Dating Disney: Beauty and the Beast
Beauty and the Beast features my favorite love story and my favorite Disney Princess, so it holds a very special spot in my heart. So, it’s worth looking into the film to decide when the Movie is supposed to be set.
During the opening musical number “Belle”, Belle is telling the Baker about the book she’s been reading. She’s clearly describing Jack and the Beanstalk, the earliest version being the tale of “Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean” in 1734. But she also deliberately mentions an ogre, not a giant. Near as I could find, the only version with an ogre was written by Joseph Jacobs in 1890, making Belle nearly contemporary to modernity. Belle’s excitement over the book is likely a sign that this is a new story.
During the same musical number, we see a sign depicting a tobacco pipe, but unlike with the Calabash pipe from the Little Mermaid movie. I could place it to possibly be a Billiard type, but the exact era of creation escapes me. However, tobacco pipes have been around as long as Tobacco has been introduced to European trade, starting in the 16th century.
The history of colored printing goes as far back as the 16th century, and there are illustrations from the early 1700s with an impressive variety of color that help establish a stronger time period. The book also shows the words Le Prince Charmant or Prince Charming. Prince Charming started being used in 1697 in Charles Perrault’s version of Sleeping Beauty, although there, Prince Charming was not a name. Rather, Perrault stated that the Prince was charmed by her words. The first story to use Prince Charming as a name is the Tale of Pretty Goldilocks. It was written at some point in the 17th Century by Madame d’Aulnoy, but in her version the hero was named Avenant. It wasn’t until 1889 when Andrew Lang retold the story that Avenant was dubbed as Charming. One year later in 1890, Oscar Wilde used the term “Prince Charming” sarcastically in his novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, meaning that the term had gotten its more modern meaning by this point in time.
Gaston’s musket is a Blunderbuss, which was invented in the early 1600′s and remained popular through the 18th century before falling out of fashion in the middle of the 19th century. However, considering Belle states that this is a backwards town and Gaston is an old-fashioned, Primeval man, it’s possible he’s using a largely outdated weapon.
While there are no street lamps in the city, we can see in the background lanterns on the sides of buildings, which might allude to the movie taking place before the invention of gas lamps. However, gas lamps were invented in 1809, and if the version of Jack and the Beanstalk is from 1890, then by all accounts the town should have gas lamps. What this amounting evidence is leading me to believe is that the film is directly following the plot of the original fairy tale.
In the story, Beauty’s father is a merchant who loses his fortune due to a storm destroying his cargo. They’re forced to live on a farm until the merchant stumbles upon the Beast’s castle and kick starts the plot. In the opening song, Belle says “every morning’s just the same, since the morning that we came, to this poor, provincial town.” This could mean that she grew up in a much more modern, urban, and progressive town. Possibly even Paris. But that after Maurice suffered severe financial trouble, he was forced to move them to the small, backwards town that was practically living an entire century behind the rest of France, which is why she’s so bored and unimpressed by the little town. It helps explain why she’s so eager to want to get out of this town and see the world. She wants to be part of the modern world again.
Interestingly, I can support this theory with background information. According to some of my research, Belle’s village was based on the little town of Riquewihr, France, which still looks like it did in the 16th century to this day. So the idea that Belle’s little village lacks so many modern elements could be a nod to the architecture of this sleepy French village that has remained largely untouched by the march of time. Hence why it looks more like something out of the 1700s despite the many elements from the 1800s being present.
During the song “Be Our Guest”, Lumiere dances with a match stick. Match sticks were invented in 1805. Assuming the film still takes place in the 1890s, this would be concurrent with the other evidence we’ve seen thus far. Later in the same song, the silverware makes an Eiffel tower, which was constructed in 1889. Since Jack and the Beanstalk was written after that, it still fits within the suspected time frame.
During the climax of the battle, Cogsworth is wearing military garments reflective of Napoleonic styles. Napoleon was coronated in 1804 until 1814, had a brief return to power in 1815, and eventually died in 1821. So this is also congruent to the established time period.
In the Youtube Video “Fashion Expert Fact Checks Belle from Beauty and the Beast’s Costumes” by Glamour, April Calahan, a Fashion Historian from the Fashion Institute of Technology directly noted that Belle’s yellow gown lacks the shape of a proper 18th century dress, and more closely resembles the shape of 19th century dresses, fitting into the evidence that’s been mounting in support of a late 19th century setting.
As a part of his primary costume, Lefou wears a waistcoat and tailcoats, which came into vogue in the 1800s, namely from the 1840s through the 1850s.
But if the film is set in the 1800s, how can the Beast still be a prince after the French Revolution? Well something worth noting is that when he finds out that Belle isn’t coming to dinner, the Beast storms through the halls to her room as Cogsworth calls after him as “Your Eminence” and “Your Grace”. The address of “Your Eminence” is reserved for Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church, and is an ecclesiastical style of address. “Your Grace” is noticeably an English style of address, but it’s being used by Cogsworth who is British, so I can chalk that up to just part of his culture. Although it was used for British monarchs, it fell out of use during the reign of King Henry VIII (1509-1547) and after that, the use of “Your Grace” became used to address archbishops and non-royal Dukes and Duchesses. Now clearly the Beast is not a cardinal or a bishop, especially if he is looking for the love of a woman to make him human, since it’s forbidden for Catholic priests to marry. So clearly that is not what is meant here. But the other answer actually does hold a bit of weight. Beast’s father was in fact, a Duke. So how is the Beast a prince? He’s not. Not entirely. See, there’s more than one kind of Prince in French nobility. There’s a Prince du Sang, or a Prince by Blood. Effectively, the Crown Prince, the sons of ruling monarchs. But the title is also given to lords in charge of a Principality, one of the smallest territorial sizes. The Beast’s principality probably only extends to having power over the little unnamed village. And with it being after the revolution, Beast might not even have the proper use of his title anymore. He’s effectively a rich kid in a fancy house with no real authority or power. He’s just old money from a by-gone era of human history. But if Beast’s address of “Your Grace” is accurate, that would mean that he’s a non-royal Duke, meaning he would not likely have been executed during the Revolution, as his family would have essentially been governors or senators than actual monarchs. They just had jurisdiction over a small piece of the Kingdom of France and reported back to and obeyed the orders of their King. Thus, he would not have been important enough to be killed or chased out of power by the townsfolk.
The movie is set between the late autumn and early-to-mid winter of 1890. Although the snow is gone when Belle returns to the village, the trees are still bare, signaling that it may just be unseasonably warm, though it could be the very early spring of 1891 between the receding of the snow and the blossoming of new spring foliage. Between the books, clothing, and references made, my conclusion is that Belle is a very modern girl living in a backwards little town stuck in the past, thus why a village in 1890 looks so completely lacking in modern technology despite the era. The Prince is nothing more than a fancy title as the son of a Duke, and he likely has very little if any actual government authority. Essentially, Belle married into wealth, not power, and will never be a proper queen, and I’m not sure if the wife of a lord ruling a principality is a princess or not, but I suspect the answer is no. Making Belle, like Mulan, a Disney Princess who did not marry royalty, was not born royalty, and thus, cannot be called a Disney Princess. She’s definitely a noblewoman, but she’s not royal by any means.