What is it about Charlotte Brontё’s voice that is so beguiling? I’ve just spent the last week in Charlotte’s company, reading Villette for the 5th or 6th time. After reading Margaret Oliphant’s views on the Brontё sisters & a recent issue of Brontё Studies (the journal of the Brontё Society) I knew it was time to revisit Villette & meet Lucy Snowe, M Paul, Madame Beck, John Graham Bretton, Ginevra Fanshawe & the spectral Nun again. I know that it’s not considered proper in critical circles to consider fiction as a form of veiled autobiography but in Charlotte Brontё’s case, I think I can claim an exception to the rule. Villette is full of Charlotte’s personal experiences. The evidence is there in her letters & the facts of her life as recounted by Elizabeth Gaskell in her biography of Charlotte.
Villette is the story of Lucy Snowe. We meet Lucy as a young girl, staying with her godmother, Mrs Bretton. Lucy’s life seems quite bleak. She seems to be shuttled from one relation to another & her visits to her godmother & her son, Graham, are an oasis of warmth & kindness. On this visit, a relation of Mrs Bretton, Mr Home, visits, bringing with him his small daughter, Polly, who will stay with the Brettons while he travels. Polly takes a fancy to Graham, who tolerates her fancies & allows himself to be adored. Mr Home returns, takes Polly away &, soon after, Lucy also retuns home & subsequently loses touch with the Brettons. Some years pass. Lucy is working as a companion to Miss Marchmont, an invalid who tells her the story of her own young life & lost love. When Miss Marchmont dies, Lucy is once more alone & friendless.
After hearing about schools in Villette on the Continent where English teachers are prized she decides to go there & look for work. On her journey, she meets Ginevra Fanshawe, a spoilt, pretty young woman, who is returning to school in Villette. She recommends Lucy try her luck with Madame Beck, the owner of the Pensionnat she attends. On arrival, Lucy gets lost but fortuitously finds her way to Madame Beck’s school & asks for work. She is engaged as nursemaid to Madame’s children but, after the English master incurs Madame’s displeasure, she becomes the English teacher. Lucy’s life at the Pensionnat is not unhappy. She has a healthy respect for Madame Beck even though she discovers that she runs the whole concern on a system of surveillance & spying, even going through Lucy’s belongings. She finds her feet as a teacher & has a friendship with Ginevra that amuses & irritates her in equal measure.
Lucy’s essential solitude begins to affect her health, especially when she is left alone in the school during the long vacation. She falls ill in body & spirit & is driven by her need for some human contact, to confess to a Catholic priest in the cathedral. This is a radical act for such a confirmed Protestant & she immediately regrets it. On her way back to the Pensionnat, she collapses & when she wakes, finds herself in a strange room that is also familiar. She has been rescued by the young English doctor, known to all as Dr John, & brought to his mother’s house. Lucy has already guessed that this young man is the Graham Bretton she knew in childhood although he doesn’t recognize her (& the reader has had no clue). Her godmother is pleased to be reunited with Lucy & her life begins to open up & become more social as she visits concerts, art galleries & theatres with the Brettons. She is also a witness to Graham’s infatuation with Ginevra & Ginevra’s flirting with both Graham & another foppish young man, Alfred de Hamal. As Lucy’s feelings for Graham become more intense, she finds herself relying on the letters he has promised to write to her when she returns to the Pensionnat.
Madame Beck’s cousin is also a teacher at the Pensionnat. M Paul Emanuel is an irascible, fiery man, vain, dictatorial but essentially kind-hearted. Gradually he becomes a friend & sometime antagonist to Lucy, bullying her into taking part in a school play & disapproving of her relationship with Graham. Lucy comes to realise that Graham’s feelings for her are no more than friendship & she symbolically buries her heart along with his letters beneath the pear tree in the garden where she likes to sit in the evenings. Lucy’s feelings for M Paul also change, becoming deeper & more serious. However, Madame Beck does not approve of their growing closeness & will do all she can to keep them apart.
Describing the plot of Villette doesn’t convey the flavour of the book. To me, all the interest & charm lies in the narrative voice & the knowledge of Charlotte’s life that informs the fiction. There is so much that mirrors Charlotte Brontё’s own experiences, there are echoes of her letters everywhere. Villette is based on Brussels where Charlotte & her sister, Emily, spent time teaching in a Pensionnat run by M & Mme Heger. Charlotte returned to Brussels for a further year without Emily & she found herself falling in love with M Heger. It’s impossible to say that M Heger is M Paul or that Mme Heger is Mme Beck but the characters were certainly based on Charlotte’s feelings about the Hegers – her love for Monsieur & hatred of Madame.
Graham & Mrs Bretton were similarly based on her publisher, George Smith, & his mother. George Smith acknowledged this, saying that Mrs Bretton was an exact picture of his mother, down to some of her favourite sayings & expressions. Charlotte’s feelings for George Smith have been a subject of much speculation. She certainly admired him & may have hoped to marry him. Her portrait of Graham Bretton is very honest about his faults & superficial nature & must have been uncomfortable for Smith to read. Charlotte’s journey to Brussels mirrors Lucy’s journey on the packet boat. Her mental torment, leading to the confession in the cathedral was based on Charlotte’s own experience which she wrote about in a letter to Emily. Charlotte also went to the theatre & was amazed & horrified by the performance of a great dramatic actress, just as Lucy is.
The plot of Villette shocked many reviewers at the time. Lucy falls in love with one man & then falls in love with another. This is not the conventional plot of a three volume Victorian novel. The heroine is not supposed to change her mind about her lovers in quite such an independent way. Harriet Martineau famously wrote, in a review that upset Charlotte so much that she broke off their friendship,
… so incessant is the writer’s tendency to describe the need of being loved, that the heroine, who tells her own story, leaves the reader at last under the uncomfortable impression of her having either entertained a double love, or allowed one to supersede another without notification of the transition. It is not thus in real life.
Well, I don’t know about real life, but it certainly wasn’t meant to be that way in fiction! Actually, the moment when Lucy falls out of love with Graham is very clear. He is trying to convince Lucy to intercede for him with a young woman, to remind her of their former acquaintance.
‘Could I manage to make you ever grateful?’ said I. ‘NO, I could not .’ And I felt my fingers work and my hands interlock: I felt, too, an inward courage, warm and resistant. In this matter I was not disposed to gratify Dr John: not at all. With a now welcome force, I realized his entire misapprehension of my character and nature. He wanted always to give me a rôle not mine. Nature and I opposed him. He did not at all guess what I felt: he did not read my eyes, or face, or gestures; though, I doubt not, all spoke.
In those few sentences, Lucy sees Graham’s self-centredness, his self-satisfaction, his belief in his own charm, very clearly & she realises that she doesn’t love him.
Lucy does keep vital information from the reader, she’s a very secretive narrator, she certainly doesn’t take the reader into her confidence. We don’t know anything about her family. Why is she alone at the beginning of the book? Why does she lose touch with her godmother? Why doesn’t she tell us when she recognizes Graham Bretton in the Dr John of Villette (there’s a hint but I’m not sure now if I recognized it when I first read the book). Lucy is crabby, secretive, sometimes ridiculous, self-sabotaging & stubborn. Yet, I feel she’s closer to Charlotte Brontё than even Jane Eyre. Her voice is entirely original & entirely her own. The sense of crushing loneliness & despair in Lucy always reminds me of Charlotte alone with her father in the Parsonage after all her siblings were dead, walking around the dining room table alone where once she had walked with her sisters as they discussed their work. The ending of the book is famously ambiguous. Apparently Patrick Brontё begged his daughter to leave the reader with some hope of Lucy’s happiness. Charlotte obeyed her father but only the most optimistic reader could take much hope from the end of the novel.
Charlotte said that she wanted a cold name for her heroine & she was called Lucy Frost for a great part of the writing of the novel. As always in Charlotte Brontё’s work though, frost is mixed with fire & passion. No wonder the critics were astounded & bemused by the Brontё sisters & their books & weren’t at all sure about the sex of the author. Imagine reading Jane Eyre, Villette, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or Wuthering Heights for the first time in an age when there were very definite rules as to how a heroine behaved & what she said & thought. Jane, Lucy, Helen Huntingdon & Catherine Earnshaw were created from the imaginations of three extraordinary women. I read their books over & over again & never feel I’ve got to the end of their fascination.