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Literature / Beauty: A Retelling of Beauty and the Beast

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Robin McKinley's first published novel (1976), this is a retelling of "Beauty and the Beast" (in case you didn't catch it in the title). The plot follows the storyline of the original fairy tale fairly closely, with some exceptions: rather than being the more beautiful sister of two unpleasant siblings, Beauty is initially described as quite plain, and her sisters are both lovely and kind.

Honour "Beauty" Huston is the third of four daughters born to a successful sea merchant, Roderick Huston; her mother, the Lady Marguerite, died giving birth to Beauty's little sister Mercy, who also died. Her two elder sisters are the impossibly beautiful and good-natured Grace and Hope. Though ironically nicknamed for being the plainest of the sisters, Beauty is an excellent student with dreams of possibly being able to attend university.

When Beauty is in her mid-teens, a disaster at sea essentially destroys the family's fortunes. It's a double disaster for the family, because one of the sailors lost in the wreck is Robbie, who is betrothed to the heartbroken Grace. Hope, meanwhile, has fallen in love with a handsome blacksmith named Gervain Woodhouse, and he proposes that the entire family relocate with him to a faraway village, where he and the girls' father can both find work and they can start their lives afresh. They do, and Hope and Gervain marry and become the parents of twins; Beauty meanwhile attains some local fame through ownership of a massive horse called Greatheart, who is utilized to do difficult tasks such as uprooting large tree trunks.

When Beauty is close to twenty, her father hears that one of his ships has been recovered, and makes the journey to town to find out what might be salvaged of their old wealth. On the way home he gets lost in the forest and stays at what turns out to be the magical palace of the Beast. The Beast offers him gracious hospitality, but on his way out, the father picks a rose for Beauty, who had requested rose seeds. The Beast is enraged, but calms when he understands why the rose was picked, and demands one of Mr. Huston's daughters in exchange for his freedom, promising to treat her with every kindness. Beauty volunteers, feeling that she is to blame and also that she can be best spared from home. She and Greatheart take up residence in the Beast's palace, where she befriends the Beast and endeavors to solve the mysteries that surround her.

McKinley revisited the "Beauty and the Beast" story twenty years later with a new retelling, Rose Daughter.

This work contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Adaptational Heroism: Grace and Hope are far kinder than the sisters in the original tale, and their relationship with Beauty is about as far from antagonistic as it gets.
  • Age-Gap Romance:
    • Following his transformation back to his human state, the erstwhile Beast is physically about 20 years older than Beauty, owing to the 200 years he spent cursed.
    • Beauty's mother and father were like this too — when they married, her father was 40 and her mother was just 17.
  • Babies Ever After: For Hope and Gervain, and also amusingly implied for Greatheart, who has probably sired a foal on the brown mare Cider.
  • Beautiful All Along: Handled subtly and well in the case of Beauty - convinced at an early age that she's homely, she avoids mirrors for most of her adolescence and is pleasantly surprised when she finally sees herself as a young adult.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: As adults, Beauty and her sisters are this (in age order no less). Grace is blonde, Hope is brunette, and Beauty's hair is described as red-gold.
  • Caring Gardener: Beauty's chief task at the village house is tending the garden, and it produces well.
  • Daddy's Girl: It's noted repeatedly that although he dotes on all of his daughters, Beauty is her father's favorite. The older sisters deliberately encourage this to make up for Beauty's low self-esteem.
  • Damned by Faint Praise: Beauty's opinion of her given name, Honour, thinking it suggests that 'honourable' is the best that can be said about her.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Beauty's niece is named Mercy, after her younger sister who died as an infant; her nephew is named Richard, after her brother-in-law's father.
  • Death by Childbirth: Beauty's mother, Marguerite; Beauty was extremely young and doesn't remember her much.
  • December–December Romance: The three sisters are all quite pleased to see their widowed father developing a relationship with Gervain's widowed aunt.
  • Enchanted Forest: To find the Beast's castle, you only need to become lost in the woods; once you lose your way, all paths lead to the castle gates. It's because of the rumors of enchantment that Gervain makes the family promise not to go in there.
  • First Guy Wins: Grace's beloved Robbie, believed lost at sea, returns by some miracle. When the Beast allows Beauty to look into his Magic Mirror and see her family, she discovers that he's still alive. With the Beast's permission, she rushes home to warn Grace so that she won't accept the marriage proposal of the village minister, who has been trying to court her.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Beauty has shades of this. Greatheart became her horse because she bottle-fed him when he was an orphaned baby, and she notes that as a general rule she's always been partial to horses. In the castle, she acquires a number of feathered friends when she turns the ledge of her bedroom window into a bird feeder.
  • Genius Loci: The castle, which arranges itself according to Beauty's preferences to keep her from getting lost. Eventually, the library is situated at the top of a specific staircase, and if she does lose her way, she just has to turn a corner and her bedroom is right there.
  • The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: Pleasantly averted. Grace and Hope are very different in personality and interests from their little sister Beauty, but the three are extremely close and love each other dearly.
  • Great Big Library of Everything: The Beast's library contains books which haven't been written yet, with specific references made to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Screwtape Letters, Rudyard Kipling, and the poetry of Robert Browning. Trying to read the more modern works gives Beauty a headache if she thinks too much about them.
  • Happily Married: Hope and Gervain. The ending implies that Grace and Robbie, Beauty and her Beast, and their father and Melinda will be like this too. Beauty also notes in her early narrative, when giving her family history, that her parents had been very happy together.
  • I Am Not Pretty: Beauty refuses to believe that she's anything other than "a dull, drab little nothing" for a very long time.
  • Invisibility: While the Beast himself took the brunt of the wizard's curse, the servants in the palace who chose to stay with him all got stuck with this.
  • Ironic Echo: In the fairytale, when their father is going to town, Beauty's sisters ask him to bring them back jewels and pearls, whereas Beauty only asks for some rose seeds. Here, the requests remain the same, but it's clear that Grace and Hope are joking.
  • Love at First Sight: While it takes quite some time for Beauty's feelings to develop, the Beast appears to fall in love with her very quickly in comparison, judging from the servants' comments on how he "loves her already" — right after Beauty first talks to him for what couldn't have been more than a couple of minutes.
  • Meaningful Name: The girls' mother was kind of literal-minded about naming her children, who are called Grace, Hope, and Honour. The observant reader may pick up on the fact that all three of them live up to their names throughout the story.
  • Meaningful Rename: Honour, when the meaning of her Meaningful Name is explained to her as a child, replies that she'd "rather be Beauty," and the moniker sticks quite thoroughly, although she's a late bloomer who considers herself homely compared to her sisters.
  • Missing Mom: Beauty's, thanks to Death by Childbirth.
  • Nephewism: Melinda, the sassy widowed innkeeper who tells Gervain about the blacksmith job that leads to the Hustons relocating, is his aunt.
  • No Name Given: The Beast. He even says at the end that he's been the Beast for so long, he's forgotten his real name.
  • Psychic Powers: Beauty develops a minor form of clairvoyance during her time in the castle.
  • Rightly Self-Righteous: The Beast's family was extremely holier-than-thou, and aggravated a local wizard enough with it that he put a curse on them to cut them down a few notches. However, the curse initially didn't stick because they actually did have the Incorruptible Pure Pureness they claimed to have; the magic had to wait around a few generations for a member of the family to step out of line a little.
  • She Is All Grown Up: At the end, Beauty discovers that her appearance has improved dramatically, and she now has the same features she described as belonging to her mother.
    • It's possible that this could be partly attributed to the castle's magic, considering how Beauty's father is described as looking substantially better after his stay at the castle — who knows if some of that same magic rubbed off on Beauty during her long stay there? Then again, the Beast did say that Beauty's nickname suited her well on her very first day at the castle...
    • There are indications that Beauty's looks are improving pretty steadily over the years between the family's arrival in the village and her departure for the castle. Bessie and Lydia don't understand Beauty's conviction that she's hopelessly plain any more than the Beast does.
  • Shout-Out: Mostly in the enchanted library, to everything from Sherlock Holmes to The Once and Future King.
  • The Voice: The two maidservants the Beast assigns to Beauty, who are invisible. She mostly hears them when she's falling asleep. At the end of the book, when the curse is broken, Beauty recognizes one of them - Lydia - by her voice.
  • Weddings for Everyone: When the curse is broken, Beauty is told by the beast-turned-prince that preparations are underway for a double wedding with them and Grace and Robbie. Oh, and her father and Melinda will be there too, if they want to have a triple ceremony.