Beauty and the Beast. The Phantom of the Opera. My Fair Lady. The story is told repeatedly: a mature man becomes some sort of mentor to a young woman; over time an awkward romance blossoms out of the relationship. Sometimes the awkward romance involves a love triangle (Phantom-Christine-Raoul, or Henry Higgins-Eliza Doolittle-Freddie). This seems to be the more modern approach. For Beauty and the Beast, her love and loyalty to her father forms the triangle rather than any romance with a peer. The central figure, though, is always the mature male who is molding some portion of the young woman’s life to meet his standards and who then comes to view her entirely as his.
Henry Higgins wants Eliza to talk and act as a woman of high society. The Phantom wants Christine to sing as a well-trained soprano. The Beast wants Beauty to look beyond appearances and to have compassion, even affection, toward the misshapen.
The oldest version of this story, so far as I know, is the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche. Psyche is a beautiful young woman—so beautiful that men admire her from afar but are too frightened of her beauty to woo her. Eros sets out to fix her problem, but he falls in love with her himself. Even though he marries her, she is never allowed to see him; he comes to her only in the darkness of night. When her sisters (There’s the completion of the triangle.) tell her that her situation is too weird, she lights a candle to view him while he sleeps. She feared that he would be a monster, but he turns out to be achingly handsome. After all, he is a god. A drop from the candle falls and awakens him, and he flees from her; she must accomplish various impossible tasks before the couple can be reunited.
From a god to a hideous beast—or a deformed man living in the cellar and pretending to be a ghost—or a misanthropic linguist. Somehow this man is transformed by the presence of a vulnerable and shapeable young woman, and he learns that he needs her to make his life complete. Is this not a common male fantasy? And what does the young woman receive in exchange? She seeks a mentor, a teacher, or merely a host to take care of her. The last thing she wants is a lover, at least not one who is far older than she is and rather unattractive in other ways to boot.
Though much of the story remains the same, the ending varies. Beauty and the Beast find true love. Eliza spurns Freddie and returns to Henry Higgins (but only after he confesses to himself that he has “grown accustomed to her face”). Christine escapes the Phantom, who either disappears or dies, depending upon which version of the story you are following. At least Christine has Raoul, and Beauty still has her father. One wonders what will happen to Eliza; after a long diatribe on equal rights for women, the story ends with Henry Higgins demanding that she find his slippers in a tone reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.
This male fantasy, this cautionary tale for young women, has its roots in a culture in which women became wives while still in their teens, but men had to show that they could earn a living and support a family before they married, often in their late twenties or early thirties. Marriages were arranged, and romance generally was not a factor in the arrangement. The blossoming of romantic tales took place in medieval France, tales in which a woman typically garners romantic love from a man who is not her husband. (Think of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and Sir Lancelot.) Beauty and the Beast is not as old a story; it was written in the 1700s, and its usual form is known from the Blue Fairy Book of 1889. Perhaps that explains why that version of Eros and Psyche could include a marriage based on love, in which husband and wife live happily ever after. J.