What I’m Reading: Villette, Charlotte Brontë

At about 2:00 this morning, I finished Villette. Staying up wasn’t precisely the most intelligent decision I’ve ever made–I had a paper due today, another tomorrow, and a presentation at a research symposium on Friday. (Yikes!) Hardly the first time I’ve stayed up all night, but I still marvel a bit at my stupidity.

Villette is the last novel Charlotte Bronte wrote. (The Professor was published posthumously, in 1857, but was written long before.) In The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar call this her most “overtly and despairing feminist novel.” Sounds like fun, eh? (Oh, but it was.)

“Lucy Snowe, Villette‘s protagonist-narrator, older and wiser than any of Bronte’s other heroines, is from first to last a woman without–outside society, without parents or friends, without physical or mental attractions, without money or confidence or health–and her story is perhaps the most moving and terrifying account of female deprivation ever written.  Silent, invisible, at best an inoffensive shadow, Lucy Snowe has no patrimony and no expectations, great or little.” –Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination

In examining the successive heroines of Bronte’s novels (Jane Eyre, Frances Henri, Caroline Helstone, Lucy Snowe) Gilbert and Gubar note that the “movement of the novels suggests that escape becomes increasingly difficult as women internalize the destructive strictures of patriarchy.” So if you aren’t familiar with any of these but Jane Eyre (which I wasn’t until reading this) imagine all of Jane’s internalized assumptions of personal unworthiness as the pinnacle of confidence. Lucy Snowe is then positively invisible.

Villette, though, is not. One of Bronte’s authorial tricks is to let the landscape and the weather mirror the action of the novel (consider the windswept heath over which Rochester’s voice echoes, the terribly grey gardens of Lowood School, the sun-dappled hills around Moor House.) So Villette is beautifully and precisely articulated–at times frightening, at times idyllic, but always very easy to visualize.

Villette, a [fictional] French town, is peopled by petty aristocrats and British expatriots, and many, many very spoiled schoolgirls. After a number of various personal tragedies, Lucy Snowe becomes an English teacher at the rather frightening Mme Beck’s boarding school in that fair city… and you’ll have to read the rest yourself.

Here’s what the book looked like in my mind:

Villette was all sunlit squares and deep, dark shadows.

Much of the action occurs in the dormitory of the boarding school.

During a break, Lucy remains at school alone. She becomes very ill and has feverish fantasies; she imagines the lines of white dormitory beds turned into spectres: “the coronal of each became a deaths-head, huge and sun-bleached–dead dreams of an earlier world and mightier race lay frozen in their wide gaping eyeholes.”

The schoolgirls I saw as various iterations of Catherine Deneuve. Not particularly logical, it’s that whole French schoolgirl thing. And there were several beautiful (and rather silly) blonde schoolgirls.

Then, of course, the conclusion:  a rather melancholy fantasy of domesticity. M. Paul, shortly before leaving on an extended trip, arranges a surprise for Lucy.

He did not knock, but taking from his pocket a key, he opened and entered at once. Ushering me in, he shut the door behind us. No servant appeared. The vestibule was small, like the house, but freshly and tastefully painted; its vista closed in a French window with vines trained about the panes, tendrils and green leaves kissing the glass. Silence reigned in this dwelling. Opening an inner door, M. Paul disclosed a parlour, or salon — very tiny, but I thought, very pretty. Its delicate walls were tinged like a blush; its floor was waxed; a square of brilliant carpet covered its centre; its small round table shone like the mirror over its hearth; there was a little couch, a little chiffoniére, the half-open, crimson silk door of which, showed porcelain on the shelves; there was a French clock, a lamp; there were ornaments in biscuit china; the recess of the single ample window was filled with a green. stand, bearing three green flower-pots, each filled with a fine plant glowing in bloom; in one corner appeared a guéridon with a marble top, and upon it a work-box, and a glass filled with, violets in water. The lattice of this room was open; the outer air breathing through, gave freshness, the sweet violets lent fragrance.

‘Pretty, pretty place!’ said I.

Lovely, lovely book.  Highly recommended.

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