Villette is an odd book, though it is a fascinating one. It reads like a dream, like living inside someone’s head and looking out. What I call living in your head is when you are so self-aware and thoughtful that you are referencing the outside world from your own sensations, as if your internal life were more real than the external one. The protagonist of Villette, Lucy Snow, though she maintains that she is not particularly imaginative, lives in a constantly imaginative world of her own senses that feels to the reader (at least this one) as if it were as real as the physical alone.
Since Villette is generally considered to be the chronicle of a woman both lonely and set apart from her surroundings, this is very well shown by Brontë. The novel is told in first person by Lucy Snowe, whose background she does not explain. There is some family tragedy and she seems to be left without family or fortune. She leaves England and travels to the fictional city of Villette, in the fictional country of Labassecour, where she becomes a teacher at a girl’s boarding school.
The school is run by the imperviously immovable, calm and cold Madame Beck, who has a distinct flair for espionage on her pupils and staff. She knows everything there is to know about everyone and will even snoop in their private possessions, always neatly putting everything away, of course. Another teacher is M. Paul Emanuel, who is Madame Beck’s cousin and teaches literature and is a temperamental, imperious, but also utterly sweet man. Lucy also reconnects with her godmother, Mrs. Bretton, and her godmother’s very handsome son, Dr. Bretton. There is also Paulina Home and her father, friends of the Brettons who Lucy knew in England.
The book could almost be called a psychological novel and is less about what Lucy does and more about her isolation in Villette (religiously, since Labassecour is Catholic, culturally and physically – people view her as insignificant and she has a habit of withdrawing for people) and her attempts to reconcile herself to what she considers to be her destiny. As a woman without money or beauty, she believes she must forge her own independence and suppress all strong feeling and love, first for Dr. Bretton and then for M. Emanuel. She feels that the most she can hope for is a degree of independence, as achieved by Madame Beck, who owns and runs the school.
The most fascinating aspect of the book to me is how Lucy perceives herself. She is not a reliable narrator. There are things she doesn’t say, such as the unnamed tragedy in her background. Even the ending is ambiguous: does Paul Emanuel die or doesn’t he? She makes incorrect statements about herself. She says she does not suffer from an extreme imagination, which is palpably not true. She considers herself timid and retiring yet travels to Europe alone, with very little money and no prospects. She quells defiant students. She gets pushed into a play and finds that she likes it very well and does well at it.
But not only does she not see herself correctly (or is she deliberately misrepresenting herself, or is she being ironic or is it a blend of all three?), but no one else understand her, either.
The light in which M. de Bassompierre evidently regarded “Miss Snowe” used to occasion me much inward edification. What contradictory attributes of character we sometimes find ascribed to us, according to the eye with which we are viewed! Madame Beck esteemed me learned and blue; Miss Fanshawe, caustic, ironic, and cynical; Mr. Home [de Bassompierre], a model teacher, the essence of the sedate and discreet: somewhat conventional perhaps, too strict, limited and scrupulous, but still the pink and pattern of governess-correctness; whilst another person, Professor Paul Emanuel, to wit, never lost an opportunity of intimating his opinion that mine was rather a fiery and rash nature – adventurous, indocile, and audacious. I smiled at them all. If any one knew me it was little Paulina Mary.
Ironically, it is not at all clear that Paulina knows her any better than anyone else. And in truth, Lucy’s character contains aspects of all these traits. Even Paul Emanuel, the only person to see the fire underneath, does not see all.
One other fascinating thing about Lucy is how much Madame Beck and she have in common, though Lucy has more heart than Madame Beck. Madame Beck’s extreme phlegm is something Lucy admires and Madame’s habit of espionage is something that Lucy engages in, too. This is partly because she often seems to be a looker on of life, rather than a participant, which lends her an air of voyeurism. She watches people, she sees them when they are not aware of her, she listens when people don’t know she’s near. Like Lucy, Madame Beck wants to marry Paul Emanuel, though she never says so, and is aligned with Emanuel’s priest to keep them apart. She’s like a mirror image of Lucy, grown cold and calculating, a frightening possible fate for Lucy. Dr. Bretton calls Lucy a shadow and Madame Beck certainly acts like one, stealthily shadowing people, spying on them, a cipher to everyone except Lucy.
The prose in Villette is quite unique, but thoroughly enjoyable. At times, she engages in incredible flights of imagination, describing her emotions in pictorial terms that are almost florid, which is ironic considering how much she despises the pomp, ceremony and excess complexity of Catholicism, Italian arias and the Dutch masters. She values simplicity and realism in art, is a relatively plain Protestant, yet her expressions are by no means temperate or plain. For her, emotions almost become animate objects or living things. Here is her description of how she felt, waiting for a letter from Dr. Bretton, whom she loves.
“I suppose animals kept in a cage, and so scantily fed as to be always upon the verge of famine, await their food as I awaited a letter. Oh! – to speak truth, and drop that tone of a false calm which long to sustain, outwears nature’s endurance – I underwent in those seven weeks bitter fears and pains, strange inward trials, miserable defections of hope, intolerable encroachments of despair. This last came so near to me sometimes that her breath went right through me. I used to feel it, like a baleful air or sigh, penetrate deep, and make motion pause at my heart, or proceed only under unspeakable oppression. The letter – the well-beloved letter – would not come; and it was all of sweetness in life I had to look for.
But she is also ironically funny. Her description of the governess of Madame Beck’s children is fresh and unexpected: she describes a “coarse” and drunk woman as a “sleeping beauty” and “heroine of the bottle.” There is a bit of French in Villette, which is frustrating if you don’t know French (which I don’t, alas). There are exchanges of several sentences in French, though Lucy’s reactions and thoughts can sometimes give a vague idea of what is said.
Ultimately, Villette is a less satisfying book than Jane Eyre, but perhaps more interesting to think about. It’s a book of several moods. Sometimes she makes the reader privy to intimate feelings and at others it seems she holds them at a distance. I alternated between pity, mild exasperation, admiration, and humor. She never explains her ultimate fate, but the reader is left with the impression that she did not find happiness in life. She seems to have found independence, but never mastered the art of suppressing those powerful emotions and longings. But perhaps it is a good thing, otherwise she would have become Madame Beck.