Friday, March 24, 2023

Beyond the Magic Castle

We don’t often think of fairy tales as having much connection to real life. We talk about the fairy-tale endings of rom-coms or even real people living fairy-tale existences, but most of us recognize those seemingly idyllic situations as illusions. Life contains happiness but also sorrow, and relationships are always complicated. Even less do we see the magical elements—lonely, haunted castles; witches riding brooms and casting spells; princes turned into frogs—as anything more than delightful escapes from our prosaic everyday lives.

But as Molly Greeley shows in her wonderful new novel, Marvelous—the subject of my latest interview on the New Books Network—at least one well-known fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast, grew out of an extraordinary set of historical circumstances. Before Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm—and long before Disney’s singing Belle—the story of Pedro Gonzales (Petrus Gonsalves) and his wife, Catherine, circulated out from the sixteenth-century French court of Henri II, acquiring layers of magic and meaning that gradually obscured the real-life couple at the heart of the tale. Stripped of its veils—although still fictionalized—it becomes a story for grownups who know that it takes more than a magic wand to make a marriage work. And watching Pedro and Catherine struggle with their own preconceptions and problems as well as the complex demands placed on them and the often careless insults meted out to them by their world makes for a rich and rewarding adventure.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.


Once in a while, a novel comes along that is both different and special. Marvelous  is such a book. Retellings of fairy tales are not unusual, and some of them are quite good. But here Molly Greeley explores the real-life story that gave rise to one of the best-loved tales, Beauty and the Beast. In doing so, she raises issues of inclusion, trust, acceptance, the effects of trauma, and basic humanity—all in a gentle, non-preachy way.

Pedro Gonzales, later known as Petrus Gonsalvus or Pierre Sauvage (Pierre the Savage, which itself says a great deal about other people’s views of him), was born on Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands, around 1537. We know from early on that he was abandoned by his mother as an infant, presumably because he was born covered in hair—a rare genetic condition that was seen at the time as evidence that a child was the spawn of a devil. His adoptive mother, Isabel, belongs to the indigenous people of Tenerife, the Guanche, whose culture and religion have been all but obliterated by the conquering Spaniards. So she and her son, Manuel, are also, in a sense, outcasts.

When Pedro is around nine, pirates kidnap him, and he winds up at the court of the French King Henri II and Henri’s wife, Catherine de’ Medici. Henri, charmed by Pedro’s combination of strangeness and acumen, takes the child under his wing and gives him a royal education, as well as financial support. But the effects of Pedro’s abandonment, early mistreatment, and capture—heightened by the suspicion and disrespect of his fellow nobles, most of whom see him as little better than a trained monkey—leave him feeling perennially unsure of himself.

When Catherine de’ Medici arranges his marriage to her namesake, the beautiful sixteen-year-old daughter of a merchant who has fallen on hard times, Pedro has no idea how to talk to this girl who is half his age. Her discomfort—how many teenage girls want to marry, sight unseen, a taciturn man in his mid-thirties who looks like a Wookie?—plays into Petrus’s fears, and the newlywed couple struggles to find a connection. But when fate deals Catherine a hand she has both anticipated and feared, she rises to the challenge, and Pedro begins to realize that she is nothing like the mother he lost.

Greeley does a great job in conveying the sensory experience of her two leads and, by alternating Pedro’s view with Catherine’s, charting their individual growth, which in turn creates a credible portrayal of their developing relationship. If you love books focused on family and identity, as well as stories set just a little off the beaten path, this is definitely a novel for you.

Images: Nineteenth-century rendering of Beauty and the Beast and sixteenth-century depiction of Petrus Gonsalves and his Catherine, both public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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