Age Category: Adult
Finding herself alone in the world after a family misfortune, Lucy Snowe travels from England to the city of Villette to teach at a girls’ boarding school. There, she first falls in love with a handsome young doctor, and then an irritable professor.
Though considered by many Charlotte Brontë’s finest novel, Villette often goes unread by the general public. Perhaps it is the sheer length of the tome that deters readers. Or perhaps it is the style. Narrated by the protagonist, Lucy Snow, Villette is not a reliable novel. Lucy keeps her emotions in check almost all the time, lying apparently even to herself about her real motivations and desires. She goes through the world largely as an observer, only implicitly comparing herself first with the shallow flirt Ginevra Fanshawe and then with the beautiful and charming Paulina de Bassompierre. Readers get a sense that Lucy wishes she had something those other girls do–but to admit it out loud would be a weakness. Villette, then, is a sometimes confusing and contradictory novel, with Lucy subduing her passions in order to try to find contentment while alone and friendless, and destined to work her entire life. As a psychological study, it is a triumph–one well worth reading by those who love Brontë’s other works or those who enjoy Victorian literature.
Plot-driven Villette is not, and readers might rightly find it difficult even to summarize the story. It begins in Lucy’s childhood–one that seems happy enough at times, though it ends with an unspecified family tragedy. Left alone, Lucy has to find a way to support herself and eventually decides to travel to the French-speaking city of Villette (based on Brussels and Brontë’s own experiences there). Eventually, she becomes an English teacher at a girls’ boarding school. However, she has no friends there, rejecting the advances of the other teachers as unworthy, and finding almost all of the students immoral and stupid. Over the course of about 18 months, the novel follows Lucy simply as she meets people and observes them. All the while, however, her own extreme loneliness and despair haunt the book. Lucy may claim an even temperament, but at its heart, the book is about the fear of being alone, unloved, and single–as well as the despair of having to work for one’s daily bread an entire lifetime, while not really enjoying the work.
In a subtle way, then, Villette is a novel about the plight of the working woman, though perhaps in a more realistic way than Jane Eyre. Lucy Snowe has no pretensions to being clever or remarkable; she is not even pretty. All Lucy has are her principles, and the reader sometime gets the impression that she clings so fiercely to them because it is the only thing she can control. Others may mock, dismiss, or ignore her. Men may never even look at her because she is so homely. But at least she has morals. At least she can say she is honest. And that thought seems to get her through the day whenever she contemplates a lifetime of standing in front of a room full of bored, disrespectful girls. No handsome hero is going to save her, but she will die respectable and principled.
Despite her assertions to herself that principle is enough, however, Lucy implicitly compares herself with two other women throughout the course of the novel. In the first part, her double is Ginevra Fanshawe, a flirtatious, mercenary girl who values shallow, foppish men over men of value. Lucy repeatedly scolds Ginevra for being vain and faithless, but the reality is that Ginevra–young, beautiful, and wealthy–has the attention of men whereas Lucy–youngish, plain, and poor–has not. In fact, two-timing Ginevra has the heart of Dr. John, the very man Lucy has (silently) fallen in love with herself. Lucy never admits to being in love with Dr. John, but her jealousy is palpable. And it only turns to sadness later on when Dr. John moves on to another beautiful young woman–Paulina de Bassompierre. Lucy recognizes moral quality in Paulina, but she also recognizes that Dr. John would never bother to court Paulina, were the girl not an heiress. Repeatedly, then, Lucy faces the stark reality that a plain working woman of no means seems destined to live, and die, alone. She has many fine speeches about the value of friends, but those friends sometimes forget her; they are not the steady, stable rock of a lifelong partner.
The third part of the book, however, holds out new hope for Lucy in the person of M. Paul, an irritable professor who sometimes teaches at Lucy’s school. Readers may be cheering for Lucy and her potential new love interest here, but M. Paul does exhibit Brontë’s preference for domineering men in a way that can be uncomfortable. Certainly Brontë managed to make Rochester attractive to generations of readers, despite his love of dominating and lying to Jane, but it is questionable whether she achieves the same effect here. M. Paul initially is ascribed only negative qualities and Lucy gives the impression that he is not handsome, either. As time progresses, M. Paul seems to soften and readers learn of his kinder, more generous qualities–but it cannot be denied that Brontë really seems to have a thing for men who yell at and demean women. Readers may hope for a marriage, anyway, but it really does seem questionable if matrimony would be a happier ending for Lucy than achieving financial independence as a single woman.
Villette is a wonderfully complex book that explores one woman’s experiences teaching in a foreign country as she attempts to navigate existence as a single woman of limited financial means. It holds extra interest to many readers as being perhaps the most autobiographical of Brontë’s works; the book is based on her own feelings for a married professor she met in Belgium. However, it also works without the authorial subtext, creating an intense psychological portrait of a woman both daring enough to have passions in life, but also too scared to admit it.