Those who know me, definitely are aware that I love the history behind fairytales. Lots of research went into writing my novel Scarlette, which retells “Little Red Riding Hood” and sets it against historic events. So when I was perusing the Smithsonian TV app last week and happened upon a show entitled The Real Beauty and the Beast, I knew I was in for a treat.
I was already familiar with some of the background of the 18th century story. Belle et la Bête was published by French novelist Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1756 (a year after Marie Antoinette was born). Before Beaumont wrote her rendition, there were already other variants of the tale known throughout Europe. To me, this begs the question of what was the inspiration for the original story?
In the Smithsonian documentary, the limelight is cast upon a boy named Pedro Gonzalez. Gonzalez was born in Spain in 1537 and at the age of ten was sent to King Henry II’s court in France for a very peculiar reason. His entire body was covered in long, thick hair. The boy’s appearance gave him a wolfman-like look. To a modern audience Gonzalez was obviously no wild beast. He was actually a human boy who suffered from a condition known as hypertrichosis, a disease that makes sufferers grow hair over their entire body. But to the king of France and his scandal-seeking court, Gonzalez was a monster fit for a freak show.
During the Renaissance, peculiarities and oddities were all the rage in royal and noble courts, and an obsession formed around Gonzalez. Many thought he was a ‘man of the woods,’ wild and beastly, ready to turn savage on a moment’s notice. However, it became increasingly clear that Gonzalez’s temperament seemed mild and oddly human-like. King Henry decided to take on Gonzalez as a sort of a makeover project. He brought him up in his court as a gentleman, which included the benefits of an education and the most fashionable clothes of the day. Gonzalez grew in rank and ultimately became a nobleman. And like all gents, he hoped to marry someday.
King Henry II died during Gonzalez’s time in court, and his wife Catherine de’ Medici then took over the throne. Just as obsessed with Gonzalez’s appearance, King Henry’s wife decided to choose a bride for Gonzalez and conduct an experiment. Beyond her interest in playing matchmaker, she wanted to see if a union could produce beast children, a source of future exploitation for her court’s notoriety and fame.
As Catherine searched for a wife for Gonzalez, she kept his identify a secret from potential brides. Catherine knew that she needed to find a strong woman who would not be repelled by Gonzalez. Ultimately she chose a woman who shared her same name of Catherine and who was supposedly a great…beauty.
In the program it is mentioned that Catherine was horrified when she finally saw who her husband-to-be really was. Though over time, scholars speculate that she began to love him, seeing him for his true humanity. Their marriage lasted 40 years and produced seven children. Some of whom were also born hypertrichosis.
After many heartbreaking years, the Gonzalezs finally settled in Italy. They chose to reside in a more secluded estate and live out the rest of their days away from the public eye.
Supposedly during the day, many who knew of the couple believed that their love was a testament to true love, of seeing the inner beauty of a person despite appearances. Now if this doesn’t sound like a real life Beauty and the Beast, then I don’t know what does. I more than believe that this real-life tale could be the fodder that inspirited the magical story. All that’s missing are singing teapots. 😉
A big thanks to all of you who stopped by to read this. I thoroughly enjoyed the Smithsonian program and it is definitely worth seeing if you haven’t watched it. Also, if you are a Beauty and the Beast freak like me, have a look at my top ten gold dresses inspired by Disney’s Belle. And if you like a little history in your fairytale retellings, check out my young adult novel Scarlette.
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