In 1853, when Charlotte Brontë’s Villettewas published, women — and especially women of Brontë’s class — did not have much chance at independence. If catastrophes of finance or health took away their family support, they had few opportunities of making a living: governess, companion, odd jobs of sewing, occasionally a nurse. This very exigency shapes the life of Villette’s profoundly reserved protagonist, Lucy Snowe. Finding herself without the means to live, and with no one to depend on but herself, she travels to “Labassecour” (based on Belgium) and, despite lacking a word of French, finds a job teaching English at a pensionnat in the town of Villette. There she is unwillingly drawn into adventure and even romance, but the book is richer in psychology than it is in plot.
I admit that when I began reading the book, I was kind of looking forward to it as a second Jane Eyre. I was quick to realize that Lucy Snowe does bear some relation to her literary sister, but there were many more differences than similarities. Both women are keen observers of their surroundings, and especially of human personalities. Lucy loves to make little verbal sketches of the people around her, similar to the little drawings Jane makes, which reveal all their character: good points, flaws, and even what blessings and sufferings might be waiting for them in their future. Both women have a keen sense of their own worth, and that sense is independent of wealth or sex: Lucy knows that she “wouldn’t give sixpence” to be the beautiful, wealthy, sought-after (but empty-headed and vain) Ginevra Fanshawe. She also knows Monsieur Paul Emanuel’s desire to shield her eyes from shocking paintings and books for the absurdity it is. She utters no manifesto of equality like Jane’s, but she is clear about the truth.
That last sentence, about uttering what she knows, might be the biggest difference between the heroines. Lucy Snowe (chilly little thing) has what we like to call impulse control. I’ve seen her called passive, but on the contrary: can someone who successfully travels alone to an unknown country to find work be called passive? Instead, Lucy is quiet about her internal struggles. Her philosophy is that unhappiness is normal for the vast majority of people (obvious that she is not a 21st-century American), and she has the strength to accept that it will probably be her own lot. Where Jane rebels against those who would repress her, Lucy represses herself: she sees hope for a different life as an unnecessary torment, not a pleasure, so she roots it out where she can; another strong and active process, if a sad one.
This leads me to think that this attitude is the root of another difference between the books. In Jane Eyre, the supernatural is a real connection between the lovers, an (almost) unambiguous moment that saves Jane from a lifetime of misery. In Villette, the supernatural turns out to be an utter absurdity. Could it be that for the resigned Lucy, that kind of help is simply not on offer?
As a final comparison, of course, there are the men of the books. Charlotte Brontë liked them rough around the edges, didn’t she? (You’re all familiar by this time with the concept of dude-watchin’ with the Brontës, right? It applies here.) Yet she didn’t put them on a pedestal, or spare them. In both books, the heroine’s eventual independence (and here I mean financial independence, a life of her own, however defined) comes through tragedy visited primarily on the male.
One theme rather escaped me. There was a strong thread of anti-Catholic rhetoric running through Villette. Let me escape the wicked claws of the Pope! Spread your nets how you may, Babylon, you’ll never get this little Protestant! And your little dog, too! That sort of thing. I don’t see how it’s necessary, or how it fits. Is it just Lucy asserting her independence again, and knowing her identity? Otherwise, I can’t see it. Any help?
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. By comparing it to Jane Eyre, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s better or worse, but that it’s different, and that it is itself, a sentiment of which Lucy Snowe would no doubt approve.