Review: Villette, Charlotte Brontë

I hadn’t planned to read Villette for this round of Brooding about the Brontës but I ended up hearing so much about it as I went through the biographies and secondary material that my curiousity got the better of me.  It is a surprising thing for a book so consistently lauded as Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece to be one of the poor relations within the Brontë canon.  Critics as diverse as G H Lewes, George Eliot and Lucasta Miller hail it as Charlotte’s most sophisticated piece of work and yet everyone seems to agree that it is an uncomfortable read and far less likable than Jane Eyre.  The ending on its own has people tearing their hair, let alone the number of readers who seem to take issue with Lucy Snowe, the novel’s heroine.  Rarely have I begun a book with so much trepidation – was it possible that I could actually enjoy Villette?

Admittedly, my first impression was one of relief – Charlotte had returned to the first person style with her third novel and so the prose is much easier to follow than Shirley.  Rather than the to-ing and fro-ing around curates and mill politics, we know from the very beginning who the focus of the story is.  We first meet Lucy Snowe as a teenager, living with her godmother Mrs Bretton for reasons which are never made clear.  Also in residence is Mrs Bretton’s son John Graham Bretton, known as Graham.  Six year-old Polly comes to stay with the family after the death of her mother and she becomes strongly attached to Graham.  Eventually, Polly is reclaimed by her father and Lucy returns home.

Flashing forward several years, Lucy is without family and takes up a position as companion to a Miss Marchmont.  Lucy finds contentment but then her employer dies and so a new position must be sought.  Despite knowing very little French, Lucy decides to try her luck in Belgium, travelling to the town of Villette (fictionalised version of Brussels) and by chance finding a job as nanny in Madame Beck’s Pensionnat for young ladies.  Over time, she also takes up a role teaching English.  Madame Beck is highly efficient, ruthless in pushing for what is best for herself and her school and unprincipled in the lengths she will go to in surveillance over both pupils and teachers alike.  Despite all of this, Lucy appears to thrive.

Villette is a baffling novel though, centred around an inscrutable heroine.  We never find out more about Lucy’s shadowy past and why she has no family.  She never confides in us about the source of her melancholy.  When her editor suggested including more detail on it, Charlotte Brontë went through and removed what little information there was.  She wanted Lucy to be an enigma.  Unlike Jane Eyre, we have no potted history of childhood trauma, there is just a blank.  Lucy will tell us exactly how much she wants to – which is very little.  When she encounters Dr John, the young English doctor who visits the Beck school, much later we discover that Lucy had recognised him from long ago, but she only tells us when she absolutely has to.  She will not even tell us the true end of her own story, instead bidding us farewell and shutting the door in our face.

In context though, Villette becomes a little clearer.  Published in 1853, it is widely held as the most autobiographical of Charlotte’s novels.  Writing after the deaths of her three closest siblings, it is not hard to see where Charlotte drew inspiration from in writing Lucy’s sadness.  It is a difficult thing to read a book which is so clearly the product of an unhappy mind and there were times when I did have to take a breather.  Giving Lucy the last name of ‘Snowe’, Charlotte wanted the character’s chilliness to be apparent to the reader.  The character of Dr John was based on Charlotte Brontë’s publisher George Smith, who it seems likely that she was in love with.  Smith recognised himself in fictional form and was disappointed when his alter ego dropped out of the main narrative in the third volume, but Charlotte was insistent that Lucy could not and must not marry Dr John.  Villette is most definitely not a marriage plot, it was written by a woman who had no expectations of marital happiness and who instead wrote of finding a way of getting through one’s life alone.

There is a kind of claustrophobia to the novel which depresses the action still further.  We almost never see the sunlight, the action takes place in small rooms, the gloomy schoolroom, the grim weather of the small town Villette.  Lucy shuts an unruly pupil in a cupboard, she tries to hide her personal possessions in a trunk, she buries a cache of letters in the garden – this is a story centred around small spaces.  Even the characters seem unable to escape, returning in recycled form with different names – Polly becomes Paulina, Graham returns as Dr John (spoiler!) – despite the apparent implausibility of the significant players from Lucy’s early life reappearing when she moves overseas.  The school feels like a prison, with the wardress Mme Beck patrolling the vicinity and checking through personal possessions.  Disturbingly, there are elements of this which appear to be a representation of Charlotte’s real experiences while living and working in Brussels, a period in which she fell deeply in love with Monsieur Heger (a probable model for M. Paul Emmanuel) and felt a resentment towards his wife.  Charlotte was always against a French translation of Villette lest the Hegers get hold of it and recognise themselves in fictional form.  Unsurprisingly, a pirated version appeared anyway but they proved remarkably discreet.

I can only feel for Charlotte if Lucy Snowe is a representation of herself – is there any other heroine in English literature quite so emotionally strangled?  Oddly, I was reminded of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine but the reader feels a sympathy for Eleanor while poor Lucy seems to repel us instead.  Even as far back as publication, Harriet Martineau found Lucy’s longing for erotic love to be too much.  The idea of a woman wanting physical and emotional fulfillment was too radical a thought even among literary circles.  In truth, Charlotte was using Lucy to confront the Loneliness Problem two centuries before Eleanor Oliphant and she was doing it in a far more confrontational way.  When Dr John tells Lucy that she ought to be happy, she reacts angrily that happiness is not a potato, that can be cultivated and watered out of nothing.  Lucy wants to be loved but over the course of the novel it becomes clear that she is not destined for such a fate.

The characters of Ginevra and Paulina are interesting foils to Lucy, offering opposing alternatives of how to find love and yet neither is appealing to Lucy.  Ginevra is a consummate flirt who uses her wiles to get expensive presents, even from those like Dr John who cannot afford them.  Paulina is adult-like as a child and then childlike as an adult, never able to fully grow up since it does not suit either her father or indeed Dr John to perceive her as a woman.  In a fascinating exploration of the virgin-whore dichotomy, both Ginevra the whore and Paulina the virgin are able to attract Dr John but by contrast, he only tells Lucy that had she been a man, they might have been friends.  Like his real-life equivalent, he can have no romantic interest in a woman who refuses to compromise her intellect and someone who will not play up to be either virgin or whore.  Lucy accepts this with her typical reticence and if she falls into despair about Dr John’s rejection, the reader is never allowed to know.

I found myself particularly troubled by the character of Paulina, or Polly.  The concept of the ‘child-wife’ crops up so often in Victorian literature, from Dora in Bleak House to Dorothea and Rosamund in Middlemarch and now here.  It is this idea that a wife must be mentally inferior to her husband, must be unable to worry her pretty little head about his affairs and that she is to be considered as a child next to him.  The husband is parent rather than spouse.  Sexual attraction is frowned upon yet Charlotte Brontë makes clear that it exists, that these doll-girls are viewed in a sexual manner.  The six year-old Polly fusses around her father, spending a huge amount of time embroidering a handkerchief for him and bleeding over it as she does so.  A blood-spattered piece of white cloth has obvious connotations.  When Polly reappears as a seventeen year-old, she does so in a white dress covered in red speckles, and it is on this occasion that Dr John rescues her at the theatre and their relationship appears sealed, again mirroring the idea of sexual consummation.  During Lucy’s drug-fuelled hallucination, her view of Paulina at the fair is almost like the theft of Persephone.  Paulina’s whole existence is to be dependent and to have no will of her own and yet to be happy about it.  Although Polly gets a happy ending, there can be little doubt that Charlotte regards her as an odd little fairy and Lucy’s distaste for her is never far away.

Polly is not the only grotesque however, there is also the ghastly Mme Walravens who emerges from the shadows like a crone witch.  Even Mme Beck has her Mrs Danvers qualities.  Then there is the periodically appearing nun, the explanation for which to me felt rather inadequate.  Lucy herself is such a ghostly figure that I felt more that she was battling against becoming a crone like these others – she has had multiple incarnations across Villette, so much so that Ginevra half-jokingly asks, ‘Who are you?’  Caroline in Shirley contemplated how best to conduct herself as an old maid, is Lucy too looking for future patterns of behaviour?  Certainly, Villette is a story centred around the experience of living life alone, an anti-marriage-plot not in the sense of being opposed to matrimony but in acknowledging that it is not something open to all women.  Marriage does not find everyone yet we all trudge on regardless.  It may well be that Lucy never does find love but at least we hope that she does not lose her self.

Villette is a tough read.  To be locked within the perspective of a heroine like Lucy was not always pleasant.  Lucy is prickly, awkward and unfriendly.  When she has to spend time caring for a disabled pupil alone during the long holiday, she repeatedly refers to the child as a ‘cretin’ and discusses at length how disgusting it is to be around her.  Lucy is no Jane Eyre, there are no pert opinions and the back-and-forth which she has with M. Paul Emmanuel becomes argumentative and heated as opposed to playful and witty as in Jane Eyre.  Yet Lucy can surprise us.  She appears genuinely fond of Ginevra.  She may hide her feelings very successfully, but we know that she loves Dr John and so we see her courage in deciding to put thoughts of him aside.  Later we witness her quiet devastation when M. Paul Emmanuel declares his intention to leave yet we know that somehow she will survive.  Lucy may hide her character from us, may insist that she is an insignificant person unworthy of notice but she betrays herself and her own courage and we catch tantalising glimpses of the real her.  Slowly but surely, I warmed to her and to the message that I felt Lucy’s creator was trying to convey.

Brooding about the Brontës this year helped me to realise that although we are so familiar with the Brontë brand as a whole, each of the sisters did have their own distinct areas of interest.  They were three individuals who happened to all be writers rather than one group.  While Emily went for the melodrama and Anne for the social issues, Charlotte always hit her stride when she concentrated on the position of women.  While Shirley floundered in the mess of mill-town politics, with Jane Eyre and Villette, Charlotte proclaims loudly that women are people too.  The strange thing though is that while Jane demands her independence and her right to her own choices, Lucy is far more reactive, an observer within her own life.  Lucy is older than Jane and has had to learn wisdom.  She knows that she is not guaranteed happiness no matter how much she may wish for it.  Yet it is Lucy who achieves true independence and Jane who succumbs to a domestic fate.  Jane may seek a new servitude, may flee Mr Rochester when he would have her compromise herself and depart St John Rivers when he asks more than she is prepared to give but although it is she who marries him, she nonetheless marries.  With the character of Lucy Snowe, Charlotte creates a character who is a self-made successful businesswoman who survives unmarried.

I have always argued that none of the Brontë fiction really count as romances (I would say the same of Jane Austen) but I think the reason why people cannot take to Villette is that one cannot even feign a love story here.  While foolish readers may argue that Heathcliff is just misunderstood or that Mr Rochester simply made some poor choices, even those mental gymnastics will not work with the casually indifferent Dr John and the volcanic M. Paul Emmanuel.  There is nothing to hold on to.  Charlotte Brontë wanted us to see Lucy, the representative of the legions of similarly superfluous women, and realise that some people live their lives alone.  Lucy watches as Ginevra stoops to lies and petty treachery to get what she wants, Lucy observes as Paulina acts the part of a child.  Lucy finds neither path appealing and carries on her own way.  Villette is a book that states that life is tough and sometimes it does not let up but before we get too depressed, let us remember Lucy, the cold-eyed lady at the core who will not allow the world to destroy her.


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Villette by Charlotte Brontë
Published by Penguin Books on October 25th 2012
Pages: 616
ISBN: 0141199881

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12 thoughts on “Review: Villette, Charlotte Brontë

  1. Dear Girl (I’m sorry I don’t know your actual name),

    I enjoyed your in-depth review of Villette. You made many strong and thoughtful points about themes, imagery, and so forth, providing a clear view of the novel’s shortcomings as well as its strengths. In my own far briefer review on my Brontë fan site ('s-masterwork.html), I expressed similar quibbles with some aspects of the story.

    However, though you thoroughly covered Villette’s substance, I wonder what you think of its style. While I felt the book as a whole fell short of Jane Eyre, the brilliance of Charlotte’s prose in Villette is unmatched in my experience as a reader. (I give some shining examples of it on my site.)

    1. Hi,
      Yes – I thought I’d rambled on for long enough haha without going into specifics on the prose although I did say that it is leaps and bounds ahead of Shirley. Straight away you’re right into Lucy’s perspective and I would completely agree that in terms of artistry, Villette is quite brilliant. I did find it interesting that you noted the French phrases as a weaknesses as your copy did not include translations. I do speak French so was able to muddle along (I had to look up ‘fiacre’ as I had never needed the word ‘carriage’ before) so I do wonder if a point like that can change one’s engagement with a story. Thank you for commenting – enjoy your week!

  2. I would have liked Villette more if there had been a romance but I think the true dealbreaker for me is that inscrutability you identify in Lucy. It’s super true, and it makes it hard to care about anything that happens to her. She’s unhappy with everything and everyone! What does she even want? I have no idea!

    1. I know and completely agree – I completely understand with why so many people find Lucy frustrating, I think that somehow I still sympathised with what seemed to be in her heart. I think she was just a lonely and unhappy woman and Charlotte was trying to put a character like that, an unlikely heroine, at the centre of a novel for once. When you compare her to most other heroines, Lucy is pretty revolutionary. But it doesn’t make it any easier to like her. Or to understand what it is she actually wants. I still have no clue about that …

    2. I read her as pathologically unwilling to form close attachments- or have any desires of her own. Almost as though she has repressed her personality, including feelings and desires as a survival mechanism. Some undisclosed trauma and the isolation of her childhood and early live having formed a character resolved on survival with an entire world view based on being somewhat unlovable and incapable of joy. But yet she suffers and is deeply sad. The annoying and precocious maturity of her character from the beginning is so unendearing, a kind of weary pity towards her is my most firm emotion throughout the book. It was very dissatisfying!!!!

      1. Oh she’s a highly frustrating character but I think she’s written to be deliberately so. She’s quite a revolutionary creation. I think Villette may well be Charlotte’s masterpiece, far more so than Jane Eyre. It’s just nowhere near as likeable of a book. I do think that Lucy had her own desires though. She just wasn’t able to compromise herself to get them. Fascinating story – really good to hear other people’s takes on it – thank you for visiting!

  3. I’m kind of surprised no one has written a follow-up to this one with Lucy running a school in Brussels. I think it would be fascinating to imagine her “after-book-life” but perhaps no one dares … Lucy is a formidably inscrutable character indeed.

    1. I can’t imagine Lucy’s post-book life – I think if someone did write it, it would kind of undo the puzzle of the ending. Although I think that one is solved, there is a mention in Chapter 5 of the type of bonnet she’s wearing and apparently that precludes her ever being a married woman. I think Lucy just learned to survive alone and that was going to be her fate – it would be lovely to imagine that M. Paul Emmanuel’s twin brother would materialise to be her companion but even that undermines what I think Charlotte Bronte was trying to say. I think we’re best leaving Lucy where she is … she is probably the weirdest character I have ever read in Victorian literature.

  4. “When her editor suggested including more detail on it, Charlotte Brontë went through and removed what little information there was.” – HA! This is the exact kind of thing that makes Charlotte my favourite of the Brontës ❤️

    I’m quite looking forward to reading Villette. I loved Jane Eyre, and I love the way that Charlotte examines the position of women through her work, and — best of all — I really love “unlikeable” female protagonists, which (having read your review in particular) leads me to suspect that I’ll enjoy Villette even more. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Helloo! Glad you enjoyed the review – I agree that going against her editors was a very Charlotte thing to do. I think Charlotte’s great strength comes when she is examining the position of women and I do think that trying to make Lucy Snowe a heroine is the act of a courageous writer at the top of her game. It’s so tragic that she never got to write anything else.
      Thank you for commenting, enjoy your weekend! 🙂

    2. As someone who lives near Haworth, and passes the Bronte parsonage on a regular basis on my walks through the spectacular, but sometimes claustrophobic Pennine hills, I think Villette oozes sadness. I wonder if, in part, this stems from Charlotte’s remembered feelings of having been a stranger in a strange land in Belgium? There is certainly an element of ostracism towards Lucy within Villette, as a foreigner, and this is particularly so when it comes to the subject of religion.
      The number of Wesleyan chapels and Methodist churches of many different varieties are greatly in evidence in these parts, even now, and in Charlotte’s day her Protestant religion was part of her very existence. Her denunciation of the wealth and extravagance of the Roman Catholic Church is often voiced within the novel, but we could all learn something from the coming together of the two very diverse versions of Christianity in the relationship between Lucy and M Paul Emmanuel, which I think is something really special, and beautifully realised. They are opposites in every sense of the word, but by the last pages of the book they come together in total mutual respect and acceptance … indeed love, of each other’s differences.

      1. It’s definitely related to her Brussels experiences – Lucy more or less is Charlotte I think. It’s strange because she’s made such an unforgiving version of herself and even the ending isn’t exactly happy but then Lucy does receive M. Paul Emmanuel’s respect in a way that the real Charlotte never really gained from M. Heger. It’s a very grim book but one that has definitely stuck in my mind. Beautiful in its own way.

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