Villette

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In the battle of the Brontës, I’m for Charlotte all the way. Jane Eyre (Charlotte) beats out Wuthering Heights (Emily), but Charlotte’s dominance is cemented by her best work– Villette. Our incomparable narrator, Lucy Snowe, is an Englishwoman left without family or money who washes up on the shores of France, thrusting her way onto the continent to find employment. A chance meeting with Ginerva Fanshawe on board the boat crossing the Channel sends Lucy to the town of Vilette, where she becomes first a nanny to Madame Beck’s children, then joins Beck’s school as an English teacher. Lucy’s earlier years in England are described under the protection of godmother Bretton and various kinfolk. During a stint at Bretton, she sees 6 year old Polly (Paulina) Home come to stay while Mr. Home fixed his affairs and could send for her. Polly dotes on Graham Bretton, the teenaged son of the house who treats her like a pet. Fast forward to the years in Villette, and we encounter Graham as Doctor John, first helping Lucy as a stranger when her luggage is missing upon first arrival in town, then directing her to a safe location for the night (but she ends up at Madame Beck’s door instead). Eventually she recognizes him as Graham, but keeps this to herself. She’s later welcomed back into the Bretton circle after her curious illness, raving, and fainting (post-confession). Polly jumps back onto the scene as the lovely Countess de Bassompierre, still doting on her father, but now a graceful woman and terribly rich. During a panic at the theater, she is trampled on and saved by Doctor John. She and Graham inevitably end up together, but all is not lost for Lucy – she has discovered a deep respect for a true friend, Monsieur Paul Emmanuel. They stalk around each other for months, finally giving into their feelings, but the Catholic cabal of Madame Beck and the priest intervenes to prevent the Protestant/Catholic intermingling, sending Paul to the West Indies to tend to plantations. Much drama before his departure, Lucy isn’t sure she’ll see him, she is drugged by M Beck to encourage sleep but instead slips out of the house and sees that Paul is still in town, having delayed his departure for a few weeks to take care of some business. This business is the construction of an appropriate house and schoolroom for Lucy to start her own school while he is gone. They exchange letters during the three years, and he voyages back to France, but – shipwreck. This ending is somewhat softened by not emphatically declaring Paul dead (Brontë’s father asked for a happier ending), but Brontë clearly envisioned the drowning of Paul as the end.
Brontë’s words to her publisher:

With regard to the momentous point – M. Paul’s fate – in case any one in the future should request to be enlightened thereon – they may be told that it was designed that every reader should settle the catastrophe for himself, according to the quality of his disposition, the tender or remorseful impulse of his nature. Drowning and Matrimony are the fearful alternatives. The Merciful… will of course choose the former and milder doom – drown him to put him out of pain. The cruel-hearted will on the contrary pitilessly impale him on the second horn of the dilemma – marrying him without ruth or compunction to that – person – that – that – individual – ‘Lucy Snowe’.

Lucy’s attraction to the dark alley in the garden:

From the first I was tempted to make an exception to this rule of avoidance: the seclusion, the very gloom of the walk attracted me. For a long time the fear of seeming singular scared me away; but by degrees, as people became accustomed to me and my habits, and to such shades of pecularity as were engrained in my nature – shades, certainly not striking enough to interest, and perhaps not prominent enough to offend, but born in and with me, and no more to be parted with than my identity – by slow degrees I became a frequenter of this strait and narrow path. (p 119)

Lucy’s marvelous description of how she evaluates art:

In the commencement of these visits, there was some misunderstanding and consequent struggle between Will and Power. The former faculty exacted approbation of that which it was considered orthodox to admire; the latter groaned forth its utter inability to pay this tax; it was then self-sneered at, spurred up, goaded on to refine its taste, and whet its zest. The more it was chidden, however, the more it wouldn’t praise. Discovering gradually that a wonderful sense of fatigue resulted from these conscientious efforts, I began to reflect whether I might not dispense with that great labor, and concluded eventually that I might, and so sank supine into a luxury of calm before ninety-nine out of a hundred exhibited frames. (p 222)

She shockingly looks at the Cleopatra painting in all its vulgarity but is then escorted to a corner by Paul, lectured that she must instead view the 4 pictures of the life of women, their dreary lot outlined as to get married, have children, and become widows.

All these four ‘Anges’ were grim and gray as burglars, and cold and vapid as ghosts. What women to live with! insincere, ill-humored, bloodless, brainless nonentities! As bad in their way as the indolent gipsy-giantess, the Cleopatra, in hers. (p 226)

Upon discovering that Lucy is a teacher, and not a rich lady with rich friends, Paulina is dismayed. Lucy is cross-examined by Polly’s father as to why she does it:

Rather for the roof of shelter I am thus enabled to keep over my head; and for the comfort of mind it gives me to think that while I can work for myself, I am spared the pain of being a burden to anybody. (p 317)

After Ginerva finds out that Lucy has rich friends, she wonders, “But are you anybody?” and Lucy states “Yes, I am a rising character: once an old lady’s companion, then a nursery-governess, now a school-teacher.” Ginerva presses for more:

… proving, by her obstinate credulity, or incredulity, her incapacity to conceive how any person not bolstered up by birth or wealth, not supported by some consciousness of name or connection, could maintain an attitude of reasonable integrity. As for me, it quite sufficed to my mental tranquillity that I was known where it imported that known I should be; the rest sat on me easily: pedigree, social position, and recondite intellectual acquisition, occupied about the same space and place in my interests and thoughts; they were my third class lodgers – to whom could be assigned only the small sitting room and little back bedroom: even if the dining and drawing-rooms stood empty, I never confessed it to them, as thinking minor accommodations better suited to their circumstances. The world, I soon learned, held a very different estimate: and I make no doubt, the world is very right in its view, yet believe also that I am not quite wrong in mine. (p 342-3)

There’s a wonderful footnote explaining the term “bluestocking” by Helen Cooper:

A bluestocking, a term for a scholarly woman, from the informal dress and the blue wool stockings which some female members of eighteenth-century literary clubs wore in England… Nineteenth-century medical belief had it that if a woman studied or read too much her blood would drain from her womb, where it was needed for reproduction, into her head, leaving her barren. (p 577, #10)

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Stumbled onto by the excellent review by Kate Millet in Sexual Politics.