Villette, Charlotte Brontë, 1853

Largely based on what Charlotte Brontë lived during her time in Brussels, Villette recounts Lucy Snowe’s journey, from her godmother’s house in England to a boarding school for girls in the fictional kingdom of Labassecour (but Belgium, really). Lucy is a very secretive and passive girl of fourteen when we first meet her, and she’s staying with her godmother at Bretton. The latter has a son who goes to school so he’s not always at home, but even when he is, Lucy doesn’t have any particular link with him. One day, little Polly comes to stay at Bretton as well, her mother is gone and her father needs to go to the continent for business so he leaves his daughter with Mrs Bretton. The six-year-old Polly quickly becomes infatuated with Graham Bretton, who’s on holiday from school. Lucy mainly observes this funny little girl in her relationship with sixteen-year-old Graham, who merely amuses himself. When her dad comes to get her home, Polly is devastated to leave although thrilled to see her beloved father again. Shortly, Lucy too leaves Bretton and since she has no relatives whatsoever – apart from her godmother, of course – she has to work. She becomes a caretaker for a dying old lady, and when the latter dies, she finds herself without purpose. She decides to use her small amount of money to go abroad and hopefully, find new perspectives on the continent. Somehow, she manages to get hired by Madame Beck in her pensionnat for girls, in the town of Villette, where she becomes an English teacher. In Villette, she will meet M. Paul, a strange man who teaches literature, and people from her past.

Villette book cover

When you start reading Villette, it is very hard to see what is so appealing about it. Lucy Snowe is so passive and odd, you actually wonder why she’s the narrator and how this could become interesting. But then, you get caught up in her story and finish the book wondering what actually happened to you during your reading. I did not think the story of this novel was peculiarly gripping or rich, but when I first started to sum it up here, I realised that it was quite the opposite. There are so many things to say! So many things to be told!

However, I would like to focus especially on the strength of Villette and how incredibly powerful this book is.

‘Descending, I went wandering whither chance might lead, in a still ecstasy of freedom and enjoyment; and I got – I know not how – I got into the heart of city life. i saw and felt London at last: I got into the Strand; I went up Cornhill; I mixed with the life passing along; I dared the perils of crossings. To do this, and to do it utterly alone, gave me, perhaps an irrational, but a real pleasure. (chap. 6, p. 54)

First of all, it seems to me that the passion Charlotte Brontë put in her fourth novel is nowhere to be found in the rest of her works – even in Jane Eyre. And that’s something to say! Like Jane Eyre, Lucy Snowe has to come to terms with the fact that she will probably never marry because she has no situation and no family.  Both women are incredibly strong in their research for a life of their own. However, in Villette, there is a more personal dimension that changes radically from Jane Eyre. I don’t know exactly to what extent this story is autobiographical but it is clear that some characters and events are real. Charlotte and her sister Emily spent several months at Pensionnat Heger, in Brussels to improve their skills as teachers, in 1842. A year later, Charlotte returned on her own and spent a year there. We don’t know for sure what happened in Belgium, but when she came back to England, Charlotte started to write love letters to her former professor, Constantin Heger. Her letters remained unanswered, and we can only but guess that this was a traumatic experience for Charlotte; a heartbreak that she struggled to part with since she first wrote The Professor in link to her experience in Belgium, and then Villette. We suppose that M. Paul is a depiction of Constantin Heger, and that Madame Beck is actually a representation of Mrs Heger. With this novel, Brontë manages to rewrite history and face her female rival to end up with the man she loves… or does she ? The ending of the novel is very blurry and open, the reader is free to choose the ending he/she pleases. Unfortunately, I am not of the optimistic kind but in any case, because this story resonates so much with the author’s life, there is a great strength added to it when you read the novel.

Moreover, there is a fantastic cast of characters which has a true richness to it – each different and embodying a myriad of aspects of society. As Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar argued in The Mad Woman in the Attic, the women of Villette are representations of all the dimensions that constitute Lucy’s inner-self. I quite argue with that reading, of course, but even if we consider these female characters on their own, they are absolutely convincing. Even a 21st-century reader can see similarities between the women in the book and some women in real life. It is the same for the male characters. Charlotte Brontë had a remarkable eye for her characters’ psyche, and Villette is no exception. However, what is really significant is how these characters behave with our narrator, and main character. Some barely speak to Lucy throughout the whole novel or are quite cold to her (although not distant, in the case of Mrs Bretton); some have negative comments and attitudes towards Lucy (I think of the very blunt description Ginevra makes of Lucy, ‘you have no relations; you can’t call yourself young at twenty-three; you have no attractive accomplishments – no beauty.’, chap.14, p.169). Only two characters stand out of the crowd for their relatively warm appreciation of Lucy: Polly and M. Paul. It is quite interesting to consider that, if we consider that Polly is nothing else than the externalisation of Lucy’s repressed need for love and Paul is what we could define as a ‘love-interest’ (although, their relationship is a bit more complex than a simple crush, or romantic interest). Talking about these characters and their relationships with Lucy Snowe leads me to the core of the novel, and its main source of power – Lucy’s inner-self.

Indeed, the restraint that she shows is incredibly strong, she refrains herself from living and becomes her own prisoner, in a sense. Only the reader knows her true self, and we can still doubt about this fact since she holds information back. At first, Lucy appears incredibly passive, she observes people and lives through their experiences. During her trip to Labassecour, she becomes a little more active but keeps her voyeuristic habits once at Madame Beck’s school – just like the latter, who is described always observing others. Lucy is secretive, and even her reader wonders whether he or she actually knows her. She never explains what happened to her family, and we cannot help but to feel that she is in the waiting, she does not know what for but her life has yet to start. This is a depiction of the plight of many Victorian women considered as ‘redundant’ because they could not marry, and being a wife and mother was the only purpose of woman’s life. This is illustrated in the following quote :

‘I will permit the reader to picture me, for the next eight years, as a bark slumbering through halcyon weather, in a harbour still as glass – the steersman stretched on the little deck, his face up to heaven, his eyes closed: buried, if you will, in a long prayer. A great many women and girls are supposed to pass their lives something in that fashion: why not I with the rest?’ (chap. 4, p.38)

Lucy has thus no choice but to refrain from expressing herself and keep her true self for the evening, when she is free to wander in the garden of the school. Unlike Polly or Ginevra, Lucy cannot rely on the sweet love or admiration of a man to grow up. She has to manage and do that on her own, because as Ginevra says, she has nothing – not even beauty. However the repression of her needs will lead her to a terrible nervous breakdown, when she is absolutely alone in the world with no one to care about her. This passage is strikingly powerful because Lucy is at a complete loss and the reader can but feel her utter suffering. Her strength also comes from her will, but also from her acute knowledge of her situation. She is a young woman and if she might start dreaming at one point, she quickly realises that she is not made to be the heroine of a novel (in the traditional sense of the term, for a romantic story, especially), although she wishes she could be:

‘The love, born of beauty was not mine; I had nothing to do with it: I could not dare to meddle with it, but another love, venturing diffidently into life after long acquaintance, furnace-tried by pain, stamped by constancy, consolidated by affection’s pure and durable alloy, submitted by intellect to intellect’s own tests, and finally wrought up, by his own process, to his own unflawed completeness, this Love that laughed at Passion, his fast frenzies and his hot and hurried extinction, in this Love I had a vested interest; and whatever tended either to its culture or its destruction, I could not view impassibly.’ (chap.39, p.555)

Villette is not a happy love story, and there is a dark pessimism that cannot be found in Jane Eyre, or not to the same extent at least. It is, however a book that overpowered me and swept me off my feet. It is so very powerful in the strength of its feelings! I first started to read it  year ago, but was definitely not in the right place for that. I relate to Lucy, a lot, so I have to feel alright to read her story or I am the one having a mental breakdown. Also, I sometimes felt a bit insulted because Charlotte Brontë did not like Catholics, and French people. Here is a quote about the inhabitants of Villette, ‘The natives, you know, are intensely stupid and vulgar; but there are some nice English families.’ (chap.6, p.61)

Richard Redgrave, The Sempstress, 1846

The featured image is Richard Redgraves’s The Sempstress (1846). Although Lucy is not a seamstress, this painting is Lucy Snowe. The woman is wearing a pink dress, like the new dress Lucy wears to go to the opera with the Brettons. She seems to be a prisoner of the room, whilst people seem to be starting to live outside. Maybe this house in the background is La Terrasse? The way her face is lit is rather dramatic and reminds me of more religious paintings. She appears as a martyr, a representation of the many Victorian women who could not be themselves and did not really belong anywhere, because of the impossibility of them getting married.

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