Posts tagged Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve
What do Shipwrecks, Pirates, and House Fires Have in Common?

In Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve's The Story of Beauty and the Beast (1740), Beauty's father wasn't an inventor but a merchant; and he was wealthy enough that his six daughters could count on marrying their pick of any number of barons, dukes, or earls. Until one day,

there suddenly came a reverse of fortune, which was the last thing these girls expected, and which sadly troubled the peacefulness of their life. The house in which they lived took fire. The splendid furniture with which it was filled, all the books of account, the bank-notes, the gold and silver, as well as all the precious stores, which formed the merchant's chief source of wealth, were enveloped in the disastrous conflagration the violence of which was such that scarcely anything was saved. (1) 

The daughters' marriage prospects might have been salvageable but they vanished entirely when their father lost at "the same time, either by shipwreck or through falling into the hands of pirates, all the ships that he had at sea" (1). So the question (for this faux-researcher/character in my dissertation) becomes: What kind of merchant was he? We know he housed goods in his own home, he owned ships, and he imported, exported, or both, over waters dangerous enough that his ships could be wrecked or taken by pirates. 

In Provisioning Paris: Merchants and Millers in the Grain and Flour Trade During the Eighteenth Century, Steven L. Kaplan opens with: 

Cereal dependence conditioned every phase of social life in old-regime France. Grain was the dominant sector of the economy; beyond its determinant role in agriculture, direction and indirectly it shaped the development of commerce and industry, regulated employment, and provided a major source of revenue for the state, the Church, the nobility, and large segments of the Third Estate. Subsistence needs gave cereal dependence its most telling expression. The survival of most of the people turned on the availability of grain. Yet nothing was more uncertain than the harvest, and even an apparently abundant harvest could not allay anxieties, for the process of distribution was fraught with perils, both natural and man-made. (7)

As I read more of Kaplan's 600-plus page brick of a book, I became somewhat interested in trying to make a case for Beauty's father being a grain merchant. But I think what really made me pursue the idea was that, on a recent-ish "jog" with J. I. Daniels, I was informed that flour is explosive. Here's a video of Mr. Wizard explaining why flour mills explode. Here's one of flour exploding in slow motion. And another of a flour powered flame thrower. If this isn't enough to convince you, too, that it could be pretty cool to open my dissertation with the scene of the merchant's house burning down due to multiple flour explosions, then how on earth are you finding yourself here, this far into this blog post? 

Unfortunately, Kaplan also has a chapter called "Miller Family, Marriage, and Fortune," and after reading this chapter, I'm not at all sure that a grain merchant's daughters would ever be courted by noblemen. Kaplan writes: "The richest miller about whom I have any precise information is Etienne Palleau, of the Dourdan area. He left an estate of over 60,000 livres, including 10,000 livres in cash, a mill worth 10,000 livres, almost 12,000 livres in other real estate, wine worth 1,000 livres, wheat valued at 3,369 livres (some probably of his own cultivation), and over 7,000 livres in furnishings and effects, including 800 livres of silver" (333). But maybe my merchant can also deal in "furnishings and effects," whatever those are, and "other real estate." Wine, too, seems an obvious contender, right? 

New research question: Did 18th Century pirates drink wine? 

Working Bibliography — The History of Beauty & the Beast: A Biography

(updated December 2018)

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Kahn, Madeleine. Narrative Transvestism: Rhetoric and Gender in the Eighteenth-Century English Novel. Cornell UP, 1991.

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Project Proposal — The History of Beauty and the Beast: A Biography

My novel, The History of Beauty and the Beast: A Biography, is a retelling of Madame de Villeneuve’s The Story of Beauty and the Beast (published in 1740). Villeneuve and her “original”—about whether Beauty will consent to have sex with the Beast—have been forgotten by history. My novel aims to recover the life story of author-salonnière Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and to restore to her tale her 18th-Century proto-feminist philosophy. My PhD dissertation situates itself between serious literature and mass-market fairy-tale romance, between the folkloric historiography of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 425C and the bestselling genre of historical fiction, between novel and biography and the intersection of these in the mimetic-parodic literary tradition of fictional biographies, such as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography (1928) and Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, Told by a Friend (1947).

In the Author’s Preface to The History of Beauty and the Beast: A Biography, “I” am my novel’s first 1st-person narrator, and I ask if we really need another retelling of Beauty and the Beast. I quote fairy tale scholar Maria Tatar, who claims: “That every culture seems to tell ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in one fashion or another suggests it is part of our DNA. We make the story new so we can think more and think harder about the stakes in partnerships and marriages.”[1] I also refer to critic Jerry Griswold, who believes its “popularity over time suggests its importance. The oldest version [… is Apuleius’s] ‘Cupid and Psyche,’” which appeared around 150 A.D. but drew on Greek versions derived from India’s “The Woman Who Married a Snake,” which “existed in oral form before its appearance in print in 500 A.D.” The story’s “endurance” for “more than two millennia,” Griswold contends, is one reason for its “significance and power” — as well as its “geographical distribution” the world over and its appeal to mainstream and marginalized child and adult audiences.[2]

In the next section, the Introduction, I go on to explain that the goal of my retelling is to re-narrativize our commonly held belief about the historical rise of the novel. I aim to reach Creative Writing, English, Folklore, and Literary History professors who might teach my book. Chapter by chapter, I will chronologically mimic and integrate the traditions of the 18th-Century novel; the 19th-Century’s Gothic, social realist, and Decadent novels; 20th-Century Modernist novels; 21st-Century Postmodernist novels. My retelling of Beauty and the Beast will provide professors, students, book clubs, and casual readers with a step-by-step model that traces the development of the Western novel from the 18th Century to today. From this new context I provide, I hope English majors in particular can further appreciate the objectives of their required “Survey of English Literature” courses. I hope they will enjoy reading my novel, but also that they will discuss and debate the literary, historical, creative, and artistic issues it raises.

In my Prologue, I reveal a new 1st-person narrator (Villeneuve’s biographer) and an editor who points out that Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (also about a young beauty imprisoned in a country estate by a beastly “Mr. B”) was also published in 1740. This footnote propels my novel’s first sub-narrative, about Pamela’s spinoff products, “critiques, parodies, translations, plays […], and several sequels.”[3] Our editor will further compare the production of Pamela-inspired ephemera to Beauty and the Beast’s transmedial phenomena. Villeneuve, however, in her Eighteenth-Century Paris salon — our biographer interjects — could not have known the extent to which her story would endure. My Prologue becomes the opening frame of my novel proper, with Villeneuve in her salon the night she begins telling “La Belle et la Bête.”

In chapter one, Villeneuve becomes our third 1st-person narrator (fourth, if we count our editor). She opens with the misfortunes of Beauty’s father, a merchant whose ships have been pillaged by pirates, and tells how he and his children are forced to relocate from a city “not far from here” to their country house that “might well be considered the saddest abode in the world.” Our editor tells us this is significant because Villeneuve’s tale is set neither “far away” nor “long ago,” making it the first of its kind to place its characters in the author’s own space and time. This may reflect Villeneuve’s awareness of her audience’s receptivity, as she satirizes the merchant’s friends who were “so cruel as to attribute [his] misfortunes to his own bad conduct.”[4] Her jab at victim-blamers mirrors Henry Fielding’s contemporaneous notes/manifesto toward the new novel, in which he states the satirist might punch up but never down.

In The Inward Turn of Narrative, Erich Kahler states that in the 18th century, “the ego engaged in monologue and dialogue became the vehicle of the new narrative.”[5] Villeneuve, then, a historical figure recast as character-who-narrates in my own novel, employs the same playful monologuing as Fielding, and, in dialoguing with her salon-audience, she digresses like Laurence Sterne — which our editor identifies as the main reason Villeneuve’s version never stuck (and why Disney adapted instead Madame de Beaumont’s much-abridged 1756 version). Reveling in Cervantes’ and Fielding’s subplots, and Sterne’s anti-plot shenanigans, Villeneuve in my retelling joins the ranks of these men who famously inaugurated the rise of the novel.[6]

In chapter two, when Beauty’s father receives his death sentence, my novel turns Gothic. I will draw from Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria; or, The Wrongs of Woman so that my editor-character can investigate Diane Long Hoeveler’s claim that Wollstonecraft’s “devices—hyperbole, dramatic self-stagings, repeated presentation of heroines as victims, [… are] very similar to [those] employed by later female Gothic novelists.” I wish to examine the father’s emasculation as well as this chapter’s potential to highlight “the Gothic’s role in reforming class attitudes, in defining appropriate behavior for both sexes, and in codifying literature’s role as an ideological system that operates to shape and enforce what we now call values in society.” [7]

In chapter three, the Gothic turns Romantic when Beast sends his white horse to bring Beauty to the castle, where she is greeted with fireworks, gardens filled with unseasonably fruiting trees, costumed monkeys pantomiming Renaissance dramas (hidden parrots beneath wigs performing the voices), and his library that houses every book ever written and every book yet to be written. In this epistolary chapter, Beauty’s letters are laments about how she has only her imagination for company. Terrorized by Beast’s request to let him sleep with her, she nightly answers, “No,” which prompts our editor to remind us of Beaumont’s revision, “Will you marry me?” I cannot overstate the importance of restoring Villeneuve’s original. Her boar-headed, lion-tailed, lizard-scaled Beast understands the meaning of consent—unlike Richardson’s refined Mr. B., whose repeated attempts to rape Pamela will go neither unmentioned nor unpunished in my dissertation.

Chapter four, in which Beast insists that Beauty go home, is written as 19th-Century social realism with a dash of decadence. The chapter begins with a nod to Madame Bovary, briefly utilizing the 1st-person plural of Beauty’s five sisters who sabotage her return to the castle. Their point of view — their disinterested Des Essientes-style cataloging of the fine clothes and jewels they wear (thanks to Beast’s generosity, owed to Beauty’s self-sacrifice), their lavish living arrangements, their petty amusements and desires for suitors with titles — transforms into a Bleak House-inspired 3rd-person narrator whose judgments are harsh and unfailingly unforgiving, drawing attention to social norms, mores, hierarchies not usually observed.

Chapter five — my modernist episode — is told from Beast’s close 3rd-“person” point of view. Like Gregor Samsa, he wakes in his monstrous form. His stream-of-consciousness is as fragmented as his body: transported into a memory of overtaking and ripping open the throat of a doe, he smells the sweat and fear of prey the way Marcel tastes tea; he speaks, when he speaks, like Gertrude Stein, stuttering interrogatives to determine whether Beauty is satisfied with his castle’s objects, rooms, and food; he thinks like Beckett’s Unnameable, in the ever-present, consumed by his inability to communicate, to comprehend his body; he desires obsessively like Humbert Humbert; yet he observes, always, like the narrator of Jealousy, from the outside looking in; and, finally, like Gregor, he “[hangs] on until […] his last feeble breath,” and dies.[8]

In chapter six, my postmodernist episode, Beauty is in the library — reading every version of her own story she can find. She has perhaps just arrived at the castle, and, having discovered Beast’s library, begun poking around only to encounter a novel, and then another and another, that uncannily features a young heroine resembling herself. Perhaps we too have been reading an assemblage of different texts written in different times. The many Beauties born over the past two millennia are all gathered in my final chapter; and certainly they must differ from one another in ways I imagine will be fun to reshape and recontextualize as I cut and paste from as many variants of the animal bridegroom tale as I can find. For in my own retelling, I wish to defer to these and to the other texts mentioned here. In so doing, I will produce a novel that is itself in a constant state of transformation, a demonstration of my desire to obliterate boundaries between literary time periods, forms, and genres; and a challenge to myself at this point in my career to strive toward a stylistic range I have never dreamed of undertaking—a manuscript indebted to my PhD education at the University of Utah and to those most enduring novels that have so magically and beautifully inspired me while here.


[1] Maria Tatar, Beauty and the Beast: Classic Tales about Animal Brides and Grooms from Around the World, Penguin Books, 2017, p. ix.

[2] Jerry Griswold, The Meanings of “Beauty and the Beast”: A Handbook, Broadview Press, 2004, p. 15.

[3] James Grantham Turner, “Richardson and His Circle,” The Columbia History of the British Novel, edited by John J. Richetti, Columbia UP, 1994, p. 76.

[4] Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, The Story of Beauty and the Beast, translated by Ernest Christopher Dowson, John Lane Company, 1740, pp. 1, 2-3, 5.

[5] Erich Kahler, The Inward Turn of Narrative, Northwestern UP, 1973, p. 148.

[6] Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. Chatto & Windus, 1957.

[7] Diane Long Hoeveler, “Teaching the Early Female Canon,” Approaches to Teaching Gothic Fiction: The British and American Traditions, edited by Diane Long Hoeveler and Tamar Heller, MLA, 2003, p. 105.

[8] Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, B&N, 2003, p. 48.