Beauty and the Beast took place in mid-1700s France. As we all know, Belle and her father lived in a “provincial town” on the coast of France before the French Revolution. So, what was France like during this time?
Well, mid-1700s France was, basically, at the peak of its power. King Louis XV had started ruling in 1715 until 1774 and had absolute power with the Catholic Church of France on his side. France was second only to Great Britain in trade, and it had the largest unified territory, sporting 22 million people. The population was at least 3 times more than England, and 6 times more than the lands around it like the Netherlands and Sweden.
Unfortunately, in her quick and intense rise to power, France’s ordinary citizens were being left behind. Farmers had trouble keeping up with the rising population, as there were too few acres to grow on for each farming family. Technology in farming was also discouraged by the monarchy. Farmers could never keep money to help themselves because their taxes consistently rose. Good thing Belle and her father weren’t farmers, eh?
On the side of the arts and the upcoming Enlightenment period, however, France was a power house. King Louis XV had moved the capitol to Versailles and built an entire village for his family and surrounding nobles. His official mistress, Madame Pompadour, was known as the patron of the arts and literature. Like Belle, she loved reading. In fact, she had her own huge library, just like the Beast did, with thousands of books to choose from. When the Enlightenment—a period of philosophical and scientific breakthroughs—was rising, Madame Pompadour was leading the movement.
So, where could Belle have been in all of France?
It is thought that the “provincial town” Belle and her father lived in was inspired by La Rochelle, an actual small provincial town that the original author, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Gallon de Villeneuve, was born in. The saying goes, “La Rochelle: belle et rebelle” Beauty and Rebel, and that was exactly what this town was known for. Though still just as illiterate as most of France once was at that time, La Rochelle was steps ahead of the rest of the country. Protestant when France was Catholic, La Rochelle fought for religious peace and individualism for centuries.
In fact, about the time Belle and the Beast met, the Enlightenment had already made it way towards La Rochelle. This would soon be a great time for the town, as its water trade benefitted greatly. Their harbors would be taking more ships and creating larger entrances for trade. Maybe that’s why the town bustles the way we always see it do in the musical? It would also be understandable as to why we would find such an enlightened pair such as Belle and her father in this sweet little town. They were merely ahead of the curb.
During the time, the Beast was obviously not known throughout the town, as most nobles like him kept to themselves. Aristocrats tended to be absent from the people, hairy or not. Beast, however, did fit this period just as well in the story as in reality. His castle offered many Baroque-style features but had an Enlightenment touch with the impressive library he kept.
Of course, not as glorious as true fairytales, France during the mid-1700s was just as exciting and wild as Beauty and the Beast portrays it, except, you know, without the enchanted silverware.