Beauty and the Beast is one of the world’s most-loved fairy tales, but it isn’t sourced from folklore tradition or an anonymous teller: instead, it was as an original fairy tale, in two different versions, by two French women writers of the eighteenth century, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve(1685-1755) and Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beamont( 1711-1785).
Madame de Villeneuve, as she was known as an author, came from a prominent noble family and led a rather colourful, even scandalous life. She wrote many popular novels and fairy tales, but it is for the creation of La Belle et la Bête, Beauty and the Beast, for which she is most well-known today. It was published as an 185-page novel in 1740, within a longer volume of her original fairy tales called La jeune américaine, et les contes marins (The young American girl, and tales from the sea). Her Beauty and the Beast was an immediate success, and was reprinted several times, including in Le Cabinet des Fées.
Madame Leprince de Beamont came from a humbler background than Villeneuve, but also had a rather colourful life, and earned a living as a writer and teacher, publishing over 70 books. She wrote her version of Beauty and the Beast (without , it has to be said, any acknowledgement of Villeneuve’s original) as a 20-page story, published in
1756 in her Magasin des enfants (Children’s Magazine, or Compendium) an educational book which includes several other fairy tales as well as dialogues discussing life and morals. It also was a great success; and it is her shorter, sharper, much more striking version which has stood the test of time. I very soon learned why that was, as I read both original versions side by side–the Villeneuve novel in a digitised manuscript held in Gallica, the online repository of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (the French National Library), and Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s short story in a 1799 print edition of the Magasin des enfants, which I obtained online from an Italian second-hand bookshop.
And you’ll discover why I so much preferred Beamont’s version, when you read my introduction to my own retelling of Beauty and the Beast.