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  • Writer's pictureJohn Lombard

Inspirations - The Beast of Versailles

I had the idea for this story many years ago - that for the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, the curse wouldn't necessarily be an impediment. He would still be wealthy and have aristocratic power, and a lot of people might even prefer his beastly form...

Initially, this was going to be a straightforward, timeless fairytale, but I was inspired to anchor it in a precise moment in history after reading the original story, written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and published in 1740. Villeneuve uses lots of somewhat topical references in her story, so I decided to set my story at about the same time.

I had enormous trouble naming this story at first - usually I don't, the title normally comes to me easily! It was only when I decided to set this in the 1700s, that I knew what the title would be.

I chose the year 1750 because Louis the XV was then at the height of his popularity, fresh from France's victories against Austria in the Seven Years' War, but before the crushing national debt that spirals out of French support for the American Revolution. Louis XV has a terrible historical reputation as an indolent and hedonistic ruler, but in his earlier reign he did try to modernise France, only to fall foul of short-sighted entrenched interests. I don't go as far as to say that the Beast fed Louis XV's baser instincts, but it was fun to throw the Beast into the company of a ruler who appreciated the animal appetites. And, honestly, probably would have had a threesome with the Beast - the secret tunnel from his bedroom is an authentic rumour of Louis XV's reign.

Incidentally, the excellent Doctor Who adventure The Girl in the Fireplace is set in Versailles around this time, with a focus on the accomplished Madame de Pompadour.

Making the Beast an aristocrat of this period, he is of course part of the crushing feudalism of pre-Revolution France, with elaborate feudal dues and a life expectancy for peasants of about 30. Of course, in the short term, the Revolution didn't make life better for the peasants, and in fact made it worse... although the reasons for that are endlessly complex. The short version is that democratic France inherited massive problems from the broken monarchy including horrific debt and a useless military, faced massive threats like foreign invasion, and struggled with the unintended consequences of idealistic policies such as unrestricted free speech leading to rumour and paranoia.

I also opted to set my story within the world of Villeneuve's story - more or less. Critically, the Beast is cursed through no fault of his own by a deluded, lovesick fairy. To me, that feels honest - devastating things often happen to us for no reason, rather than to give us a character arc. Villeneuve's story also goes beyond the scope of most modern versions of this tale. After Beauty breaks the curse, the Beast's mother shows up, and declares that Beauty isn't high enough rank to marry her son! There is also a lot of complex fairy politics, which I have skipped past... and over-complex conditions of the curse, likewise dodged... but generally, I'm writing about the character in Villeneuve's story. Note as well that he's not the cuddly lion/boar-man of many illustrations, but a grotesque chimera.

As such, this isn't about the Disney movies - no enchantress teaching a moral lesson, no wilting magic rose, no cursed servants... no Gaston! The cartoon movie is a great time, but for me the live action movie slips away from the intent of the original, by making the Beast into a cranky dudebro. The whole point of the story is that he's flawlessly nice to Beauty despite his offputting looks! The Disney versions also cut Belle's brothers and sisters, who add a lot of colour to the story. In Villeneuve's story, any of the daughters can go to live with the Beast, and Belle volunteers to save her father, which gives her more agency in making more her choice to live with the Beast. For me, Villeneuve's story has more resonance and power, but the choices the Disney creators made in their versions are perfectly understandable - the Mouse knows what it's doing (mostly).

While we're talking about other versions... I watched Jean Cocteau's 1947 film version, and it's genuinely stunning. Strongly recommend if you've never seen it, a wonderful and enchanting movie. After finishing writing my story, I also checked out the Witcher episode with a Beast who grows to love the advantages of his form and takes a series of lovers - a similar take, although my Beast is much more arrogant and naive, and my story is painfully short on vampires.

I got stuck on the start of the story, and rewrote and reordered things obsessively. I wanted to use the Beast meddling in the kitchens as a window to show his animal senses and build up the world and his character... but honestly, the Beast as a celebrity chef with the ability to smell umami in cuts of meat is too interesting an idea to throw away on a vignette as I have done. I also had a lot of details to establish, and for inexplicable reasons was obsessed with talking about the Beast's gloves. I think I got there in the end with the introductory sequence, but it was a lot more painful than it needed to be.

To be clear, Griselda is not the villain in this story - she is honest about who she is, and it's really the Beast's fault for expecting more from her than she can give. With that in mind, and inspired by the opera-singing duelist of the period Julie d'Aubigny, I gave her a happy ending.

There are heaps of historical details in this story... I will be unhelpful and say that they are as accurate as I could make them without doing special research, except for the stuff I just made up. I did not have the heart to check whether it was plausible for the Beast to meet Rousseau, Diderot, and Voltaire... That bit was just a special treat for me.

As I said at the start, I had the idea for this story many years ago, and this is the abridged version, to fit into 20 minutes of podcast... The full version in my head has a few subplots and more events. Maybe I'll get to it one day...

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