I cannot know for sure whether Charlotte Brontë ever read the story of Beauty and the Beast, but it seems quite likely that as a child she would have read and loved the version by Madame LePrince de Beaumont, first published in English in 1783 in a volume called ‘The Young Misses Magazine, containing dialogues between a Governess and Several Young Ladies of Quality, her Scholars’. The book contained a number of other fairy tales (all with a moral message) and was very popular. I haven’t traced the history of the various editions, but one at least was published in Glasgow by J Mundell in 1800: there must have been many more. Given Patrick and Maria Brontë’s family of six children (one born each year between 1814 and 1819) of whom five were girls, ‘The Young Misses Magazine’ would have been a natural choice for the shelves of their very, very bookish family.
And I realised a while ago how much of a Beauty and the Beast vibe there is going on in Jane Eyre. On the face of it you might not think that the quiet, but stubborn and passionate Jane has very much in common with ‘charming, sweet-tempered’ Beauty, but there are a number of interesting parallels and coincidences between the two tales, ranging from fairly slight to really significant. Besides being sweet-tempered, LePrince de Beaumont’s Beauty is herself quiet and bookish (a trait the Disney cartoon took up and made much of), and in the days of their merchant father’s fortune, Beauty stays at home reading while her elder sisters mock her:
They went out every day to parties of pleasure, balls, plays, concerts and so forth, and they laughed at their youngest sister, because she spent the greatest part of her time in reading good books.
(By good books, of course, is meant either religious or morally improving books.)
When we first meet the young Jane Eyre, she is tucked behind a curtain with a book, having been banished from the drawing room and the family circle of her Aunt Reed and cousins Eliza, Georgiana and John Reed, as a punishment for not being sufficiently lively.
A small breakfast-room adjoined the drawing room, I slipped in there. It contained a bookcase; I soon possessed myself of a volume, taking care that it should be one stored with pictures. I mounted into the window-seat, and … having drawn the red moreen curtain nearly close, I was shrined in double retirement.
Sitting thus, she is happy until John Reed comes to bully her. Though he is her cousin, he despises her as the orphan child of Mrs Reed’s deceased husband’s sister, who married a poor clergyman. John Reed rubs this in well.
‘You have no business to take our books; you are a dependent, mamma says; you have no money; your father left you none: you ought to beg, and not to live here with gentlemen’s children like us, and eat the same meals we do, and wear clothes at our mamma’s expense.’
So Jane is forced to live with an abusive family and so is Beauty, whose sisters grow even more ill-tempered when they become poor: ‘they not only left her all the work of the house to do, but insulted her every moment’. Nevertheless Beauty applies herself to making the best of things, and Jane Eyre grows up. She teaches at Lowood Institution for a while before taking up the post of governess at a grand house, Thornfield Hall. And Beauty leaves home for the Beast’s palace.
This is the first of the major coincidences: in both narratives a young woman comes to a great house to be courted by a Beast who isn’t what he seems. Thornfield and the Beast’s palace are places of luxury, danger and mystery: but the Beast’s palace is first perceived as terrifying and becomes domestic and familiar, while at Thornfield the opposite happens. After the homely welcome Jane receives from cosy Mrs Fairfax, the mystery of Thornfield grows ever darker with midnight visitations and strange ‘preternatural’ laughter from the upper floor, where some sinister secret is guarded by Grace Poole with her ‘hard, plain face’.
Fairy tale references pervade Jane Eyre. Rochester’s moonlight arrival on horseback, heralded by his black dog, causes Jane to think of the ominous Northern goblin, the Gytrash. Rochester too, perceives Jane from the beginning in terms of folk or fairy tales: he constantly compares her to a fairy or elf.
‘When you came to me in Hay Lane last night, I thought unaccountably of fairy tales, and had half a mind to demand whether you had bewitched my horse: I am not sure yet. Who are your parents?’
‘I have none.’
‘Nor ever had, I suppose; do you remember them?’
‘I thought not. And so you were waiting for your people when you sat on that stile?’
‘For whom, sir?’
‘For the men in green; it was a proper moonlight evening for them. Did I break through one of your rings, that you spread that damned ice on the causeway?’
Beauty does not (yet) wish to marry the Beast, she becomes more and more fond
of him as they converse every evening during and after her supper: in this illustration by Kinuko Y. Craft, she looks demurely away but holds his hand. Or his paw.
It is also through conversation that Jane and Rochester fall in love. Jane is well capable of dealing with Rochester’s straight-faced accusation that it may have been she who ‘spread ice over the causeway’ and felled his horse.
‘The men in green all forsook England a hundred years ago,’ said I, speaking as seriously as he had done. ‘And not even in Hay Lane, or the fields about it, could you find a trace of them. I don’t think either summer or harvest, or winter moon, will ever shine on their revels more.’
They have imaginations that match. Jane’s capacity to meet and cap Rochester’s faerie fancies is underscored by the bewilderment of Mrs Fairfax, who ‘dropped her knitting, and, with raised eyebrows, seemed wondering what sort of talk this was.’
In fact, the rough-edged Rochester resembles the gruffly-spoken Beast, who announces: ‘I don’t love compliments, not I. I like people to speak as they think’. At one moment in the fairy tale he asks Beauty, ‘Tell me, do not you think me very ugly?’ and she answers, ‘That is true, for I cannot tell a lie.’ When Rochester famously asks Jane, ‘You examine me, Miss Eyre; do you think me handsome?’ – he enjoys her blunt answer, ‘No, sir.’ (No wonder he despises Blanche Ingram's insincere flattery as she compares his swarthy appearance to ‘the sort of wild, fierce, bandit hero whom I could have consented to gift with my hand.’)
In the fairy tale, Beauty accepts without embarrassment the fine gowns and gold pieces which the Beast showers upon her and her family. True, when presented with ‘a large trunk full of gowns covered with gold and diamonds’ she takes the plainest, and tries to give the others to her sisters: Madame LePrince de Beaumont intends this to illustrate her heroine’s modesty and generosity. In similar circumstances Jane Eyre is in contrast made desperately uncomfortable by Rochester's attempts to lavish gifts and fine clothes upon her.
I hated the business, I begged leave to defer it … With anxiety I watched his eye rove over the gay stores: he fixed on a rich silk of the most brilliant amethyst dye, and a superb pink satin. I told him in a new series of whispers, that he might as well buy me a gold gown and a silver bonnet at once: I should certainly never venture to wear his choice.
sees the balance of their relationship tipping disastrously. Rochester’s display
of wealth suffocates her and threatens to reduce her to his possession. ‘I
never can bear being dressed like a doll by Mr Rochester,’ she tells herself
and the reader; and hoping for a degree of independence writes to her uncle
John in Madeira, whom she has recently learned wished to adopt her as his heir.
And this letter in which she mentions her engagement brings Mr Mason hotfoot
from the West Indies to prevent Rochester’s bigamous marriage.
The next event in the fairy tale is Beauty’s separation from the Beast. Though distraught at the thought of losing her, the Beast permits her to visit her family, and she leaves him with the faithful promise to stay no longer than a week: a promise she fails to keep. Her departure is reflected as if in a dark mirror by Jane’s flight from Thornfield upon the dreadful discovery that Rochester is already married to a mad wife he keeps confined in the attic. After days wandering lost on the moors, she finds refuge with the Rivers family who turn out to be her own cousins – as St John Rivers explains:
My mother’s name was Eyre; she had two brothers, one a clergyman, who married Miss Jane Reed, of Gateshead; the other, John Eyre Esq, Merchant, late of Funchal, Madeira.
The deceased John Eyre has left all his property to ‘his brother the clergyman’s orphan daughter’, and Jane is now an heiress. This bequest from her merchant uncle – a surrogate father – echoes the moment early in the fairy tale when Beauty’s merchant father learns that one of his ships has been saved: both narratives play with visions of trade, merchant ships, rich cargoes and unexpected wealth from overseas.
And family members in both tales attempt to keep the young women from returning to their lovers. Beauty’s sisters beg her to stay longer than she promised, while the fervent missionary St John Rivers presses Jane to marry him and come to India as his helpmeet. Almost too late, Beauty dreams of the Beast lying at death’s door in the gardens, reproaching her for her desertion; deeply upset, she uses the magic ring that will return her to the palace. Almost too late, Jane hears a supernatural voice crying her name: ‘Jane! Jane! Jane!’ –
And it was the voice of a human being – a known, loved, well-remembered voice – that of Edward Fairfax Rochester, and it spoke in pain and woe, wildly; eerily, urgently.
‘I am coming!’ I cried, ‘Wait for me! Oh, I will come!’
Hurrying back (on a three-day journey by coach) to Thornfield, Jane follows the field-path and the high orchard wall to a place where she can peep at the house through a pillared gateway... and now comes the odd, curiously artificial passage with which Charlotte Brontë delays for the reader the shock of Jane’s first sight of Thornfield:
Hear an illustration, reader.
A lover finds his mistress asleep on a mossy bank; he wishes to catch a glimpse of her fair face without waking her. He steals softly over the grass, careful to make no sound; he pauses – fancying she has stirred: he withdraws: not for worlds would he be seen. All is still: he again advances: he bends above her; a light veil rests over her features: he lifts it; bends lower […] How he starts! How he suddenly and vehemently clasps in both arms the form he dared not, a moment since, touch with his finger! How he calls aloud a name, and drops his burden, and gazes on it wildly! He thus grasps and cries, and gazes, because he no longer fears to waken by any sound he can utter – by any movement he can make. He thought his love slept sweetly: he finds she is stone dead.
I looked with timorous joy towards a stately house; I saw a blackened ruin.
Compare that with the paragraph in the fairy tale which tells how Beauty finds the Beast lying in the palace grounds:
waited for evening with the utmost impatience, at last the wished-for hour
came, the clock struck nine, yet no Beast appeared. Beauty then feared she had
been the cause of his death; she ran crying and wringing her hands all about
the palace, like one in despair; after having sought for him everywhere, she
recollected her dream, and flew to the canal in the garden, where she dreamed
she saw him. There she found poor Beast stretched out, quite senseless, and, as
she imagined, dead. She threw herself upon him…
It would have been impossibly melodramatic for Jane Eyre to find Rochester lying in the grounds of Thornfield Hall at death’s door, but in this tale-within-a-tale, beginning in Romantic pastoral and ending in Gothic horror, Charlotte Brontë applies an inverted version of the fairy tale to Jane’s circumstances and substitutes the bricks and mortar of Thornfield for the breathing body of the Beast. The nameless male lover is powerless: so are Rochester and the Beast; the emphasis is on the women. Beauty and Jane fear their lovers may be dead, but both possess the metaphysical energy needed to restore them to life. And male passivity responds to female potency:
Beast opened his eyes and said to Beauty, ‘You forgot your promise, and I was so afflicted for having lost you, that I resolved to starve myself, but since I have the happiness of seeing you once more, I die satisfied.’
‘No, dear Beast,’ said Beauty, ‘you must not die. Live to be my husband; from this moment I give you my hand, and swear to be none but yours.’
Beauty’s vow returns the Beast to health and breaks the spell. Revealed in his true shape, a handsome prince, he declares his gratitude: ‘There was only you in the world generous enough to be won by the goodness of my temper, and in offering you my crown I can’t discharge the obligations I have to you.’
By just the same means Jane brings renewed life to the mutilated but morally transformed Rochester who, significantly, more than ever resembles a Beast. ‘It is time someone undertook to rehumanise you,’ she tells him [my italics] –
‘for I see you are being metamorphosed into a lion, or something of that sort. You have a faux air of Nebuchadnezzar in the fields about you, that is certain: your hair reminds me of eagles’ feathers; whether your nails are grown like birds’ claws or not, I have not yet noticed.’ [Later she adds:] ‘Have you a pocket comb about you, sir?’
‘What for, Jane?’
‘Just to comb out this shaggy black mane. I find you rather alarming, when I examine you close at hand; you talk of my being like a fairy, but I am sure you are more like a brownie.’
‘Am I hideous, Jane?’
‘Very, sir; you always were, you know.’
I’ve long thought Beauty and the Beast a fairy tale much misunderstood, or at any rate over-interpreted. Bruno Bettelheim saw it as a Freudian parable in which the timid virgin (with an oedipal attachment to her father) manages to overcome her repugnance towards the male body and her fear of sex, so that the male partner who at first seemed bestial appears in a human light. And of course you can read it that way, though I can’t help feeling that all this female dread and male dreadfulness is a little over-heated. There are fairy tales such as that of Gawain and the Loathly Lady, or the folk song King Henry, in which a reluctant young man has to marry or mate with an ugly or bestial woman. Are these stories ever interpreted as a male dread of sex?
After all, Beauty is no shrinking violet but a practical young woman. When her father loses all his money, she rolls up her sleeves and works. When he returns home with the news that his life is forfeit to a monster, she ‘did not cry at all,’ but insists on saving his life: ‘You shall not go the palace without me, you cannot hinder me from following you.’ While her father panics, Beauty remains ‘resolute’, and once he has left her alone in the Beast’s palace, Madame LePrince de Beaumont comments that although Beauty does have a little cry,
as she was mistress of a great deal of resolution [my italics], she recommended herself to God and resolved not to be uneasy for the little time she had to live, for she firmly believed Beast would eat her up that night. However, she thought she might as well walk about till then…
Whereupon, discovering a magnificent suite of rooms labelled ‘Beauty’s Apartment’, she is thrilled to discover ‘a large library, a harpsichord, and several music books’ and is encouraged by the sensible reflection that such preparations would hardly have been made if she were to be devoured that night. She has moral courage too: when the Beast asks, as he constantly does, ‘Beauty, will you be my wife?’ she refuses, because even as she grows more and more fond of him, she is not ready to say yes. If this is a parable about sex, it’s less about fear – Beauty loses her fear of the Beast months before the end of the story – than it is about taking the time to know your own mind. Finally – she leaves it rather late, but that’s narrative tension for you – Beauty has the sense to realise that this ugly Beast actually is someone she loves.
If Charlotte Brontë read Beauty and the Beast (in which case her sisters would certainly have read it too, and most of their heroines are attracted to rough diamonds), she would have found it the tale of a quiet, brave and determined young woman who sees through appearances to the inner worth of one who appears to be a Beast – and whose love ultimately saves and transforms him. I would argue that this is mirrored by the transformational power of Jane’s love for Rochester. The Beast loses his beastliness and reverts to a form suited to his inward gentility: the shaggy, mutilated Rochester outwardly reminds Jane (not unflatteringly) of a lion, an eagle or a brownie, but has lost the inner monstrousness that characterised his deception.
I have no idea if all these echoes and parallels were consciously contrived, I would guess – perhaps not – but I think they are there, that what Brontë does with them is striking, and that they may help to account for that sense of inevitability about the way Jane Eyre unfolds.
[PS - After several friends online exclaimed 'But of COURSE she knew what she was doing!' I admit I may have been too cautious. Yes, she was a conscious artist and very likely did know that she was weaving in strands from the fairy tale. I just still wonder if all of them were intentional, and whether she ever mentioned or referenced 'Beauty and the Beast' in letters or any other writings. Not being a Brontë scholar, I do not know.]
Jane meets Rochester on Hay Lane - by Fritz Eichenberg
Jane reads behind the curtains - by Simon Brett
Beauty and the Beast - by Angela Barrett
Beauty and the Beast - by Kinuko Y. Craft
Jane's flight from Thornfield - by Edward A. Wilson
'A blackened ruin' - by Fritz Eichenberg
Beauty and the Beast - 'Don't leave me!' by Liiga Klavina at Deviant Art
Jane and Rochester reunited - by Simon Brett