The Beauty, the Beast, and the Buboes

Let me preface my remarks by saying that this post will be utterly replete with spoilers for the film Beauty and the Beast. The 2017 live-action version, that is, inasmuch as any film largely populated by a big hairy creature and his ambulatory furniture can be considered as live-action.

So you’ve had four years, but if you still haven’t seen it, and still want to – without benefit of spoilers – then stop right here and step away from the Continue & Comment. (It is possible that this post will also contain spoilers for films yet to be made, but I can’t help that and neither can you.)

Still here? All righty then. While largely hailed as a close remake of the 1991 animated version, the “live-action” film did make some changes, in part to address various issues people have raised with the original. The unlikelihood of a bookshop in a small provincial town, for example, and Gaston’s rather inaccurate claim that “every square inch of me’s covered in hair” when, compared to the Beast, he’s as bald as a coot.

Fulica leucoptera GALLARETA CHICA
A coot for purposes of comparison. (The yellow lump is the bald bit.)

But in addition to this they introduce a magical book which allows Belle and the Beast to visit her former home in Paris, where she finds a plague doctor’s mask and Remembers All… most notably her mother urging Maurice (Belle’s father) to take little Belle and flee into the healthy countryside, because she herself is dying of plague. Off they rush, and they never see Belle’s mother again.

And that’s where the film leaves it. Belle and the Beast return by booky magic to the comfort of the castle library, and the story goes on its familiar way. To be honest, I don’t remember exactly what happened after that, because my mind was spinning with a most tremendous idea.

But to explain, I must first use a drop or two of what might be considered book-adjacent magic to travel back in time and space. The place: the University of Canterbury. The year: 2004. A much more youthful but already fairly eccentric Deborah matriculates, and one of her first courses is HIST133: Medieval Europe from Rome to the Black Death.

N.D. à la Rose 1117

Ahh, the Black Death. Also known as The Plague, also known – slightly inaccurately – as bubonic plague. Only slightly inaccurately, mind you, because bubonic plague is indeed one form of The Plague. But only one. There are three, and all are caused by the same greebly: Yersinia pestis.

Bubonic plague is named after the swellings or buboes which appear wherever you have lymph nodes, because it majors on the lymph system. Pneumonic plague is all about the lungs, and septicaemic plague works through the blood. Septicaemic plague, if I recall my essay research clearly, is the really nasty one. Your chance of recovery is pretty well nil, and it works so fast that people would go to bed apparently healthy and never wake up.

Pneumonic plague would make you sick for a couple of days, and you had maybe a one in ten chance of Not Dying – if you were lucky. Bubonic plague was the one to get, if you were going to get one at all. (Generally not recommended.) You’d spend a week wishing you were dead, and then you would either a) be dead, or b) get better. Pretty much a coin toss which way it went.

Peste bubonique - enluminure
Suspiciously large quantities of buboes.

So naturally, my mind was exploding with History and Mystery and Sequel Opportunities when I saw the little vignette with Belle’s mother. Follow me closely here.

Belle’s mother clearly had bubonic rather than pneumonic or septicaemic plague, or she wouldn’t have lived long enough for a) the severely overworked doctor to come and make a diagnosis and b) any touching farewell scenes.

Belle’s father took his little girl and fled the city for the relative healthiness of a little town in the countryside. He never goes back, though it is plain he is still pining for his beloved wife.

Which leads to the obvious conclusion: Belle’s mother had a 50/50 chance of recovery, and no one saw her die. And since her husband and child cut off all ties to their past, she may have survived but been unable to find them. She may have been searching for them ever since, until one day when she sees in the window of a shop an intricate mechanical creation which she knows at once must be her husband’s work…

Singing bird box by Frères Rochat, circa 1810

N’est-ce pas?

2 Replies to “The Beauty, the Beast, and the Buboes”

  1. Are you putting your hand up to write the sequel, “Beauty and the Beast II: Reunion” ?
    In which Belle and the prince have a baby, and seeing a painting jogs the memory of a woman living in the outskirts of Paris…
    You could write the book and have another person do the lyrics and music.

    1. There has been a suggestion circulating on the internet for several years now that the natural sequel is Beauty and the Beast Go to Ikea (since all their furniture has turned into people).

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