If you’ve followed my work for any length of time, you know I’m a huge fan of Disney princesses. I like them almost as much as I love overthinking entertainment. So of course when the live-action Beauty and the Beast remake was announced, I combined to the two interests. But after writing about how Emma Watson’s ballgown doesn’t fit the time period based on the fashion cues of the rest of the cast, I couldn’t stop thinking about how Belle was going to die. I mean, everyone dies. But specifically, I was worried about how Belle was giving up her poor, provincial life for a royal husband on the eve of the French Revolution. Is the reason Disney’s “sequel” to the animated classic took place during the Christmas prior to the Beast’s transformation to spare us from grim reality? Or is it possible Belle and her Beast could escape the guillotine? The only way to be sure was some investigative reporting into a fictional world that is no doubt historically divergent from our own, but shut up and go with it.
While the 1991 animated version of Beauty and the Beast is sparse on context clues, the live-action adaptation fleshes out Belle’s story and gives more background to both the Beast and Gaston, making it easier to determine approximate dates. Audiences learn Belle’s mother died of the plague when she was a baby, that the Beast was raised by a hedonistic father figure, and that Gaston was an army captain in a recent war. Using these touchstones places the events of Beauty and the Beast around 1740 and not later in the century.
Outbreaks of the plague may have been at its height in Europe during the 14th century, but pockets of the deadly disease continued to pop up until the early 19th century. As the disease is virulent, where there was one death there would be hundreds or thousands of others. Using the fashion of the film as a jumping off point, the only plague outbreak that fits the parameters is the Great Plague of Marseille of 1720-1723. During these two years, over 100,000 people died in the town and its surrounding provinces. Since Marseille is a port town, it’s not beyond belief that sailors and merchants could bring the plague upriver to Paris (or that Belle’s bohemian family traveled from one place to the other before her mother took ill).
If Belle were born between 1720 and 1723, then her age in the film would be around twenty. Despite widespread belief to the contrary, the age of marriage has remained constant for centuries. Focus on royal stories, where the pool of potential spouses was both limited and competitive, may have us believe everyone was shacking up by the time puberty hit but peasants waited because the only reason to marry children off to each other is to lock up those sweet, sweet alliances.