Beauty has never liked her nickname. She is thin and awkward; it is her two sisters who are the beautiful ones. But what she lacks in appearance, she can perhaps make up for in courage.
When her father comes home with a tale of an enchanted castle in the forest and the terrible promise he had to make to the Beast who lives there, Beauty knows she must travel to the castle, a prisoner of her own free will. Her father insists that he will not let her go, but she responds, “Cannot a Beast be tamed?”
Newbery Medalist Robin McKinley’s beloved and acclaimed novel has been delighting readers for more than forty years. ALA Booklist called Beauty “A captivating novel.”
“A reader feels as though it’s all unfolding for the very first time.”—The Guardian
An ALA Notable Book for Children
A Best Book for Young Adults
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A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast
By Robin McKinley
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 Robin McKinley
All rights reserved.
I was the youngest of three daughters. Our literal-minded mother named us Grace, Hope, and Honour, but few people except perhaps the minister who had baptized all three of us remembered my given name. My father still likes to tell the story of how I acquired my odd nickname: I had come to him for further information when I first discovered that our names meant something besides you-come-here. He succeeded in explaining grace and hope, but he had some difficulty trying to make the concept of honour understandable to a five-year-old. I heard him out, but with an expression of deepening disgust; and when he was finished I said: "Huh! I'd rather be Beauty." He laughed; and over the next few weeks told everyone he met this story of his youngest child's precocity. I found that my ill-considered opinion became a reality; the name at least was attached to me securely.
All three of us were pretty children, with curly blond hair and blue-grey eyes; and if Grace's hair was the brightest, and Hope's eyes the biggest, well, for the first ten years the difference wasn't too noticeable. Grace, who was seven years older than I, grew into a beautiful, and profoundly graceful, young girl. Her hair was wavy and fine and luxuriant, and as butter-yellow as it had been when she was a baby (said doting friends of the family), and her eyes were long-lashed and as blue as a clear May morning after rain (said her doting swains). Hope's hair darkened to a rich chestnut-brown, and her big eyes turned a smoky green. Grace was an inch or two the taller, and her skin was rosy where Hope's was ivorypale; but except for their dramatic coloring my sisters looked very much alike. Both were tall and slim, with tiny waists, short straight noses, dimples when they smiled, and small delicate hands and feet.
I was five years younger than Hope, and I don't know what happened to me. As I grew older, my hair turned mousy, neither blond nor brown, and the baby curl fell out until all that was left was a stubborn refusal to co-operate with the curling iron; my eyes turned a muddy hazel. Worse, I didn't grow; I was thin, awkward, and undersized, with big long-fingered hands and huge feet. Worst of all, when I turned thirteen, my skin broke out in spots. There hadn't been a spot in our mother's family for centuries, I was sure. And Grace and Hope went on being innocently and ravishingly lovely, with every eligible young man—and many more that were neither—dying of love for them.
Since I was the baby of the family I was a little spoiled. Our mother died less than two years after I was born, and our little sister Mercy died two weeks after her. Although we had a series of highly competent and often affectionate nursemaids and governesses, my sisters felt that they had raised me. By the time it was evident that I was going to let the family down by being plain, I'd been called Beauty for over six years; and while I came to hate the name, I was too proud to ask that it be discarded. I wasn't really very fond of my given name, Honour, either, if it came to that: It sounded sallow and angular to me, as if "honourable" were the best that could be said of me. My sisters were too kind to refer to the increasing inappropriateness of my nickname. It was all the worse that they were as good-hearted as they were beautiful, and their kindness was sincerely meant.
Our father, bless him, didn't seem to notice that there was any egregious, and deplorable, difference between his first two daughters and his youngest. On the contrary, he used to smile at us over the dinner table and say how pleased he was that we were growing into three such dissimilar individuals; that he always felt sorry for families who looked like petals from the same flower. For a while his lack of perception hurt me, and I suspected him of hypocrisy; but in time I came to be grateful for his generous blindness. I could talk to him openly, about my dreams for the future, without fear of his pitying me or doubting my motives.
The only comfort I had in being my sisters' sister was that I was "the clever one." To a certain extent this was damning me with faint praise, in the same category as accepting my given name as an epithet accurately reflecting my limited worth—it was the best that could be said of me. Our governesses had always remarked on my cleverness in a pitying tone of voice. But at least it was true. My intellectual abilities gave me a release, and an excuse. I shunned company because I preferred books; and the dreams I confided to my father were of becoming a scholar in good earnest, and going to University. It was unheard of that a woman should do anything of the sort—as several shocked governesses were only too quick to tell me, when I spoke a little too boldly—but my father nodded and smiled and said, "We'll see." Since I believed my father could do anything—except of course make me pretty—I worked and studied with passionate dedication, lived in hope, and avoided society and mirrors.
Our father was a merchant, one of the wealthiest in the city. He was the son of a shipwright, and had gone to sea as a cabin boy when he was not yet ten years old; but by the time he was forty, he and his ships were known in most of the major ports of the world. When he was forty, too, he married our mother, the Lady Marguerite, who was just seventeen. She came of a fine old family that had nothing but its bloodlines left to live on, and her parents were more than happy to accept my father's suit, with its generous bridal settlements. But it had been a happy marriage, old friends told us girls. Our father had doted on his lovely young wife—my two sisters took after her, of course, except that her hair had been red-gold and her eyes amber—and she had worshiped him.
When I was twelve, and Grace was nineteen, she became engaged to our father's most promising young captain, Robert Tucker, a blue-eyed, black-haired giant of twenty-eight. He set sail almost immediately after their betrothal was announced, on a voyage that was to take three long years but bode fair to make his fortune. There had been a Masque of Courtesy acted out among the three of them—Robbie, Grace, and Father—when the plans for the voyage and the wedding had first been discussed. Father suggested that they should be married right away, that they might have a few weeks together (and perhaps start a baby, to give Grace something to do while she waited the long months for his return) before he set sail. The journey could be delayed a little.
Nay, said Robbie, he wished to prove himself first; it was no man's trick to leave his wife in her father's house; if he could not care for her himself as she deserved, then he was no fit husband for her. But he could not yet afford a house of his own, and three years was a long time; perhaps she should be freed of the constraints of their betrothal. It was not fair to one so fair as she to be asked to wait so long. And then of course Grace in her turn stood up and said that she would wait twenty years if necessary, and it would be the greatest honour of her life to have the banns published immediately. And so they were; and Robbie departed a month later.
Grace told Hope and me at great length about this Masque, just after it happened. We sat over tea in Grace's rose silk hung sitting room. Her tea service was very fine, and she presided over the silver urn like a grand and gracious hostess, handing round her favorite cups to her beloved sisters as if we too were grand ladies. I put mine down hastily; after years of taking tea with my sisters, I still eyed the little porcelain cups askance, and preferred to wait until I could return to my study and ring for my maid to bring me a proper big mug of tea, and some biscuits.
Hope looked vague and dreamy; I was the only one who saw any humour in Grace's story—although I could appreciate that it had not been amusing for the principals—but then, I was the only one who read poetry for pleasure. Grace blushed when she mentioned the baby, and admitted that while Robbie was right, of course, she was a weak woman and wished—oh, just the littlest bit!—that they might have been married before he left. She was even more beautiful when she blushed. Her sitting room set her high color off admirably.
Those first months after Robbie set sail must have been very long ones for her. She who had been the toast of the town now went to parties very seldom; when Hope and Father protested that there was no need of her living like a nun; she smiled seraphically and said she truly didn't wish to go out and mix with a great many people anymore. She spent most of her time "setting her linen in order" as she put it; she sewed very prettily—I don't believe she had set a crooked stitch since she hemmed her first sheet at the age of five—and she already had a trousseau that might have been the envy of any three girls.
So Hope went out alone, with our chaperone, the last of our outgrown governesses, or sponsored by one of the many elderly ladies who thought she was just delightful. But after two years or so, it was observed that the incomparable Hope also began to neglect many fashionable gatherings; an incomprehensible development, since no banns had been published and no mysterious wasting diseases were whispered about. It was made comprehensible to me one night when she crept into my bedroom, weeping.
I was up late, translating Sophocles. She explained to me that she had to tell someone, but she couldn't be so selfish as to bother Grace when she was preoccupied with Robbie's safety —"Yes, I understand," I said patiently, although I privately thought Grace would be the better for the distraction of someone else's problems—but she, Hope, had fallen in love with Gervain Woodhouse, and was therefore miserable. I sorted out this curious statement eventually.
Gervain was an estimable young man in every way—but he was also an ironworker in Father's shipyard. His family were good and honest people, but not at all grand, and his prospects were no more than modest. He had some ideas about the ballasting of ships, which Father admired, and had been invited to the house several times to discuss them, and then stayed on to tea or supper. I supposed that this was how he and my sister had met. I didn't follow Hope's account of their subsequent romance very well, and didn't at all recognize her anguished lover as the reserved and polite young man that Father entertained. At any rate, Hope concluded, she knew Father expected her to make a great match, or at least a good one, but her heart was given.
"Don't be silly," I told her. "Father only wants you to be happy. He's delighted with the prospect of Robbie as a son-in-law, you know, and Grace might have had an earl."
Hope's dimples showed. "An elderly earl."
"An earl is an earl," I said severely. "Better than your count, who turned out to have a wife in the attic. If you think you'll be happiest scrubbing tar out of burlap aprons, Father won't say nay. And," I added thoughtfully, "he will probably buy you several maids to do the scrubbing."
Hope sighed. "You are not the slightest bit romantic."
"You knew that already," I said. "But I do remind you that Father is not an ogre, as you know very well if you'd only calm down and think about it. He himself started as a shipwright; and you know that still tells against us in some circles. Only Mother was real society. Father hasn't forgotten. And he likes Gervain."
"Oh, Beauty," Hope said; "but that's not all. Ger only stays in the city for love of me; he doesn't really like it here, nor ships and the sea. He was born and raised north of here, far inland. He misses the forests. He wants to go back, and be a blacksmith again."
I thought about this. It seemed like the waste of a first-class ironworker. I was also, for all my scholarship, not entirely free of the city bred belief that the north was a land rather overpopulated by goblins and magicians, who went striding about the countryside muttering wild charms. In the city magic was more discreetly contained, in little old men and women with bright eyes, who made up love potions and cures for warts in return for modest sums. But if this didn't bother Hope, there was no reason it should bother me.
I said at last: "Well, we'll miss you. I hope you won't settle too far away—but it's still not an insurmountable obstacle. Look here: Stop wringing your hands and listen to me. Would you like me to talk to Father about it first, since you're so timid?"
"Oh, that would be wonderful of you," my brighteyed sister said eagerly. "I've made Gervain promise not to say anything yet, and he feels that our continued silence is not right." It was a tradition in the family that I could "get around" Father best: I was the baby, and so on. This was another of my sisters' tactful attempts at recompense for the way I looked, but there was some truth to it. Father would do anything for any of us, but my sisters were both a little in awe of him.
"Umm, yes," I said, looking longingly at my books. "I'll talk to Father—but give me a week or so, will you please, since you've waited this long. Father's got business troubles, as you may have noticed, and I'd like to pick my time."
Hope nodded, cheerful again, called me a darling girl, kissed me, and slipped out of the room. I went back to Sophocles. But to my surprise, I couldn't concentrate; stories I'd heard of the northland crept in and disrupted the Greek choruses. And there was also the fact that Ger, safe and sensible Ger, found our local witches amusing; it was not that he laughed when they were mentioned, but that he became very still. In my role of tiresome little sister, I had harassed him about this, till he told me a little. "Where I come from, any old wife can mix a poultice to take off warts; it's something she learns from her mother with how to hem a shirt and how to make gingerbread. Or if she can't, she certainly has a neighbor who can, just as her husband probably has a good useful spell or two to stuff into his scarecrow with the straw, to make it do its work a little better." He saw that he had his audience's fixed attention, so he grinned at me, and added: "There are even a few dragons left up north, you know. I saw one once, when I was a boy, but they don't come that far south very often." Even I knew that dragons could do all sorts of marvelous things, although only a great magician could master one.
My opportunity to discuss Hope's future with Father never arrived. The crash came only a few days after my sister's and my midnight conversation. The little fleet of merchant ships Father owned had hit a streak of bad luck; indeed, since Robert Tucker had set sail in the White Raven three years ago, with the Windfleet, the Stalwart, and the Fortune's Chance to bear her company, nothing had gone right. Shipments were canceled, crops were poor, revolutions disturbed regular commerce; Father's ships were sunk in storms, or captured by pirates; many of his warehouses were destroyed, and the clerks disappeared or returned home penniless.
The final blow was a message brought by a weary, footsore man who had set sail as third mate on the Stalwart three years ago. The four ships had been driven apart by a sudden storm. The Stalwart and the Windfleet had been driven up on the shore and destroyed; only a handful of men survived. The Fortune's Chance was later discovered to have been taken by pirates who found it lost and disabled after the storm. Of the White Raven there was no word, of ship or crew, but it was presumed lost. The captain of the Windfleet had survived the wreck of the two ships, but at the cost of a crushed leg that refused to heal. A year ago the sailor who stood now, shredding his hat with his hands, had been sent by that captain with one other man, to try and work their way home and deliver their messages, and an urgent plea for assistance, since written letters seemed to have gone astray. There had been a dozen men left alive when the pair had set out, but their situation, alone in a strange country, was precarious. The sailor's companion had died by foul play, and he had heard nothing of the men he had left since shortly after his departure.
Excerpted from Beauty by Robin McKinley. Copyright © 1978 Robin McKinley. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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