A Review of Charlotte Brontë’s Lesser Known Work: Villette

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre has become an internationally recognized literary staple. Yet, unlike Austen’s works, Bronte’s other novels, namely Villette, Shirley and The Professor, have been neglected in discussion and popularity. Perhaps this is because of their more linear and predictable plots and the primary, almost exclusive focus on the development of character and thought as opposed to atmosphere and event. Charlotte Brontë’s Villette is the epitome, not the exception of these characteristics.

By most accounts, including Elizabeth Gaskell’s famous biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë, Charlotte’s personal life was not a particularly happy one. Charlotte grew up as the third eldest of six children and was exposed to tragedy at a young age: her mother died of cancer while Charlotte was only 5, and her sisters Maria and Elizabeth died of tuberculosis as young adults. Throughout her relatively short life (38 years), Charlotte witnessed the premature passing of her beloved brother, Bramwell, and sisters Anne and Emily. Her childhood in itself was a lonely and isolated one outside of her family’s company.

Interestingly enough, it is commonly claimed that Villette has strong autobiographical elements, and this comes as no surprise given the haunting, austere melancholy that permeates the book throughout. Additionally, the character of M. Paul is widely reported to have been based on the married Belgian schoolmaster with whom the authoress fell in love with during her stay in Brussels.

Like Jane Eyre, Villette unfolds with narration by a young heroine, Miss Lucy Snowe, as she visits her godmother Mrs. Louisa Bretton, a widow who lives alone with her young son Graham. The visits are the rare bright spot in Lucy’s lonely youth, in spite of the fact that Graham pays her little attention. During one of these visits, a distant relation of Mrs. Bretton’s, Mr. Home, sends his little girl Pauline to stay with the Brettons for a while as he travels. Quickly a bantering, strong rapport ensues between the precocious child and the older youth, Graham, as Lucy observes quietly.

The story then fast forwards seven years. By some unfortunate turn of events that is not detailed, Lucy is left nearly destitute without kin or money, and has lost contact with Mrs. Bretton and Graham. Lucy finds employment as companion and caregiver to an elderly acquaintance, Miss Marchmont, for the space of two years. After her death, Lucy gets up the courage to seek opportunity in London, and eventually to go abroad to the (fictionally-named country) of Labassecouer . While on the voyage Lucy meets a flirtatious schoolgirl, Ginevra Fanshawe, who tells her of the girls’ boarding school she is enrolled in, in the city of Villette. Lucy decides to take a chance at employment prospects there upon disembarking from the ship. In spite of the fact that Lucy has no recommendations, the directress Madame Beck and her kinsman, Professor Paul Emanuel, hire her initially as a governess for Madame Beck’s own children and eventually as an English teacher. An Englishman going by the name of Dr. John serves as visiting physician for the school soon becomes enamored of Ginevra Fanshawe. Later this Dr. John is revealed to be none other than Graham Bretton, having became a doctor and sought his fortune in Labassecouer along with his mother.

Lucy watches from a distance, often alone in the school, as Graham becomes increasingly enamored with the vain and superficial Ginevra. By chance, during an opera, Mrs. Bretton, Lucy and Graham meet Pauline and Mr. Home, also known as M. De Bassompiere, the uncle of Ginevra, once again. When Ginevra treats Mrs. Bretton rudely one evening, Graham realizes her true shallowness, and instead pursues his warm affection for Pauline that has existed since childhood.

Lucy perceives the love between Graham and Pauline as sincere and does not begrudge them, but mocks herself in ever thinking that Graham could love her. However her days at the school begin to be somewhat lightened by the friendship of the stern, temperamental, and devoutly catholic Professor Emanuel, or “M. Paul”. Though his tongue is often sharp, his kindness is genuine towards Lucy as his little sister, or “petite soeur”. Eventually however he is called away “across the Atlantic” for a number of years by a Jesuit society for vague undefined reasons. Lucy resigns herself to the fact that he will give a proper farewell and soon forget her, but instead finds before his departure that he has purchased a house for her in which to begin a girls’ school or her own. Before leaving, he admits his love for her and asks her to “one day, share his life”.

Lucy is happy with her work as directress of the school during his absence. Her narrative indecisively ends with the three years ending, subtly implying that M. Paul is killed in a storm at sea on the voyage back-but “leaving room for sunny imaginations” to envision the predicted happy ending.

It is quite interesting to compare the characters of Lucy Snowe and Jane Eyre, keeping in mind that Villette is considered to have the stronger biographical elements of the two. Both poor, plain, and reserved, they may appear to be quite the same, but closer inspection reveals otherwise. We are told next to nothing of Lucy Snowe’s background, childhood or experiences, miserable or otherwise. Lucy belongs to no family, house or village. She is perpetually the stranger, forever limited to standing outside looking in, even to those with whom she is the most familiar. For all her experiences, Jane still, somehow, expects happiness and love. Lucy expects nothing. She is, almost pathetically, content with the scraps of acknowledgement friendship that Graham and Pauline leave for her. Otherwise her existence is gray-weary-colorless, so much so that she becomes seriously ill when she is left alone in the boarding school while the rest of the teachers are on holiday.

You will find no passionate expressions of undying love-no Mr. Rochester feverishly calling for his Jane to come back. The love between Lucy Snowe and her M. Paul is vastly understated, so much so that the reader wonders at first if it is nothing more than friendship. Yet-as it develops, one wonders if the romance is not all the more effective for that.

“I was happy. Happy with the bright day. Happier with his presence. Happiest with his kindness.” Few Victorian love scenes which I have read can measure up to the simple trust and gratefulness of Lucy Snowe for the fiery yet gentle M. Paul’s affection. At last the lonely, beyond-her-years somber Englishwoman is no longer on the outside looking in.

I read the book at the age of 16 and found myself immediately surprised that it is so little known among Brontë’s works. True, the plot is less than gripping, and the novel itself has less than the stature of a true classic, but the passionate originality of thought and the womanly intuition that pours forth on its pages scarcely gives one time to notice. For a study in the fine and noble feelings and thoughts of an age gone by, read Villette.

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