After some hesitation due to overhyped ‘controversies’ in the recent Walt Disney Pictures release of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ which were dispelled by other parents who gave it a thumbs-up, we took our son to see it a few days ago. And we loved every minute of it. Inevitable comparisons are drawn with the 1991 animated version of the musical romantic fantasy, but this ‘real actors’ version has its own charm, quite apart from the 3-D and other special effects, and the four additional songs.

Inox for some reason sometimes screens English subtitles even for films in English, and I must frankly admit they can be quite a help sometimes in catching all of the dialogue, so I’m not complaining. In fact, that’s how I caught the fact that the Belle’s town was named Villeneuve in this latest version of the story. I vaguely remembered the name Villeneuve being associated with the original story, and decided to look it up when I got home.

Sure enough: Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (1685-1755) was the author of the original story of La Belle et la Bête (1740). The story was abridged, rewritten and published by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1756, without crediting Villeneuve, so Beaumont is often misquoted as the original author. It is my guess that in naming Belle’s town Villeneuve (also a clever pun, as it means ‘new town’ in French), the production team gave a nod to the original author.

Incidentally, Villeneuve drew inspiration from other French authors of fairy tales, notably Charles Perrault (1628-1703), author of Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (Little Red Riding Hood), Cendrillon (Cinderella), Le Chat Botté (Puss in Boots), La Belle au bois Dormant (Sleeping Beauty), and Barbe Bleue (Bluebeard).

In reading up all this and finding cross-references, I came upon an interesting, if unfortunate, real-life story that was the inspiration for Villeneuve’s fairy tale.

Pedro González (also referred in medical literature and historical records as Petrus Gonsalvus) was born in Tenerife in the Canary Islands in 1537. He would have led an unremarkable existence had he not been born with a rare skin condition called hypertrichosis, characterised by an abnormal amount of hair growth over the body. Its synonym is ‘werewolf syndrome’, and it is thought that the notion of the mythical werewolf (man-wolf, or lycanthrope) itself might have originated from sufferers of this condition.

González is thought to be descended from the indigenous kings of Tenerife before its conquest by Alonso Fernández de Lugo to the Crown of Castile. His skin condition must have been pronounced even in boyhood, and he was taken captive aged just 10 and sold, and perhaps after changing owners several times, was presented as a curiosity in 1547 to the court of Henry II, King of France. His presence probably added to the contemporary treatises on werewolves in France.

Possibly on account of his descent from Tenerife’s indigenous nobility, he was accorded special treatment as a nobleman, and given the title ‘Don’ Pedro González. He was kept in the French court as a sort of sideshow freak, the “wild man” with “hair as soft as sable”, the “werewolf of the Canaries”. He was given fine clothes and tutors from whom he learnt Latin (perhaps accounting for his Latin appellation as well) and two other languages, and other court refinements. Nevertheless, he was nicknamed ‘Barbet’, a kind of shaggy Belgian dog.

Upon the death of Henry II in 1559, his queen Catherine de Medici took it upon herself to find a wife for González. Thus began the search for a ‘beauty’ for the ‘beast’, as many quite seriously regarded González at the time.

Pedro Gonzalez

From the marriage records, we know this real-life ‘beauty’ to be Catherine Raffeliny. According to a Smithsonian channel documentary, the Queen had kept the identity and therefore the appearance of González a secret while seeking an arranged match for him. When Raffeliny first laid eyes on him, she was repulsed. Over time, she grew to love him for himself, and the couple had six children, four daughters and two sons. As congenital hypertrichosis is an X chromosome-linked dominant disorder, the condition was sadly transmitted to their daughters.

The González family became something of a travelling circus, becoming the talking point of Europe, and having paintings commissioned. A painting of Pedro González still hangs in the Chamber of Art and Curiosities, Ambras castle, Austria, which is why hypertrichosis is also called Ambras syndrome.

The family González settled in Italy with a new noble patron, the Duke Renuccio Farnese of Parma. Tragically, despite their trying to live as normal a life as possible, managing an estate in Parma, the affected children were given away by the Duke as curiosities, as gifts to his guests. One can only imagine the psychological trauma to children and parents. There is a painting of one hapless young daughter Antonetta, holding up a letter recounting her story, and the fact that she is now ‘owned’ by a new patron.

Pedro González finds mention for the last time in 1617, at the christening of his grandson. We know he died in 1619 in Capadimonte Italy, after 40 years of married life with Catherine. But it is possible he did not receive a Christian burial, being still not considered fully human.

So not quite the fairy-tale ending in real life, then. Perhaps the story of the Beauty and the Beast can be viewed as a parable about inner beauty, regardless of external appearance.

Those that appear different from the ‘norm’ are still unfortunately regarded as curiosities: remember the Munchkins in the Wizard of Oz? Or the achondroplasia and other forms of dwarfism employed as clowns in circuses?

I remember the stir created in medical circles some years ago by a person with hermaphroditism, and the rush to get clinical pictures taken and a case report written and published (“Publish or perish”), mindless of the feelings and trauma to the person at the centre of it all.

I can’t help also thinking of the letter to a section of the Goan press (with a picture helpfully accompanying it) complaining about the ‘menace’ posed by a homeless man living rough on our streets. The caption below the picture of the poor dishevelled long-haired bearded man asked “Is this a man or beast?” That the press saw fit to run it at all was outrageous, and thankfully there were several responses that reflected this outrage. In my opinion, holding up this homeless man to ridicule was the beastliest act of all.

(An edited version of this article was published on 2 April 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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