Jane Austen and “La Belle et la Bête”

September 19, 2014

French-born Madame Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (1711-1780) introduced a folk motif that resonated in Jane Austen’s novels when she created an English translation of the short adult novel La Belle et la Bête by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (1695-1755) in her three-volume set of dialogues called The Young Misses Magazine published in 1757. Mme. de Beaumont’s informal style established the literary fairy tale as a popular genre for moral instruction. American folklorist Stith Thompson in his six-volume Motif-Index of Folk Literature (1932-37) classified “Beauty and the Beast” as a tale of disenchantment (Thompson 1955: D735.1). In Barbot de Villeneuve’s version, the Beast is genuinely savage, and in Leprince de Beaumont’s version the mesmeric façade of human ugliness is unmasked and reduced to its native nothingness. Love is conceived as Beauty to re-searches the Beast’s actions to discover the characteristics of an attractive life partner.

Austen, who built drama in her plots by placing characters in conversations sometimes inconsistent with societal expectations for class behavior, would have been quite at home with the themes of magnetism and virtue entwined in this story of disenchantment. Fear of the appearance of ugliness was a fictional inter-generational issue in many of Austen domestic conflicts. In the fairy tale, Beauty is metaphorically removed from that which protects her and placed in a radically different conversation in the Beast’s enchanted environment. Beauty is initially frightened of the Beast and remains obedient to his apparent power until the moment she is given the power of choice that comes with the rite of passage into marriage. The Beast’s apparent ugliness places him in a position of having to act upon his indigenous goodness where there is no material compensation or upward mobility. The structure of this motif obliges Beauty to reject what she would normally be eager to accept as a good husband. Fielding and Beaumont constructed dialogues to educate and enlighten, and they paved the way for other women to write conversations for female readers about history, philosophy, and science. Austen took classic themes embedded in this story and embellished them subtly to craft realistic fairy tale resolutions for her heroines.

Bibliography

Thompson, Stith. Motif-index of folk literature: a classification of narrative elements in folktales, ballads, myths, mediaeval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jest books, and local legends. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955.

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