Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s The Beauty and the Beast is the earliest known version of the tale and it is probably very different from what you might expect. The length of the novel, it covers the fortunes of the merchant and his six sons and six daughters. the backstory of the Beast and his kingdom, the histories of a few neighboring kingdoms, and the politics and magic of the Fairies who travel the world doing good deeds. At times it feels convoluted and at other times a little dated. Still, fans of the story will enjoy reading its first appearance.
Perhaps most remarkable in this tale is the emphasis on Beauty’s virtue in rewarding generosity against her personal inclinations. In dreams she sees a handsome prince who begs her to save him by looking beyond appearance. She imagines the Beast imprisons him and longs to rescues him. Each night, however, the beast, who is also rather stupid, asks her to marry him. But because the beast try to satisfy all her desires by giving her access to every room in the palace, birds to sing to her and monkeys to wait to her, and a glass that allows her to attend operas and plays around the world. Beauty feels the beast must not be as mean as he appears. She longs to please him and to reward his generosity. A very different story from Disney’s version.
Adding to this are a few chapters of convoluted backstory that do not, I feel, add much to the story, besides playing into the idea that virtue often comes with class. Were you wondering why Beauty is so king and generous whilst her sisters are spoiled, greedy, envious, and mean? It’s because she’s really the offspring of royalty. And thus a fitting bride for the prince. Yes, there’s alot of talk about how you don’t need to be well-born to be worthy but having Beauty be well-born after all undercuts that message message pretty thoroughly. However, I think that readers will be fascinated by differences in this tale from more familiar versions, and may even find themselves interested in the politivs described in the final chapters.
The illustrated version of MinaLina and published by HarperDesign adds to the magic and beauty of the tale with the gorgeous images as well as the “interactive elements” that include fold-out maps, pop-op scenery, a ring like Beauty’s to turn, and more. The edition is really quite well-done, appearing very handsome on the shelf with a cover reminiscent of imitation leather, embossed text and designs, and some gold accents. The inside is full of illustrations from little designs by each page number to illuminated letters at the start of chapters to a number of full-page illustrations. It’s the type of book you’ll love to hold and look at, even when not reading it.
The version of Beauty and the Beast has quite a few surprises in store for readers. Not only is the story very different, but the prose is very much a product of its time. Readers who dislike unfamiliar syntax or an emphasis on promoting virtue might not find the story to their taste. However, those interested in fairy tales or even in a beautiful and fantastic tale will find much to enjoy.