Villette

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.

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21 Responses to Villette

  1. Jeanne says:

    I had not seen that comic, dude-watchin’ with the Brontes–fabulous! I was bothered by Lucy’s repression of her own impulses. I wanted to see her break free. But then again, I wanted to see Jo March marry Laurie, which is imposing the same kind of modern sensibility on a 19th-century situation.

    • Jenny says:

      Aha, see, I never wanted Jo to marry Laurie. I thought she was quite right and knew her own mind. And I didn’t want Lucy to be any different, at least in terms of restraint. I did wish she could be in happier circumstances, but honestly, she did very well. Wasn’t the ending a sarcastic little sop to people who want “le happy-end,” as the French say?

  2. Ha ha ha ha! Villette, ha ha ha ha! Get ’em, Lucy!

    I have got to reread this & Jane Eyre and write up my long-threatened misreading of Brontë. Would you believe that I have answers to every question you ask – it is an all-encompassing theory. Not plausible answers, but answers. E.g., tie the anti-Catholicism into the teasing theme and see what happens.

    That is exactly right that Lucy represses herself, and does so consciously – the letter-burying scene is proof of that, She is a heroine with unusual self-understanding.

    I have to say, I am not such an enthusiastic fan of Beaton’s cartoon. She seems to confuse the authors with the characters in their own novels.

    • Jenny says:

      Unusual self-understanding, yes, and unusual understanding of others, as well. Though for a very sensitive heroine, she ‘s pretty tough.

      I am now extremely curious about your all-encompassing Bronte theory. Please share!

      Beaton’s cartoon might not be nuanced literary criticism — being a cartoon — but I think she got it mostly right, and that’s why it’s funny.

  3. Kristen M. says:

    This is one that I’m glad I read before I joined the blogging world. I enjoyed its slow pace and thought Lucy was a strong character within the constraints of her station and world. But now I see a lot of criticism of this novel and I’m sure it would have tainted my views of the book. As is, I know that I enjoyed it and I hope to enjoy it again one day!

    • Jenny says:

      I haven’t seen any criticism of this one! The blurb on the back of my copy says Lucy is passive and secretive, and I disagree with both. She’s reserved and quiet, but strong and intelligent. I liked her a lot as a character, and the scope and psychology of the book were great.

  4. I definitely want to read this one!

  5. janegs says:

    I liked your comparison of Lucy Snowe and Jane Eyre. While I haven’t yet read Villette (I started it a long time ago, but found it deadly at the time), I do know that it is almost autobiographical, meaning that Lucy is much closer to CM than is Jane, which could account for the anti-Catholic thread as I believe that’s where CB was herself.

    >Her philosophy is that unhappiness is normal for the vast majority of people
    This is an interesting comment–my father, born in 1921 in England, told me pretty much the same thing when I was whining about something. His philosophy was that he and my mother didn’t expect to be find life particularly happy or ever easy but you got on with things, did your duty, and didn’t complain about it.

    • Jenny says:

      I think it was a common philosophy for hundreds of years. The quotation that comes to mind is actually from Ma Ingalls, from the Little House books: This earthly life is a battle,” said Ma. “If it isn’t one thing to contend with, it’s another. It always has been so, and it always will be. The sooner you make up your mind to that, the better off you are, and the more thankful for your pleasures.” (And I’m sure Ma would have been equally anti-Catholic!)

  6. Just why Beaton’s cartoon makes me nervous. Villette is not “almost autobiographical.” It is fiction. Or else it is 100% autobiographical, but the autobiography of Lucy Snowe.

    It’s the treatment of Emily that galls me in the cartoon, though. Where is the slightest hint of evidence that Emily B. mooned over Heathcliff? He’s the villain!

    • Jenny says:

      1) Are you just being ornery? Authors draw on elements from their own lives to nourish their fiction all the time. It is a truth universally, etc. Charlotte drew on her experience in Belgium as a teacher to feed Villette (I’m making the Bronte novels sound like vampires; perhaps they were; discuss.)
      2) Who says you can’t moon over a villain? People do it every day. The funny part of the cartoon is that readers do this. Oh, that gorgeous Heathcliff. Oh, that lovely Mr. Rochester. Anne is here to remind us not to project.

  7. Teresa says:

    Gah! I wish I had read this more recently than 15 (or more) years ago so I could have something intelligent to say. Mostly I remember that I found it harder going initially than Jane Eyre but that I liked it a lot in the end, but that’s not very insightful. I have a vague recollection of being impressed by the talk of providence and seeing it was parallel to the voice on the wind that Jane hears, but I was at the time always on high alert for anything remotely resembling Christian imagery in works I admired, so I might have been grasping at a flimsy straw.

    I think part of the brilliance of Wuthering Heights is that it’s hard to get at just what Emily thought of her characters. Some read Heathcliff as a Byronic hero raging against circumstance; others see a plain-dealing villain. I prefer Jane Eyre, but there are times when I think Wuthering Heights is a more accomplished, complex work.

    • Jenny says:

      I actually compared the voice on the wind to the creepy business with the ghostly nun, who of course (spoilers!) turns out to be a hoax. What is supernatural help for Jane is nonsense for Lucy.

      It’s been years since I’ve read Wuthering Heights. I ought to read it again, but I found it so tiring the first time. Maybe I’d like it better the second.

      • Teresa says:

        As you know, it took me two tries to like Wuthering Heights at all. I’ve read it at least three times now and liked it more each time. And you liked it some on the first go, so you’re ahead of me.

  8. Not particularly ornery. I agree completely with your description of what authors do, making all of their works autobiographical.

    Note what Jane is doing with the biographical reading. The unusually autobiographical nature of the novel (which I deny – it is ordinarily autobiographical) “accounts for” the anti-Catholicism. It is thus not an artistic choice, and there is no need to include it in our interpretation.

    You think Beaton’s joke is on the bad readers of the Brontë’s. I like that interpretation a lot. I was reading the cartoon quite badly.

    • Jenny says:

      Sorry for accusing you of orneriness, Tom. A bad day with bad readers, myself — one of which you are certainly not.

      The novel is not unusually autobiographical, and even if it were, it wouldn’t account for the anti-Catholicism, and that’s why I am curious about how it fits and functions. I saw it initially as a way to assert identity, and perhaps also hardship. What do you mean, about teasing?

  9. Most major relationships in Villette that we see in any detail are heavy on teasing: Dr. John & his mother (I have seen some uncomprehending readers describe it as creepy), Ginevra and Lucy, Lucy and M. Paul. Also, while I’m at it, Rochester and Jane. Also, Lucy and whoever is reading this book. Who is reading the book? And then I become a crackpot, so I will stop there.

    The identity angle is good. It aligns with Lucy’s merciless, mocking renaming of Belgium, Brussels, and Belgian noblemen and professors. Maybe she is protecting herself from something. What am I saying, “maybe”?

    My extra-crackpot idea is that Lucy’s family secret is that she’s Jewish, as is M. Saul. Hmmm? Pretty good, huh? But that’s parallel universe Villette, not this one.

  10. Alex says:

    This is probably my least favorite f all the Bronte novels (but still have The Professor and Shirley to go). I would also not call Lucy passive, but rather passive-aggressive. She’s quick to pass judgments (and let’s face it, most of the negative) about people and places, but she doesn’t make a lot of effort to interact, to discover, to… I don’t know, be happy?

  11. Pingback: An attitude of reasonable integrity. | mountainmae

  12. EF says:

    This post is a few years old, and I don’t what the commenting etiquette is–so forgive me if this comment is annoying or in bad form–but Villette is one of my favorite novels and I have a theory as to the strong anti-Catholicism, which I think is in and of itself integral to understanding the book. I should warn anyone reading this that, before they continue, be aware that my review will most certainly not be spoiler-free.

    It’s been about a year since I’ve read the book, so I may get the finer points wrong, but isn’t Catholicism one of things that gets in the way of Lucy and M. Paul’s relationship? Lucy seems to think it (i.e. Catholicism)–along with Madame Beck–certainly is; indeed, Lucy denounces “a woman’s envy and a priest’s bigotry” as the two “pursuing furies” that (almost) prevent her from saying goodbye to M. Paul. Granted, that quote does make it seem as if she lays more of the blame on Pere Silas, but Catholicism and Madame Beck both receive such interesting treatment in the novel that I think Bronte wants us to probe deeper.

    Throughout her narrative, Lucy is filled with invective at Madame Beck and Catholicism–even when the circumstances don’t seem to match her feelings. Take Madame Beck–she is, yes, prying, but she compliments Lucy and, Lucy even admits, gets Lucy to rise above her station in life. It is only later that we find out why Lucy is so bitter towards Madame Beck; yet for a narrator who claims to “give the feeling as at the time [she] felt it” as well as (!) “describe the view of character as it appeared when discovered,” this is remarkably inconsistent.

    I think Catholicism suffers the same fate in the novel; Lucy (the old woman writing the story) knows her religion will be used against her and pose an obstacle (as a young woman) to her relationship with M. Paul. Thus, her knowledge of what will happen causes her anger to spill into her narrative, distorting her ability to “give the feeling as at the time [she] felt it.” The same happens with her depiction of Madame Beck.

    I think that this is an essential component of the novel; not only does Lucy now become an unreliable narrator on multiple dimensions, but Bronte is asking us to question the stolidity of our views and reflections on life, as they (and thus our values) are subject to change with our experiences (I’ll stop here, but, honestly, I could go on forever–I think this lesson is at the heart of the novel). I don’t know anything autobiographical about Charlotte Bronte–it may very well be true that she had anti-Catholic sentiments, but I don’t think that Villette in itself leads us to believe that. Remember that Bronte makes M. Paul himself a devout Catholic, and she has Lucy upbraid Pere Silas’s religious “bigotry” (I use the quotation marks to quote, not to mock). Instead, I think it plays into what I mentioned above: Bronte’s desire to have us question the–in this case retrospective–narratives we construct of our lives.

    Really good post, by the way. “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” is a great observation.

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