The tale of Beauty and the Beast was first collected in Gianfranceso Straparola’s Le piacevolo notti (The Nights of Straparola)1550-53. The earliest French version is an ancient Basque tale where the father was a king and the beast a serpent. Charles Perrault popularized the fairy tale with his collection Contes de ma mere l’oye (Tales of Mother Goose) in 1697. The 17th century Pentamerone is also said to include similar tales.
The first truly similar tale to the one we know today was published in 1740 by MadameGabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Gallon de Villeneuve as part of a collection of stories La jeune amériquaine, et les contes marins (told by an old woman during a long sea voyage). Mme. de Villeneuve wrote fairy tale romances drawn from earlier literature and folk tales for the entertainment of her salon friends.
Almost half of the Villeneuve story revolves around warring fairies and the lengthy history of theparentage of both Beauty and the Prince. Beauty is one of 12 children, her stepfather is a merchant, her real father being the King of the Happy Isles. The Queen of the Happy Isles is both Beauty’s mother and the Dream Fairy Sister. Villeneuve also made various digs at the many enforced marriages that women had to submit to, and her Beauty ponders that many women are made to marry men far morebeastly than her Beast. The story was 362 pages long.
French aristocrat Madame Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont (1711 - 1780) emigrated to England in 1745 where she established herself as a tutor and writer of books on education and morals. She took Mme. de Villeneuve’s tale and shortened it, publishing it in 1756 as part of a collection entitled Magasin des enfants. Although taking all the keyelements from the Mme. de Villeneuve story, Mme. de Beaumont omits some dream sequences and the fact that in the original the transformation to handsome prince takes place after the wedding night. Intended as a lesson for her students, some of the subversive edges were polished off the story. It is pretty well the version we consider traditional today. Mme. Le Prince de Beaumont’s story wastranslated into English as The Young Misses Magazine, Containing Dialogues between a Governess and Several Young Ladies of Quality, Her Scholars (1757).
The French tradition of the time was to unfold stories in a more everyday situation, with a tendency to substitute dramatic development founded on human emotions in place of actions based on magic forces. They eliminated whatever was bloody or cruel andrelied on a story with direct action and without accessory actions, a style sober and unadorned. French storytellers subjected traditional stories to their own classical, logical, even rational taste. Perrault began this trend away from the traditional folk manner, and the ladies who followed him - Mlle. Lhéritier, Mme. d’Aulnoy and Mme. Le Prince de Beaumont - went even further. The lowliest ofpeople in their tales are gentlemen, shepherds are princes in disguise, and the stories are peopled by the upper levels of the court. These influences over the story explain some of the differences we find between today’s Beauty and the Beast rooted in these French tales and more traditional versions.
Since its initial publishing the story has been revised many times. In 1756 the Comptesse deGenlis produced a play on the theme; in 1786 Mme. de Villeneuve reprinted her story as part of Le Cabinet des Fées et autres contes merveilleux.
The nineteenth century saw a proliferation of retellings in France, England and America. 68 different printed editions are listed in the Index to Fairy Tales. Notable versions include the 1811 poem by Charles Lamb, an 1841 ‘grand, romantic, operatic,...