The wonderful Sue Lawson interviewed me for her fabulous Portable Magic video series recently, and though it’s not specifically about fairy tales, I thought readers might be interested to hear more about my background, writing process, etc. Here it is!
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.
Without this seventeenth-century writer, the fairy tale as we know it today might never have have emerged from the oral tradition: he could in fact be rightly called the founder of a new and hugely successful literary genre. I’m speaking here of Charles Perrault (1628-1703), writer of such famous gems as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, Bluebeard, Donkey Skin, and several others. The tales he collected and retold in his 1697 book, Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé (Tales and Stories from Past Times), also known as Contes de ma Mère l’Oye (Tales of Mother Goose) are from anonymous folk sources, embellished in his own sprightly, elegant, sharp and inimitable way, with ‘morals’ that are often raise an ironic eyebrow at the ways of the world. His retellings of these traditional stories are famous throughout the world even today and have inspired many generations of other writers. Including me–in my own collection, I’ve chosen to retell Perrault’s Le Maître Chat ou le Chat botté (Master Cat or the Booted Cat), usually known in English as Puss in Boots.
From a wealthy bourgeois family, Perrault had an illustrious if occasionally turbulent career at the glittering court of King Louis XIV, and was a prominent figure in the literary and cultural scene of the time. Retiring from government service at the age of sixty-seven, he wrote Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé , which was an immediate success and which inspired other of his literary contemporaries, such as Madame d’Aulnoy–who first coined the term contes de fées –(fairy tales)to create their own. And thus the craze for fairy tales was born.