), but is its product. What would Jeanne Marie Leprince de Beaumont (who has so disappeared to history, until recently, that you can read accounts in which she is airily described as an aristocrat) have thought about all this? There was an older view of LePrince de Beaumont in which she figured as nearly protestant – after all, Rouen, where she was born, was a stronghold of Jansenism, and she did move to England after annulling her marriage to her husband, a supposedly notorious libertine. She was known in her time for her indefatigable pen – and though, as Restif de la Bretonne pointed out, Voltaire borrowed from La Belle for the ‘denouement d’un de ses plus agreeable ouvrages’ (Le Taureau Blanc), his remarks about her are typically dismissive – he wrote of “one Madame de Beaumont-le-prince who makes a type of catechism for you ladies”.
My last post presented a case for Hermes as the god that Calasso neglects in his mention of the forgetting of the gods in 18th century France, and for dilating a bit on the paradox of the introduction, at the same time, of the modern and the fairy tale, a theme I return to from time to time. Allera writes: “This book proposes simply to show that, as obscurely distant as are the sources of La Belle et la Bête, it was a tale of the Enlightenment, of which the properly literary fortune begin in France under Louis XV, when it knew many printed versions that placed it at the center of aesthetic debates.”
In her comments to my last post, Amie pretty much said what I am going to say here. However, this is Sunday morning, when “Complacencies of the peignoir, and late/
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair” are allowed – as well as, I suppose, complacencies in the reading of la Belle et la Bête. Take not away my redundancies! For surely, in an easy entretien, they are no crime.
I’ve read somewhere – was it in Barthes? That the eighteenth century was the last time that a writer could put pen to paper and placidly expect to write well. This may be more nostalgic than true – it is certain that the eighteenth century produced enough dull sermons that if you plunged into them, the splendor of the dying l’age classique might seem a bit rusty. However, it is certainly true that Leprince de Beaumont’s story is so beautifully written, in a sort of sweep, that one is hardly aware of it at all. I’ve thought about this even more since watching Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête – which also has a mythic sweep, even though, at every moment, one is aware of Cocteau. In a sense, though - to give Calasso credit – there is a higher awareness of myth as myth in the high modernism of the twentieth century. The ethnography of the last hundred years has been absorbed by the artist. There is a moment of pure plot in the Beaumont version after the merchant has been condemned to death by the beast for stealing a rose (with that marvelous piece of dialogue, that Cocteau retains, in which the beast, responding to the merchant’s plea of monseigneur, pardon me, cries, I am not monseigneur, I am the Beast; I don’t like compliments. Cocteau has the beast repeat this as the merchant forgets himself and calls him monseigneur again – and this, against the background of the beasts of the twentieth century, and so much vain pleading in the prisons of the GPU and the Gestapo, makes absolute sense) – yes, anyway, after that terrific scene, Beaumont backtracks:
“The good man did not plan to sacrifice one of his daughters to this vile beast, but he thought, at least, I will have the pleasure of embracing them one more time. He thus swore to return, and the beast told him he could leave when he wished: but he added, I don’t want you to return home emptyhanded. Return to the room in which you slept, you will find a great empty strongbox, you can put as much as you want into it, I’ll have it brought to you.”
This is an essential plot point – for that strongbox contains the fortune that redeems the merchant and his bad daughters. But Cocteau – as I say, more mythic in this instance - annuls this moment. Rather, the merchant is ordered to depart immediately. And not having any wealth, his daughters do not marry a beautiful man and a man full of esprit – the negative complements of the Beast.
Beaumont’s narrative, here, reaches out to the novel and conte – it is indeed a fairy tale of Enlightenment. Belle, for instance, is a reader – and unlike the prudish Furies of respectability who will later seed fairy tales with sad encouragements to female piety and stupidity by warning girls away from reading, Belle is given to us as a girl who is all the better for her reading. This attaches our story, by that most Marchen-like of bonds, the invisible thread, to Beaumont. According to her biographer, Genevieve Artigas-Menant, in the first issue of the journal that Beaumont edited from London, she commented on herself:
In 1750, at 39, having lived in London for two years, this French woman of Rouen published a monthly journal of forty pages from the printing house of François Changuion, Juvenal’s head, near Fountain Court in the Strand. The announcement that opened the first number in January exhibited a humorous portrait of the “author female” who confesses that she would rather “write a book, including the preface, and even, if it comes to that, a dedicatory epistle, than place a ribbon”, adding: It is my decided incapacity for that sublime science which forced me to go out and find less elevated occupations.”
Already the humorous inflection, which betrays the negative impress of respectability and all its demonic voices, voices more powerful than the beast. Surely Beaumont is in the lineage that extends to Jane Austin and beyond.
But one last remark about the Cocteau version of Beaumont’s story. While in Beaumont, the beast’s animal nature is reflected by the sigh, the rending sigh he gives each time he asks for Belle’s hand, and is refused, the two hundred years that had passed had brought about an understanding of the genius of details. Cocteau takes the animal and gives him animal traits – and it is here that, I must admit, the movie is superior. When the Beast laps up water, and goes on all fours loping across the field – here myth and detail, myth and rationality, are joined. Not for Cocteau a beast who can hoist a glass of wine.
But both versions join together in the end. When the Beast is transformed into a prince, in Beaumont’s tale – as Cocteau notes in his diary of the movie – Belle, for a second, looks around for the beast. It is the beast she has learned to ‘estime’, not this prince. Belle, to the end, is a woman of the soundest instincts.