Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Villette by Charlotte Bronte

Villette was published in 1853 (three volumes), following the success of Jane Eyre in 1847, and to a lesser extent, Shirley in 1849. During the writing of Villette, Charlotte Bronte was going through an extremely trying period in her life: her brother and two sisters all died in the short period of time from 1848-1849. These tragedies were accompanied by Bronte's simultaneous exposure to the public's limelight: prior to this, she and her sisters had hidden behind their male pseudonyms (Currer Bell, for Charlotte) but the acclaim following Jane Eyre forced her into the open. While this had its advantages--for example, making new friends in London including Thackeray, Martineau, and Gaskell--Charlotte was also deeply anxious about her reception by the public as a woman. Some of these anxieties are very present in Villette: Dr. John is the best example of a man who cannot see women as people independently of their sex. 

Volume 1:
Villette is narrated by the outwardly-reserved Lucy Snowe, whose psychological portrait is at the center of this novel. Her (retrospective) account begins with her experiences at her well-to-do godmother's, Mrs. Bretton's, in the town of Bretton, where Lucy would visit twice a year. During one particular visit, Lucy makes the acquaintance of a young, precocious child named Paulina, who develops a close relationship to Graham Bretton, Mrs. Bretton's son. Polly's stay is temporary, however, and she is soon taken away by her father.

Lucy too leaves Bretton. Eight years pass, and looking for a new situation, Lucy ends up assisting an old woman named Miss Marchmont who has resigned her life ever since her lover died thirty-years-ago. Miss Marchmont dies soon after Lucy's arrival, and Lucy decides to go to London to seek other fortunes. For a moment, Lucy enjoys the freedom of being in the hustle and bustle of the city, but decides to go on to Boue-Marine. On her passage there, she meets Ginevra Fanshawe, a young and vain girl who attends Madame Beck's school in Villette, a (fictional) town in Belgium. Having no other idea where to go, Lucy decides to go to Villette, and finds herself at the doorstep of Madame Beck's school. Madame Beck takes a leap of faith and engages Lucy, and soon she becomes an English teacher there, having proved her mettle before a classroom of rebellious, "Labassecourienne" girls.

A young doctor, Dr. John (later revealed to be Graham Bretton, but Lucy's narrative oddly withholds this revelation until the moment of Dr. John's recognition) arrives in Villette, and attends to patients at Madame Beck's school. Being rather handsome, he causes a bit of a stir, but the calmly authoritative Madame Beck keeps him around despite parental concerns. One night, Lucy accidentally chances upon a small box which contains a love letter, which among other things, contains an unflattering portrait of herself. Lucy is drawn into trying to figure out who the lovers are; Dr. John is clearly distraught over the matter and reveals to Lucy that he is interested in someone but before he reveals this, Madame Beck interrupts their conversation. The mystery of who wrote the love letter and to whom it was addressed continues. At an annual fete, in which Lucy is convinced by M. Paul to play a fop in a vaudeville, she finds out that Dr. John's love interest is Ginevra, and that she had been playing him off with Alfred de Hamal, a colonel that she ultimately prefers over Dr. John. Lucy is harsh in her judgment of Ginevra before Dr. John, who thinks her an innocent, graceful being. Meanwhile, Lucy plays her part well, and M. Paul notes that he has read a certain passion in her; Lucy, of course, denies this. The examination period follows, and then vacation, during which, left alone, Lucy experiences some nightmarish visions and in order to calm herself, even goes so far as to speak with a Catholic priest though she is a staunch Protestant. The priest tells her that perhaps her Protestantism is too cold and dry for such a one as herself. 

Volume 2:
Lucy falls so ill that unbeknownst to her, she is transported by the priest, one Pere Silas, to a nearby chateau where Mrs. Bretton now lives. Lucy awakes here and is disoriented by her recognition of the Bretton furniture in an unfamiliar place. It is during her recuperation at the chateau that Mrs. Bretton and Graham realize that she is Lucy Snowe; this is also the moment that Lucy reveals Dr. John's identity to the reader. Dr. John takes Lucy around Villette, and she enjoys a relatively happy time, though it is clear that she rages at Dr. John's blindness about Ginevra's emptiness. As if to represent her frustration with the idealization of vapid females more generally, Lucy finds herself pausing before a warm and voluptuous painting of a well-fed Cleopatra. M. Paul happens to be at this gallery, and steers her away from the image. Disappointingly, when Lucy asks Dr. John if he likes the Cleopatra, he says that he would prefer a Ginevra. One night, however, when Lucy accompanies Mrs. Bretton and John to a concert, Ginevra bestows a sneer upon Mrs. Bretton and John suddenly realizes that Ginevra is nothing more than a "feather-brained schoolgirl." Soon after, it is time for Lucy to return to the pensionnat. She is lonely, and fights down her own feelings of expectation when Dr. John says that he will write to her. When she does receive a letter from him, she fawns over it and desires to consume it in secret up in a garret. In the garret, Lucy sees a terrifying apparition: a nun (there has been a legend of a nun buried alive on the grounds of the school). Dr. John insensitively consigns this to Lucy's imagination and enjoins her to "cultivate happiness," a phrase Lucy takes to task for being rather difficult for one for whom so little has been allowed by Providence. 

On a night soon after Lucy sees this vision, John takes her to the theater to see an actress whom Lucy refers to as Vashti, a king's wife (Book of Esther) who refused to show off her beauty at his command. Lucy is riveted by this heroine's struggle and passion, but when she asked Dr. John what he thought, he only saw the woman and not the artist (commenting on the actress). While narrating this section, Lucy tells of her realization that there was no "chord of enthusiasm" in Dr. John: the "cool Briton" would not be able to perceive what she could perceive in Vashti. The performance is interrupted by a small fire in the theater; as everyone rushes out, a young woman is nearly trampled but John rescues her and takes her back to her hotel. This young woman turns out to be none other than Polly. Lucy and Polly (now the Countess de Bassompierre) reconnect, and spend much time together in pursuits such as learning German together. Lucy declines Polly's father's offer to pay her to be Polly's companion because of her need to be independent; if she were overshadowed, Lucy confesses, she wanted it to be voluntary. Polly invites Lucy to a dinner that her father was giving where M. Paul gave an impassioned "discours." At the dinner, Graham increasingly becomes interested in Polly and callously asks Lucy (whom he has called an "inoffensive shadow") to help him engage her attentions. Lucy refuses. Meanwhile, M. Paul seems to become more and more interested in Lucy, exchanging some charged, flirtatious moments with her. 

Volume 3:
Lucy and M. Paul become closer and closer throughout this section. At first, M. Paul's attentions are rather jealous--during a fete honoring him, he feels snubbed that Lucy, unlike everyone else, has not brought him bouquet (as is required by custom). He soon realizes that he is wrong, for Lucy has made for him a special present, a watchguard. Another point of difference between them is M. Paul's staunch Catholicism and Lucy's staunch Protestantism. Time and again, M. Paul tries to draw passion out of Lucy, in order to prove that she is not suited to a religion as cold as what he views Protestantism to be. Meanwhile, Paulina and Graham reveal their mutual feelings for one another, and with a bit of resistance from Paulina's protective father, the two are engaged. Lucy unravels the story of the rest of their lives as an example of God allowing some good people to live out their lives with little suffering and mostly peace and bliss. Ginevra's fate is also sealed in this final section: one evening, when Madame Beck and others were out celebrating a local festival, Ginevra ran away with her lover, Alfred de Hamal. The epilogue which Lucy gives of Ginevra and Alfred is one which might be expected from her: she is very melodramatic about her child, at one time magnifying the dangers of its sickness for effect. Predictably, Ginevra's love decays, unlike the constant Paulina's. 

As for Lucy and M. Paul: it turns out that Madame Beck and Pere Silas have been scheming to separate the two of them, both for selfish reasons and because they feel that the Catholic M. Paul must not associate with a heretic. Madame Beck sends Lucy on an errand to bear a gift basket to one Madame Walravens's, a hunchbacked old woman. There, Lucy finds out that Madame Walravens was actually the grandmother of the deceased Justine Marie, M. Paul's beloved, whom he never married because he did not have enough money to do so. Justine had become a nun but died shortly after joining the convent. Though Madame Walravens had been unjust to M. Paul, he continued to send her money for her keep and make sure that she (and also his tutor, Pere Silas, who lived with Madame Walravens) would be taken care of. Instead of scaring Lucy away, this story softens Lucy's impression of the sometimes selfish and caustic-seeming M. Paul. In face of their increasing affection for one another, the two decide to think of each other as brother and sister. Suddenly, M. Paul must depart for Basseterre, in Guadaloupe because Madame Walravens needs someone to help her obtain a large fortune which has only recently become available to her through her long deceased husband. Before setting sail for Antigua, however, M. Paul has thoughtfully set up a school for Lucy to manage all on her own. This is a surprise which he doesn't reveal to her until right before he leaves, however, largely because Madame Beck has tried to keep him from saying goodbye to Lucy. When he reveals the surprise to Lucy, she confesses her own doubts and her moments of jealousy, and the two finally admit their true affections for one another. M. Paul will be gone for three years, and Lucy will attend to her school in the meantime. Lucy says that the three years were the happiest in her life, because she was working for their future, and perfecting on her own, her affection for the man who was abroad. Bronte's ending is famous: it is strongly suggested (though apparently up to the reader to decide) that M. Paul is shipwrecked on his way home and drowned. 
Freedom and Withholding:
Bronte develops interest in Lucy through devices of first-person narration wherein there is so much to be "read" in Lucy that isn't necessarily intended. Yet, while her narration compels readers to discover her, at the same time, "discovery" is exactly what a character such as Lucy resists because to be "known" is to suffer some kind of violation of freedom. This is precisely why any "reading" of Lucy seems doomed from the start--one feels that Bronte's message is that the preservation of a radical kind of independence for someone such as Lucy requires us to simply leave her alone. This is, of course, exactly what others fail to do in the book. For Dr. John, she is "quiet" and "inoffensive," for Ginevra, Lucy is a prude and a grandma, and even for M. Paul, her lover, she is a passionate soul who needs to be coaxed out of her shell. 

Lucy tells us, importantly, that it isn't the misapprehension of herself that bothers her. She writes, in reference to Dr. John: "There is a perverse mood of the mind which is rather soothed than irritated by misconstruction; and in quarters where we cannot be rightly known, we take pleasure, I think, in being consummately ignored." In other words, Lucy takes pleasure in withholding knowledge of herself because in this secret, there is something all her own. She also enjoys a sense of pleasure or power which she comes back to time and again wherein she likes to know others better than they know her: "I liked entering his presence covered with a loud he had not seen through, while he stood before me under a ray of special illumination, which shone all partial over his head, trembled about his feet, and cast light no farther." In practice, this kind of belief means Lucy withholds Dr. John and Polly's identities from them until they realize her identity. She does a similar thing to the reader, withholding Dr. John and Polly's identities from the reader until the moment that these characters themselves recognize Lucy. Lucy doesn't give any reason why she has withheld from the reader; after all, she promises to tell as faithfully as possible the subjective views which she had at the time, but really she doesn't let the reader in very much if she consigns him/her to the same position as Dr. John or Polly.

Even if M. Paul comes the closest to "discovering" Lucy, their inability to unite on any level--religiously, socially (as in marriage), or physically in earthly life at all--might not be such a tragedy, but an assertion of Lucy's Snowe's radical independence. After all, as Lucy herself admits, she was very happy during the three years that he was away. Had he returned, it isn't at all certain that they would have lived happily ever after because it wasn't as if M. Paul and Lucy could realize the kind of domestically blissful rapprochement that (lesser) characters like Paulina and Dr. John could realize. Though Lucy could accept Catholicism in M. Paul, and M. Paul could accept Protestantism in Lucy, neither was in the least satisfied with the beliefs that the other held. Both of them are fiercely independent, and Bronte certainly leaves open the question as to whether two such spirits might actually come together on earth.  

Constraints on Freedom: Society, Fate
Villette, like other Victorian novels with strong female characters like Oliphant's Miss Marjoribanks or Eliot's Dorothea Brooke, imagines what happens when social constraints of class and gender act upon a woman of unusual talents, whether in the realm of intellect, passion, or both. Lucy isn't the only woman whose life possibilities are severely reduced because of gender; of Madame Beck, Lucy writes: "That school offered for her powers too limited a sphere; she ought to have swayed a nation..." The situation, of course, is worse for her, having been left without money, without kinship ties, and without beauty. For all social intents and purposes, as Ginevra so pithily put it, she was "a nobody." This is why, she explains, she ends up caring so much for such little things as Dr. John's letters to her. Rather bitterly, she writes, "I suppose animals kept in cages, and so scantily fed as to be always upon the verge of famine, await their food as I awaited a letter." Characters like M. Paul are able to see beyond the constraints of class and gender, and this offers a slight sense of reprieve. 

Constraints of fate or Providence, however, are more problematic, and Lucy struggles with this. Of Ginevra and Dr. John, she charitably says: "I do believe there are some human beings so born, so reared, so guided from a soft cradle to a calm and late grave, that no excessive suffering penetrates their lot..." However, the next chapter follows on the heels of this faith with doubt: "But it is not so for all. What then?" The arbitrariness of Fate in assigning so much more suffering to some and so much less to others is something which remains unresolved for Lucy, and in the novel more broadly. Though Lucy might at moments accept that the will of God might simply be incomprehensible, at other moments it seems like the acceptance of suffering proves too absurd, or too much.  

1 comment:

C said...

This is a wonderful writeup--I just finished reading Villette, and as I do with any book not discussed in school, I had to search around for a thorough analysis--in case I had missed something while reading! Your blog is pretty awesome, and you have clearly put so much work into it. Thanks again!