I first read Charlotte Bronte’s last novel, Villette, for my MA about 10 years ago. I remember being impressed, while finding it very bleak. On the second reading, I find it even more impressive and even bleaker than I did the first time around. Although I do love Jane Eyre, I think Villette is Bronte’s masterpiece. It isn’t anything like as enjoyable as Jane Eyre, but it’s a deeper and far more complex work.
Told in retrospect, it is the story of Lucy Snowe, a young, orphaned, English woman who travels to the fictional town of Villette in Belgium, where she gains a position as a teacher in a girls’ school. Lucy recounts the inner turmoil she experiences as she attempts to find a place for herself in a world which has no comfortable place for women like her, while also negotiating difficult relationships with two dominating men.
Like Jane Eyre, Villette is largely concerned with the position of women in the nineteenth century. Like Jane, its heroine is small, plain, orphaned and something of a social outcast as a consequence. Also like Jane, Lucy is fiercely intelligent and hides within her a passionate intellectual life. But Lucy Snowe is a stranger, more difficult, more inscrutable and, dare I say it, queerer heroine than Jane Eyre. When flighty Ginevra Fanshawe asks in Chapter 27, ‘Who are you, Miss Snowe?’ she voices a question that has been in the mind of the reader all along and which is never fully answered. Lucy is an unreliable narrator and withholds information from the reader. She does not, for instance, tell us that she is in love with a certain character. We are left to decipher the signs for ourselves. Nor does she tell us that another character is love with her, although it gradually becomes apparent that he has been since he first met her.
She is, above all, an observer. When I say that Lucy is ‘queer’ I mean it in the sense of her persistent critical enquiry into heteronormativity, all the discourses that normalise and reward certain forms of femininity and sexual expression, while punishing others. As she moves through her story, analysing the roles available to the women of her time, Lucy finds all of them wanting, and I think the novel’s power lies in this relentless dissection of the social construction of nineteenth-century womanhood. This narrative is brilliantly encapsulated in the scene in which Lucy goes to an art gallery and criticises the paintings of women done by and for men. Lucy’s godmother, Mrs Bretton, is the sensible, upstanding Victorian mother whose entire emotional life is dominated by her son. Miss Marchmont is the grieving spinster who became a lifelong recluse after the death of her lover. Madam Beck is the cunning, professional woman who rules her school through the use of surveillance. Ginevra Fanshawe is the sexy, flirtatious girl who only wants to find the richest possible husband. Vashti is the powerful actress, a woman who pursues her art and is tormented by the talents that take her so far beyond the boundaries of respectable womanhood. The doll-like Paulina is possibly the most sinister representation in the book, a little child/woman, utterly devoted to father and husband. Like other women of her type in Victorian literature, Paulina must somehow reconcile her widowed father’s jealous, emotionally incestuous fixation upon her with her own need for a husband (because Daddy can’t live forever). The scene in which she symbolically weaves together a lock of her father’s hair with a lock of her fiancée’s hair and puts both in a locket to wear around her neck forever is quite sickening. But I digress … There is also Madam Walvarens, who seems to be a kind of witch. And finally, there is the “ghost” of the Nun, the figure of repressed female sexuality that haunts Lucy throughout the novel. This Nun was supposedly buried alive in the school where Lucy is, of course, being metaphorically buried alive.
Bronte takes these nineteenth-century stereotypes and undermines them by making them all doubles for Lucy. After all, Lucy is as clever and cunning as Madam Beck, who she criticises for her use of surveillance, while doing exactly the same thing herself. Like the actress, Vashti, she has an aptitude for dramatic art and is potentially just as full of “hate, murder and madness.” She is as capable as Mrs Bretton, as sensitive as Paulina, and as sensual and desiring as Ginevra. She is both tempted and terrified by the figure of the nun, the woman who relinquishes all passions, but in the end, the nun turns out not to be a nun at all. Ultimately, Lucy rejects the possibilities offered by these figures and takes her own path. While in Jane Eyre, Bronte allows her heroine to find happiness in marriage with a man who understands her, she is far more ambivalent about this possibility in Villette, favouring instead work and the independence it brings as the only satisfying form of existence for a woman in Lucy’s position.
Towards the end, the novel becomes weirder and weirder as Lucy, drugged up on opium, wanders around a park at night secretly observing all the other characters who have happened to have gathered there (in fine Victorian novel coincidence style). The ending itself is as disturbing and ambiguous as the rest of this text in which the heroine experiences what we would now call clinical depression and falls in love with two men who both behave in emotionally abusive ways.
At this point Andy (reading over my shoulder) burst out laughing at how awful I’m making this book sound, but it’s really good. It’s just one of those books that sounds awful when you try and describe it! Trust me on this one.