Book note: Charlotte Bronte’s Villette

VILLETTE by Charlotte Bronte (1853)

Charlotte Bronte’s Villette is about a complicated young women who didn’t fit what was expected of women in the Victorian age.  It also is about the cultural clash of an English Protestant in a French Catholic environment.  I read it in a novel-reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.

The novel’s zig-zag plot has so many abrupt turns that I thought the author may have been making it up as she went along.  But, no, at the end, everything comes together like a solved Rubik’s cube.  I think it would make a good TV mini-series.   

Charlotte Bronte

Lucy Snowe, the narrator, is courageous, self-reliant, resourceful and also opinionated and judgmental.  She expects little of the world and much of herself.  Inside her stoic shell, she is highly sensitive and subject to mood swings.  A little thing can send her from the heights of ecstasy to the depths of despair, or vice versa.  Her greatest fear is exposing her emotional vulnerability.

She is left an orphan in her teens, and makes a living as a nurse-companion to an elderly invalid woman who needs 24-hour care.   This means, as my friend Judith observed, that she comes of age without having been socialized into how young ladies of her era should think and behave.

Her employer dies unexpectedly when Lucy is in her early twenties.  She is faced with the problem of earning a living and she has no network of family and friends to whom to turn.

She leaves for London, figuring job opportunities are greater there.  Somebody tells her there is good money to be made teaching English as girls’ schools in Belgium.  She immediately buys a boat ticket for Belgium.

She lands in the fictional city of Villette and heads for the nearest girls’ school.  She loses her way and arrives at the school at midnight in a pouring rain.  She talks her way into a bed for the night, and then into a job.

The owner of the girls’ school, Madame Beck, is herself an interesting character.  She is domineering, interfering, manipulative and utterly ruthless when it comes to upholding her own interests and the interests of the school.  But she is also sensible, fair-minded, a capable administrator and a good judge of character.

(Bronte, by the way, refers to Madame Beck and all the other Belgian characters as French.)

Lucy is set to work as Madame Beck’s personal servant and governess (tutor and nanny) of her children.  

 One day, on a few minutes notice, she is asked to teach a class of older teenage girls in place of an English teacher who failed to show up.  

The rowdy French girls are all set to make life miserable for the substitute teacher.  But Lucy quickly picks out the ringleaders and humiliates them.  She even locks one of them in a closet.  Her authority established, she goes on to teach the class.  

She notices Madame Beck watching through a keyhole.  From that day on, she leaves the nursery behind and is a full-fledged English teacher.

Soon after she is called upon by another teacher, M. Paul Emmanuel, to substitute for a missing actor in a school play, with less than a day’s notice.  She agrees, but the role is a male character, and Lucy refuses to submit to the indignity of appearing in men’s clothes.  

Wearing a man’s shirt collar and necktie, she plays the part successfully.  From that point on, she is regarded as having proved herself, and is an accepted member of the school faculty 

Into her life comes Dr. John Graham Bretton, whom she knew when she was 13 and he was 16, before her troubles. She had a crush on him as a young girl, and the attraction continues.

He is handsome, good-hearted, popular and successful, supposedly everything a young woman could want.  He, however, thinks of her as a kid sister.  Instead he is infatuated with the beautiful, but shallow and mercenary Ginerva Fanshawe, the only English girl enrolled in the school.

Lucy tells herself that Dr. John is out of reach, but draws emotional sustenance from every scrap of affection he shows.  She becomes the confident of both him and Ginerva, neither of them suspecting her true feelings.

Ginerva was never serious about Dr. John and eventually marries a rich nobleman.  Dr. John meanwhile comes to realize Gomerva’s true character.

At this point, I thought I was reading a Cinderella story, with Dr. John as Lucy’s destined Prince Charming.

But, no, Lucy comes to understand that someone like Dr. John, whose life has been one of easy success and uninterrupted happiness, could never understand someone like her.  She chooses to bury her feelings and helps facilitate his engagement to a nice young woman of a rich, aristocratic family.

The focus shifts to what had been a relatively minor character, M. Paul Emmanuel.  He is almost a mirror opposite of Dr. John.  He is short, ugly, lacking in social graces, and bad-tempered to the point of cruelty.  He seems a familiar and unpleasant type of character, the tyrannical dictator of a tiny domain.

But he sets high standards, both for himself and others.  He is like the teacher you may have had, whom you hated, but who pushed you to do more than you ever thought you could.

Lucy has a lot to do with him because she is one of the few women on the faculty who is not afraid of him.  She learns how to deal with him, then to understand him, and finally to appreciate him—all the more after she is granted a window into his private life.  She comes to realize that he likes her, and what seemed like him picking on her was only his clumsy attempt to connect.

Gradually these two ugly ducklings come together.

The big obstacle to their relationship is their difference in religion.  They are both deeply religious people for whom faith in God is a great comfort and a guiding principle in their lives.  But Lucy thinks Catholics are slaves to a giant totalitarian cult, while M. Paul thinks Protestants are little more than heathen.

Lucy is strongly committed to the Anglican Protestant version of Christianity.  For one thing, It is part of her core identity as an Englishwoman.  Being English, to her, means being Protestant.  For another, she understands and agrees with the Anglican Protestant creed.  She rejects with contempt a pamphlet M. Paul gives her on Catholic theology.

She sees the Roman Catholic Church as the arch-enemy of human freedom, a giant authoritarian cult that sucks people in and robs them of their autonomy.  Several pages are given to her reasons for thinking so.  Being aesthetically sensitive, she is attracted to the beauty of Catholic ritual, but that in her eyes makes Catholicism all the more dangerous.

This was not a crazy thing to think in 1853.  In that era, the Roman Catholic Church was not the church of today.  It was committed to dogma and autocracy, and the opponent of everything modern, liberal or democratic.  

This was true, although with a growing number of exceptions, into the middle 20th century.  The error of the extreme anti-Catholics was to assume that people’s lives were automatically determined by the creeds to which they paid lip service and to magnify the differences between the two branches of Christianity.  Still, I can remember when most people I knew regarded Catholic-Protestant marriages as problematic. 

Lucy, after filing several pages with her reasons why Catholicism is irrational and dangerous, acknowledges that there are “good Romanists,” and that M. Paul is one of the best of them.  

We don’t get a window into M. Paul’s thinking, but we are given to understand he ends by accepting that since he loves Lucy, and her Protestantism is a core part of what she is, he has to love her Protestantism, too.

Lucy says the two of them achieved “another love, venturing diffidently into life after long acquaintance, furnace-tried by pain, stamped by constancy, consolidated by affection’s pure and durable alloy, submitted by intellect to intellect’s own tests, and finally wrought up, by his own process, to his own unflawed completeness, this Love that laughed at Passion, his fast frenzies and his hot and hurried extinction…”

Everything suddenly and unexpectedly seems to go horribly wrong, then come right again, until the bittersweet ending revealed on the last page.  Bronte mocks readers who demand happy endings.


Why those subversive Bronte sisters still hypnotize us by Sarah Hughes for The Guardian.

Reader, I shagged him: Why Charlotte Bronte was a filthy minx by Tanya Gold for The Guardian.

Apparently the Brontes All Died Young Because They Spent Their Lives Drinking Graveyard Water by Emily Temple for Literary Hub.

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