Beauty – Robin McKinley
David Fickling Books, 2003
Originally published in 1978
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[note: this was written late at night, which shows. I hope it's not too difficult to navigate my meandering thoughts.]
I shall always have fond memories when it comes to the story of Beauty and the Beast. I know it might be considered sacrilege to some, but I was introduced to the fairy tale through Disney’s movie version of 1991. I was four, and it was the first movie I saw at the cinema. There I was, with my cousin and my aunt (who used to babysit me), and I remember sitting there, and that movie having such an impact. I don’t remember much of the theatre visit, except that the building was quite stately, and that there was a scene where (in my mind) Belle dances with the Beast in a yellow dress, in the library.
There is a reason why Belle has always been my “favourite princess”, if I were to choose one. It is her bookishness in that Disney movie. Her walking from her house, with a book in her hand and a blue dress on, dancing through the streets, being friendly to everyone, and snubbing Gaston (snubbing the annoying man who thinks he’s all that is an important part of my liking for Belle). I wanted to be her. That’s it, basically.
I was very happy to discover that Beauty, in this retelling of Beauty and the Beast by Robin McKinley (note that it was published many years before the Disney movie!) is also bookish. She is also, in her own estimation, not truly a beauty. It is a nickname given to her, her actual name is Honour (next to her sisters Grace and Hope). One of the wonderful things in this story is that the main character grows into both her nicknames, that she shows them to be a perfect fit, and that she slowly gains confidence about being worthy of them.
It is not that Beauty is not confident. It is her strength as a female character, that we perhaps do not associate with what we have learned to think of as “the princesses in fairy tales”, which, in part, makes this story so enjoyable. Beauty is willing to go against the grain. First, she devotes herself to studies and reading. Then, when the family has to move, she works around the house and does work that requires great physical strength. Then, when she meets the beast, she wonders, she is sometimes naive, but she also has a very strong will and she’s not unwilling to voice her own opinions. I liked her for that. Very much so.
Beauty is the kind of character that makes it easy to sympathise. Even if at times it becomes a little difficult to believe that she really wouldn’t have understood all those hints that are spoken at night, by invisible servants. Even if, having had people remark that she has grown into a great beauty, and that she does not see herself as others do, she struggles against the notion, and rejects the beautiful gowns laid out for her. Then, at the same time, I also appreciated her for that. I’d like a female fairy tale lead to reject dresses. I understand the notion of not feeling comfortable in your skin, or confident in whatever you have doubts about, despite being told otherwise. It is something many will empathise with. It is something I certainly emphasise with.
Robin McKinley does a wonderful job of setting the scenes. She spends a great deal of time describing scenery. She makes sure to evoke moods through that same scenery. She makes sure you know all the characters involved: Beauty’s father, her sisters, I could see faces accompanied with them all.
There is one thing though, that I wondered at while reading the book. For the first time while reading this, I realised how Beauty and the Beast is not just a romantic love story to swoon over (which happened, for me, here). But how there are some really problematic things going on in the relationship that is established. Sure, I loved Belle for rejecting Gaston in Disney’s version, but have I ever stopped to think that she fell in love with the person who captured her father, and then held her prisoner instead? In this story, there is the same kind of dynamic going on, to a certain extent. As The Literary Omnivore put it, it’s a little bit like Stockholm Syndrome.
I remember, faintly, that there were moments when Beauty reflected on this herself. Or perhaps, I am editing them in, in my memory, in retrospect (but I think not? Help me out here, fellow readers!). Here is a man, or beast, who lives a life of luxury, even if it is established to be an isolated and sad one, and who can offer Beauty a lot of the things that she always wanted (hello magical library with all the books ever written and yet to be written!). There are moments when I felt that McKinley handled this situation really well, with the reflections, and the response of Beauty’s family, and Beauty actually makes conscious decisions about staying or returning to the Beast, and she makes them repeatedly.. However, there are moments when they were less overt, or when I felt the tale overrode them, where I would have loved for more questions to have been raised (the ending, for example, and Beauty accepting “the dress” were such moments). But it is a fairy tale, and McKinley makes it easy to go along with these aspects of the story, even if she makes you wonder at the same time. I guess the quality of this story is, in part, that it made me reflect on such things, even if it may not have provided all the answers.¹
I fear I might sound much too critical. The thing is, I did very much enjoy this book. I wanted to keep on reading it. I wanted to hug it close at times. Beauty is a wonderful heroine. It is not that the story is lacking, or at fault. Perhaps it is more that it opened my eyes to the narratives inherent to the fairy tale as it has been told so many times. And that is what made me think. And then, reading this as a retelling, I might think that there were moments where there might have been more subversion, even if there are plenty of moments there. In itself, Beauty does a wonderful job of expanding the story, of giving us a very detailed setting, of offering us a picture of a supportive family and strong girls. In short, it is not my favourite-favourite fairy tale retelling (but who could top Tender Morsels?), but it was wonderful nonetheless. It is definitely going on the re-read pile.
I know there are many more Robin McKinley books out there. I have Deerskin on the shelves, and I cannot wait to get to it (I know it is supposed to be much darker than Beauty - not that that’s better per se, it’s just if people wanted to warn me). Are there any titles you particularly recommend? I think McKinley might very well turn out to be an author of whom I want to read many books.
Other Opinions: There are many.
¹ Can I give an example of such questions the story raised? I’m inserting them as a footnote, because I couldn’t help but ramble a little. Here it is. In her post, The Literary Omnivore also remarked that in Beauty, the Beast does not seem to overcome his nature through Beauty. Instead, he is as he has mostly been. I agree with her. Instead of the Beast (as in the Disney version, which is the only one I know, and I do not know it by heart) going from a more “beastly”, more aggressive, character, to one that is “humane”, tender, and awkward, through Belle’s intercession and for her, in Beauty the Beast is mostly as he has always been (while his beastly outside mostly leads to him becoming more isolated, which is his suffering). He is willing to hope at a better life, meeting Beauty. But a fundamental change? I have seen less of that.
However, after writing that down, there springs a new question to mind. Or really, two questions. One being that that story might be problematic in itself. Beauty might have had more agency in that the Beast not only changed her, but she also changed him (more expressly), and I would definitely cheer for that. But I wonder if in that version is captured the narrative of “if you are a lovely enough girl, you can change the bad boy for the better”, which is not one which can be retold without raising question marks (but which is also part of what I loved about the Disney version. Ugh, I both love and hate discovering problematic things in favourite stories). And then there’s question two, which is the prevailing idea that love will change you at your core. Now, I am a romantic, and I do believe love changes people. But I wonder if it is a good thing if it changed your very nature? Is that romance, or a little scary? Is it not another narrative we are so often told, but that raises complex issues? Should a change always be established through finding your “true love”? Should we think of natures of being “natures”, or “cores”? I hope not, not completely. I don’t know, perhaps this is what McKinley avoids in her tale, as she seems to emphasise that both Beauty and the Beast allow something to flower when they are together, something that was already there but that they could not see? And I like that (romanticised?) idea of love, but even so, I cannot help but wonder at this idea of change through another person too? So, as I said above, this book led me to ask a lot of questions. Questions that are not part of this book per se, that did not detract from my enjoyment, but which led me to wonder and rethink some things, and, as usual, leaving me without any answers (which I do not mind, but you might think I have just wasted your time in having you read this footnote).
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