Everyone who’s anyone knows the plot of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast by now; Belle is raised in a poor, provincial town by her doting father (and resident inventor) Maurice, but, one night, he fails to return home.
Desperate to track him down, Belle saddles her horse and quickly picks up Maurice’s trail – only to discover that it leads her straight into a nearby enchanted castle. And then… well, you know the drill; she comes face-to-face with the terrifying Beast, offers herself up in exchange for her precious papa’s freedom, and he waves goodbye to his only daughter and heads home.
While Belle initially loathes the Beast (he is, after all, her captor), she is later entranced by his magical castle – not to mention the mysterious rose hidden away in the west wing. And, after muddling through their new lives together as housemates (or should that be castlemates?), the unlikely duo discover there is ‘something there that wasn’t there before’ in terms of their relationship – and it eventually blossoms into a love unlike any other.
Or, at least, that’s how it happens in the Disney version. The real ‘tale as old as time’ is very different indeed…
For starters, Belle isn’t the only child of an eccentric inventor. In fact, she’s the youngest of six children (three boys and three girls) – and her dad is a wealthy, albeit still widowed, merchant.
Maurice eventually loses his fortune at sea, and is forced to relocate his family to a poky little farmhouse in the country. And, while Belle and her brothers try to make the most of their new circumstances, her sisters constantly complain, and moan, and demand expensive gifts of their poor penniless father.
Belle, on the other hand, only wants a rose.
On his way home from another fruitless attempt to restore his fortune, Maurice happens across an old castle (now this sounds familiar, doesn’t it?) and decides to take shelter from the storm. Once inside, he discovers the building is entirely deserted – and so, when he happens upon some freshly prepared food, he assumes it’s the work of a kindly fairy and decides to help himself.
The next morning, he prepares to leave, but not before stopping off in the garden to pick a rose for his favourite daughter. It’s the final straw for the Beast, who feels as if Maurice is now taking advantage of his hospitality. He threatens to kill the hapless merchant but, when he hears that Maurice has daughters, the Beast agrees to spare his life… on one condition.
You guessed it; the Beast sends the merchant home with a chest filled with gold (as well as the rose) – and orders him to return, or send one of his daughters in his place.
Maurice returns home and, somewhat unsurprisingly, Belle is persuaded to take her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner. The Beast welcomes her into his castle with open claws, and she stays there for an incredibly long time. Months and months, in fact.
Isolated from her family, she’s forced to care for her captor (he insists upon her eating dinner with him every single night), and – in one of the most famous fictional instances of Stockholm Syndrome ever – she eventually falls in love with him.
But there’s more to the story than even that.
The Independent explains: “In the eighteenth century, daughters tended to belong to their fathers and matters of marriage were decided between men.
“It can be argued that Villeneauve's novel, rather than a celebration of a romance between a woman and the beast she turned to man, it was instead a critique of contemporary women’s lack of choice in matters that pertained to their lives.”
They add: “It wasn’t until 1790 that divorce was granted to both men and women.”
Thankfully, Disney’s newer version of Beauty and the Beast – starring Emma Watson – is going to be very different; unlike the classic tale, or even the original animated film, Belle will be given a strong feminist backstory of her own (which focuses heavily on her mother).
Throw in her blossoming career as an inventor, her corset-less gowns, and her desire to educate women, and you have a ‘princess’ who’s firmly in control of her own destiny.