By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, which was originally published in the British version of Vogue magazine, is a 1979 short story by Angela Carter (1940-92). The story was later collected in Carter’s 1979 book The Bloody Chamber.
Like most of the stories in The Bloody Chamber, ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’ took its inspiration from classic fairy tales. In this case, Carter’s story is a reworking of the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ tale. But precisely how we should approach, and analyse, Carter’s take on this well-known story requires a closer look at the text.
‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’: plot summary
Beauty waits at home one night for her father to return, but his car has broken down far from home. He comes to a house and, overcome with cold on a snowy night, he makes his way past the gates and into the strange house. Inside, he finds food and drink and telephones for assistance from the garage, although he is unable to call his daughter at home where she waits for him.
When the host of the house arrives, he introduces himself as the Beast. Beast is – there’s no other way to put this – a lion. The father had taken a white rose from the Beast’s house, as a present for his daughter, and Beast accuses the father of thieving from him, and demands that the man bring his beautiful daughter to dinner at his home.
Although Beauty is apprehensive in Beast’s company at first, he soon puts her at her ease by asking her about her dead mother and how her father, who had once been so rich, had ended up so poor. She even becomes happy during her time staying with him.
When her father telephones her to come home, Beauty tells the Beast she will have to leave him. He is so upset by this news that he begs her to return to him, and she tells him she will. The Beast helps her father to recover his fortune, and she soon forgets her promise. One night, she hears claws scrabbling at her door and finds Beast’s pet spaniel outside. The dog looks in a bad way, and Beauty senses that the Beast is dying, so she hurries to his house to see him.
When she sees him, he tells her he grew weak and sick when she left him. She tells him that if he will have her, she will be with him and never leave him again. And when she kisses his paws, he starts to turn from a lion into a man. And Beauty and the Beast live happily ever after, with Beast now transformed into a man.
‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’: analysis
Angela Carter turned to Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ for her inspiration for ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, although, as with all of the tales in The Bloody Chamber, Carter engages critically and analytically with her source material and makes some changes.
However, if we contrast this story with the other response to the Beauty and the Beast tale in The Bloody Chamber, namely ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’ displays a more conventional and orthodox attitude to gender relations than the story which follows it in that collection. Whereas ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ sees Beauty transformed into a tiger at the end of the story, ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’ ends with Beast transformed from beast or animal into a man – if not quite the prince of many fairy tales, then at least a flesh-and-blood human.
In some ways, Carter’s story might be summarised by summoning the biblical quotation (or actually a misquotation) about ‘the lion lying down with the lamb’. Beauty is described as ‘Miss Lamb’ at one point because she is ‘spotless’ and ‘sacrificial’ like a lamb, while ‘Mr Lyon’ will be brought out from his leonine spell when she promises to be with him forever. Unlike in other stories in The Bloody Chamber, where the heroine tames the wild wolf and turns him into a man, in ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’ it is Beauty’s tender profession of love for Beast that liberates him from his lion’s body.
For this reason, ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’ tends to be analysed as a less transgressive story in the collection, because it is ultimately about a heroine falling in love with a wild (but ultimately kindly and well-meaning) hero who is saved by her love and her promise to be his dutiful and loyal wife.
But it is worth pondering Beauty’s change of attitude. She begins by being summoned to Beast’s house because her father has made a promise to the Beast that he will bring her to dine with him; she starts out, then, as little more than a chattel used by the story’s two patriarchal figures, a way of her father saving his own skin (albeit largely for a ‘crime’ he committed in order to bring her a gift of a white rose). She views herself as innocent, pure, virginal, and ‘sacrificial’, like a lamb to the slaughter.
Indeed, Carter’s omniscient third-person narrator tells her that she stayed in the Beast’s company, even though he made her uncomfortable, ‘because her father wanted her to do so’. This is a woman who has grown up without a strong woman to guide and influence her. Yet she ends up falling for him, despite her reservations. The Beast himself is portrayed as shy and tentative when he proposes that she stay with him.
In other words, if the feminist ‘credentials’ of ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’ are somewhat lacking when we compare this story with others in The Bloody Chamber, the patriarchal elements are also rather muted or downplayed. The father may ‘pimp’ his daughter out to Mr Lyon, but this ‘Beast’ turns out to be already half-tamed in Beauty’s presence, even before the miraculous transfiguration at the end of the story.
Nevertheless, Carter’s narrative invites us to ask a number of questions about the characters. Is Beauty now a ‘kept’ woman, whose father’s newly reacquired fortune hinges on her feeling a sense of debt to the Beast? Was she falling in love with ‘Mr Lyon’ when she spent time with him, or was she merely making the best of a bad situation? Is Carter inviting us to consider how many women throughout history have had to convince themselves they are in love with the man whom they feel on some level obliged to marry?