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.
So if Belle is around 20 years old at the beginning of Beauty and the Beast, then what war were Gaston and LeFou returning from? Most likely the War of Polish Succession, which raged from 1733-1738 and embroiled countries from France to Russia in the Polish Civil War. That would give Gaston enough time to have resettled into village life but not enough time to work through his obvious PTSD. Though in a century where mental health was non-existent, there probably wasn’t going to be any “working through” that.
Now, the King of France during this time period was Louis XV, but he would not have been old enough to have a son the Beast’s age as he came to his throne in 1715 at the age of five. In fact, the French king would be around the same age as the Beast. That would make the Beast the son of King Louis XIV, otherwise known as the Sun King. However, the entire reason Louis XV came to the throne upon his great-grandfather’s death was because the old man had outlived every single one of his legitimate male children and grandchildren. The key word there being “legitimate.” Despite his piety, the Sun King had over a dozen of children with numerous mistresses. This was considered quite normal because, again, Royals were married as children for alliances and not something a proletarian as love. What wasn’t normal? Louis XV issued the Edict of Marly in 1714, which legitimized two of his bastard sons and gave them the ability to inherit the throne.
In our reality, none of Louis XV’s illegitimate sons were the right age to be the Beast, but assuming the trousers of time diverged our two worlds in more ways than just “magic is real here,” it’s the most elegant solution. It explains the Beast’s hedonistic ways before the Enchantress cursed him; he was trying to “fit in.” It also explains why no one noticed he was missing, why he was living in a castle in the middle of nowhere instead of Versailles, and why there was no pushback on him marrying a commoner. As far as the Royals were concerned, it the Beast didn’t deserve to marry above his station anyway.
Add all this up and voilà! The time period adds up to approximately 1740. This means that not only will Belle and the Beast have decades of years together before the French Revolution, they are both so physically isolated and so far down the list of royals, there’s good chance they and their family will be spared from the Reign of Terror. Phew.