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Tracing the Historical Element of Beauty and the Beast Through Rosemary Harris's 1979 Retelling

© 2010, Emma Bortolon-Vettor, Lana Cvijetic, Chrisopher Hau, Collin Sideris

Rosemary Harris. Beauty and The Beast. Illustrated by: Errol Le Cain. London: Faber and Faber, 1979.

Beauty and the Beast begins as a cultural commentary of Indian marriage norms and continues through Beaumont's story and inevitably into Harris's retelling where the practice of arranged marriage is the norm. Ultimately, maintaining a form of social relevance.

Errol Le Cain (March 5, 1941- January 3, 1989) emerged as a major contributor to the revival of nostalgic illustration within children's literature from 1960-1980. Although never formally trained in art, Le Cain's exposure to Indian and Oriental culture as well as English literature defined his hybrid illustrative style, paying homage to Walter Crane, Edmund Dulac and Kay Nielsen. Faber and Faber's Beauty and the Beast is a work that displays Le Cain's maturation as an artist where his intricate detailing and fusion of genres produce a symbiotic relationship between illustration and author Rosemary Harris' narration.

Rosemary Harris is (1923-) is a well-noted British children's author of the 1970's. Primarily published under Faber and Faber, Harris' stories explore many genres and time periods. Naturally, this dabbling between several areas of story origins makes her pairing with Illustrator Errol Le Cain most effective. Their collaborations gradually grew to producing effective works where Le Cain's illustrations and Harris' narratives create a cohesive relationship within one work. Harris' children's stories focus on different origins of traditional tales. Her 1979 re-telling of the classic Beauty and the Beast offers an abridged, yet accurate homage to Marie Le Prince de Beaumont's original 1756 publication.

Origins and Development of Beauty and the Beast

Rosemary Harris's retold version of Beauty and the Beast has many similarities to Madame LePrince de Beaumont's story yet Harris abridges the original tale for an even focus between her text and Errol Le Cain's illustrations. To understand where she bases her retold story from, it is important to note the derivation of Beauty and the Beast. Originally a folk tale from India, The Woman Who Married A Snake tells the story of a man born as a snake. As a result of his obvious abnormality, the man believes he will never be loved. However, a young woman is arranged to marry the man and obeys her father's wish. The man's beastly appearance is a curse similar to Beaumont's tale where both stories resolve in the lifting of the curse. Though quite primitive, the story is reflective of the Indian tradition of marriages being arranged at birth. Since a folk tale is crafted as a means of social critique, it managed to carry a recognized commentary into Beaumont's classic tale and inevitably into Harris's as well. At the time of Beaumont's book release, arranged marriages were still existent within the aristocratic culture. A girl or boy born of royal blood must marry another who is also of royal descent and the parents then decide their children's spouse at birth, much like Indian tradition. With this in mind, The Woman Who Married A Snake transformed into the common fairy tale Beauty and the Beast. Since Harris' version remains true to Beaumont's classic tale, there are obvious storyline links between Harris's retelling and the Indian story. There is little modernization in her retelling, as the illustrations by Errol Le Cain would have been irrelevant in relation to the story. The history behind the illustrations is set to match with the time and place of the tale. It is almost as though Harris slightly altered it in order to preserve the memory of how women were forced into marriage and an obedient wife was the only kind respected in the eighteenth century. Seeing how between the nineteen seventies and eighties there is an emergence of feminism and woman's rights, the idea of arranged marriages becomes completely taboo. For that reason, Harris chooses to keep the original text, ultimately preserving the origins of the ancient Indian tale from Beaumont's. Still, it is interesting to see how Harris, an author with full ability to rework Beauty and the Beast in any way, continues to incorporate this concept of a submissive woman when Faber and Farber's book was released during the rise of feminism.


Figure 1: Le Cain's beast holds a large resemblance to Dulac's beast on the right. Unlike a boar or a lion, the beast stands alone as mainly a man with animal features.

When East meets West: Establishing Lavishness in Errol Le Cain's Illustrations

Errol Le Cain pieces together his illustrations of Beauty and the Beast as historical mosaics. His synthesis of periods and styles of noted illustrators add to the timelessness of the tale itself. The illustrations are divided into two main genres. Gothic shape and line is used to paint the town; Asian influences inspire the foreign attraction of the palace, similar to the Eastern influence evident in Edmund Dulac's illustrations. The book's cover illustration displays the juxtaposition between both worlds where Beauty is watching her family in the mirror of the palace. The mirror is situated on the left side of the room where Beauty is on the right. Conflicting palettes induce a visual dissonance between beaut'ys two realities. The context of Gothic movement is appropriate for the tale of Beauty and the Beast due to its incorporation of fantasy in the drama of everyday life as first experienced in the original 18th century book. The Gothic movement began in 15th century France. Adjacent to Beauty's family, the palace appears surreal since it is filled with vivid gold and blue hues inspired by Eastern culture. Elements of Rococo detailing add to the lavishness of the palace. Originating in France's salon culture, Rococo focuses on aesthetic charm rather than meaning. Combining palettes of the orient with Aristocratic detailing reproduces a Western appeal for the exotic as found in Walter Crane's illustrations. Le Cain's hybrid illustrations act as intertextual references to further enhance picture and text cohesiveness on a meta-sociological scale. For the reader, the psychological ties between enchanting orientalism and dramatic gothic create a subconscious emotional connection due to the historical context of both art styles.


Figure 2: Arched cathedrals were a central focus of Gothic painting and architecture. Le Cain uses multiple arches for both the town and palace.

Examining Themes

From the original inception of Beauty and the Beast in 1740 by Madame Gabrielle' Suzanne de Villeneuve the story has gone through many recreations exploring different themes dependent on the audience it was presented to. This story was originally created for adult audiences with a more sexual tone that displayed the savagery of the beast and his transformation back to the realm of humanity. It represented the social class of woman at the time by dealing with themes such as love, fidelity and civilities between sexes. These themes worked as a way for De Villeneuve to communicate her desire for woman to be treated fair and just. The use of such themes was directly reflected on a time where woman could be promised to a man without her consent. When the story reached French writer Madame LePrince de Beaumont in 1756 it had changed once again. The first example is the reduction of sexual content, which opened it up to a new social class of well-behaved young ladies. She also chose to trim the story of certain plot elements refining it to more of a didactic tale. With this said the emphasis of the story became that of change within Beauty. It examined themes such as inner beauty and pureness of heart making it more easily communicated to a younger audience. When looking at the 1979 retelling by author Rosemary Harris the story features much more of an incorporation of the theme of fate and beauty sacrificing herself as a way to examine destiny. The beast is also shown not as a creature of great sexual appetite but as a man in costume that became more present in the minds and bookshelves of children than anyone else.

Reviewing Faber and Faber's 1979 Publication

The nineteen seventy-nine version of Beauty and the Beast retold by Rosemary Harris did not receive much attention from reviewers and the general public as it was a low cost re-production with beautiful images meant to flood the market place in order to show a profit. Book reviewers see the re-telling as a well-crafted production; predominantly for its illustrations by Errol Cain. Within the text, reviewers state that it sacrifices some of the delineation of the characters and style. It seems that the book's saving grace lies within its beautiful melodramatic pictures. The images create a sense of originality and distraction from the text. Rosemary Harris' version of Beauty and the Beast is one of multiple republications of the tale that flooded the literary marketplace in the late nineteen seventies. As a result, her re-telling received much less attention due to the lack of originality in the text. Instead, publishing company Faber and Faber catered to the overall demand of visuals and focused on drawing consumer attention through Beauty and the Beast's artwork. Despite visual demand, the general public at the time craved a different text all together. Cinderella stories rapidly increased in many modern appropriations, like Rocky and Saturday Night Fever. This pop culture concentration left Beauty and the Beast out of the public's eye. In conclusion, this recreation was respected and loved merely for its beautiful illustrations and still remains very insignificant in the development of the story of Beauty and The Beast.


Select Bibliography

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  • Griswold, Jerry. "The Meanings of Beauty and the Beast": A Handbook. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2004. Print.
  • Harris, Rosemary, and Cain Errol. Le. Beauty and the Beast. London: Faber and Faber, 1979. Print.
  • Hearne, Betsy. Beauty and the Beast: Visions and Revisions of an Old Tale. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991. 150-165 Print.
  • Http://comminfo.rutgers.edu/~mjoseph/beauty_and_beast6.jpg. Rutgers University. Web. 21 Oct. 2010. .
  • Mount, Ferdinand. "The Subversive family: an alternative history of love and marriage." Western Report. 7 Jun. 1993: pg. 57. ProQuest. Web. 8 Nov. 2010. http://proquest.umi.com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/pqdweb?index=22&did=501234031&SrchMode=1&sid=3&Fmt=3&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=PQD&TS=1289434233&clientId=10120
  • "The Girl Who Married A Snake." Shivkumar, K. Google Books. Children's Book Trust, 1979. Web. 8 Nov. 2010. http://books.google.ca/books?id=RkQl- mowjCkC&pg=PA47&lpg=PA47&dq=the+girl+who+married+a+snake+panch atantra&source=bl&ots=x_ce287YMS&sig=5hg6MtngD0yozFazKF9OLGL85Y 0&hl=en&ei=JjzbTPyaAs- dOoLWoZUJ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CBwQ6AE wAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false
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  • Zipes, Jack. The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.
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