Posts tagged Mary Wollstonecraft
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.

NOTES

[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.

Virtue, and the Doctor's Wife, Revisited

Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment, Romantic, Gothic, Victorian, and Decadent readings behind me, I'm just now diving into the Modernists. Over the next few days, I'll be thinking about Death In Venice, Swann's Way, Ulysses, Orlando, As I Lay Dying, Nightwood, and Ficciones; but because these texts mark such a huge shift from the thousands of pages of (French/Russian) realism and (Gothic/Decadent) psychological realism I've been lost in recently, I want to sort of gather my thoughts here with a post on where I've been and where I think I might be going.

(Also, having copied and pasted this entire blog into a Word doc earlier today, for fear of losing my only record of exam "notes," I horrifiedly share that I've written about 38,000 words, close to 200 double-spaced pages. Yikes, right? I know. Anyway. . . )

One of the most obvious lines of inquiry to develop over the course of my historical reading, from The Odyssey to Anna Karenina, has dealt with representations in literature of wives, mistresses, and whores. Conveniently, these correlate respectively to liminal, marginal, and inferior subject positions of female characters; and common to all three is the significance of their so-called "virtue." Thanks to Mary Wollstonecraft, who often noted that "virtue" comes from the Latin word for "strength," I offer that wives, mistresses, and whores are equally virtuous — equally strong — women: 

Penelope (un)weaves. 

Job's wife stays. 

Sappho rewrites (Homer). 

Nelly Dean orates. 

The Wife of Bath divorces but the Princess of Cleves does not. 

Griselda endures.

Pamela resists but Shamela cons the system. 

Minerva represents us all, especially Maria, Jemima, all three Madame Bovarys, and the Minyades.

Anne Carson eulogizes and Gertrude Stein makes objects subjects.

Tristram's mother labors, Grete joins the labor force.

Emma believes, and Anna leaves.

Emily Brontë punches. 

And the doctor's wife takes charge. In my earlier post, I worried that I'd fooled myself, that she wasn't the strong female figure I'd always thought her to be. I wondered if more than anything else she had resigned herself to 24/7 mothering her husband and a band of strangers. While I am not abandoning those concerns, I acknowledge here that she is an incredible woman. Recognizing that I read Blindness way out of order, and that there are still several decades of history and writers and female characters and speakers ahead of me before she actually appears, I consider her now a tower of a character, a Minerva endowed with the wisdom and strength of all the women in literature who precede her. I've always loved her. I love her still. And not least of all because, in what I am sure is one of the most graphic and disturbing scenes in any of my exam texts, she takes sewing shears and stabs a serial rapist in the throat, while he is raping another woman, after he and his crew have systematically raped every other woman, healthy or infirm — every young woman, every single woman, every sister, every mother, every wife, every widow — in the building. 

A few days ago, I said, we can't look away from the characters we don't like or whom we fear, for instance, rapists and murderers, because they are in the world and we shouldn't ignore (or encourage) evil by turning a blind eye. We shouldn't gawk, curiously, either (like God in the Book of Job). If we need a model for how to proceed, we might look no further than Saramago's Blindness, in which the doctor's wife becomes more than a rape victim and more than a witness; the doctor's wife becomes jury, judge, and executioner. Yes, she becomes a murderer, and whether or not she is acting in self defense and/or to protect the helpless, are her actions justified? Should anyone, ever, under any circumstances, take the law into her own hands? Where do we draw the line for premeditated exceptions? And how does Saramago utilize the third-person narrator's distance to portray the event? Like a defense lawyer's, is his version of events intended to sway us? If yes, how? If no, is he objective and how and why would he have chosen to remain so for this? The ambiguity and the nuances are up to us, the readers, to consider.

And, as writers, if we have any interest in furthering the tradition of those great big sweeping epic social novels of the past, and if we wish to write them for our time, then like them we cannot look away. As Saramago's epigraph commands (from the Book of Exhortations): "If you can see, look. If you can look, observe." We must — we writers — like the doctor's wife who is graced and cursed with sight in a country of blindness, see, look, observe, acknowledge, assist, and, when necessary, with our words, avenge. We must attend. And we would do well to remember, too, what Annie Dillard once said: "Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?"  

Ruined by Reading (Romance Novels)

The first time I read Madame Bovary, a few summers ago, my reaction was basically: Oh! It's readable. (Meaning: it's not written in the archaic language I'd been expecting.) And I liked it. Which is about all I remember now of the experience. 

Earlier this summer, I reread it and felt some sort of sisterly affection for Emma. I sympathized with her. But I read her existence mostly as one of three Madame Bovarys, and I thought a lot about "fate" and how, for Emma, there weren't a whole lot of options for what a Madame Bovary could be. Then I met with Rachel and Ed and listened to them talk about the bourgeoise and provincial life and the balcony-and-manure scene. I pretty much always fail to see the humor in anything, so the comic element in their conversation was for the most part lost on me. Alas. After that discussion, though, I went home and reread Madame Bovary and tried to read it as if I, too, thought Emma an empty-hearted, empty-minded joke of a character at whose expense Flaubert had made ironic fun. Even still, I thought more of Emma than that. She's complicated, I believed, really she is! She's a fully realized female character! I left it at that but skimmed one last time, just to mark the passages detailing (those evil) romance novels that ruin her life.

Ever since Don Quixote, my historical list has been a veritable whirlwind of characters ruined by reading: Pamela is accused of having stuffed her head full of romantic novel foolishness, which is the cause of her hysterics; Francesca and Paolo end up in hell for reading about Lancelot and Guinevere; Tristram never lets us forget we're reading his book; Rousseau confesses everything about everything he's ever read, ever; Maria's books are a sort of balm to soothe a hurt, but only because what else is there to do when your husband's thrown you into an insane asylum?; Frankenstein's ruined by his education just as Doctor Faustus was ruined by his; Lockwood reads Cathy's diary and shrieks when her ghost appears, then goes back to Thrushcross Grange and writes in his diary, which in turn ruins us (can you keep it all together by the end?), not to mention Anne Carson; Moby-Dick's infected by about 80+ texts and a sub-sub library before we even get to "Call me Ishmael"; Esther's full of fairy tales she retells on the way to Bleak House; the Underground Man just can't even with Chernyshevsky's crystal palace — because really, what is to be done?; Dorian goes down thanks to the "yellow book," within which Des Essientes goes wild about the Satyricon; the governess's screwy story on those pages turning in hands we never see again is super creepy; young Marcel involuntarily remembers a whole childhood of reading. . . .

And now, also, Anna (Karenina), who wastes no time finding a train after that fateful ball and desperately rushes home (with her red bag! Honestly, Tolstoy leaves no detail to whimsy; even the figurative pistol in I.VII literally goes off in IV.XVIII). And we're told: "At first she could not read" — because she was distracted by all the activity around her. But later:

Anna read, and understood what she read; but the reading, that is, the necessity of entering into the lives of other people, became intolerable to her. She had too keen a desire to live for herself.

At this point, we might be thinking: Ah, she's rejecting books! But no:

She read how the heroine of her story took care of the sick: she would have liked to go with noiseless steps into the sick-room. She read how an M.P. made a speech: she would have liked to make that speech. She read how Lady Mary rode horseback, and astonished everyone by her boldness: she would have liked to do the same. 

Which, basically, she does from that point forward (astonish everyone by her boldness). And now that I've finished Anna Karenina, I can't help but think that Emma Bovary really is empty-hearted and empty-minded. Anna's so full of life. She saves, she reasons, she plays, she flirts, she dances, she runs, she reads, she thinks, she mothers, she lies, she loves, she confesses, she leaves, she lives, she fears, she struggles, she dreams, she dies, etc. And all around her all the characters in all the locales all over the country are all full of life and fully realized, too. Like Bleak HouseAnna Karenina is a sweeping panoramic view of a nation in a revolutionary time, a kaleidoscopic, epic in scope, weaving of the stories of the many lives ruled by blood, marriage, society, government, history, and protest, and the subsequent unweaving and re-weaving of those many lives with necessary births and deaths along the way. Madame Bovary is not. "Manure!" I understand now. 

So what are we to make of all our reading about characters reading and being ruined by reading mostly romance novels? To be honest, I don't really know. I guess, at this point, I just keep thinking: Isn't every novel a romance novel? If not, why do we insist upon asking students: What do your characters want? Desire, longing, yearning, wanting, needing — these aren't limited to "romantic" content or even content period. They're the structural scaffolding on which we build and layer our stories. Our characters either get what they want (comedy), or they don't (tragedy). And everything until the end is romance (a twenty-year journey home, a dance, a game, a nightmare, a dream) filled with obstacles — which is (isn't it?) to say: plot.