The Issue of Englishness: Nationalism and Identification in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette
Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853) explores repression and projection of identity through the voice of the suffering, confusing, and often unreliable Lucy Snowe. This novel emerged after Brontë’s acclaimed Jane Eyre, exemplifying a newfound maturity as well as a more personal voice shown through an experimental and exploratory narrative. Using the fictional locale of Villette in the country Labassecour (modeled off of Brontë’s experiences in Belgium), she creates an imaginative space where British nationalism and identity can be challenged and questioned, and she compares the educational and religious consequences of existing somewhere distinctively “not Britain.” Constantly whirring in the periphery of the narrative are questions regarding Lucy’s mysterious history, particularly as she takes the leap of faith of deciding to leave England for a different life. However, the stone-cold British nationalism does not quite dissipate so easily, and it remains one of the few distinguishing components of Lucy’s identity—a false, inflated, and often subtle “moral” superiority. Brontë questions British nationalism, but she still uses the text to emphasize its overall importance to every sphere a person’s life and identity rather than investigating its issues.
From the beginning, Lucy’s sense of not belonging—even in England—evokes paranoia and suffering, which eventually serve as means for her to choose to leave England following Miss Marchmont’s death. Despite clearly aligning herself with British nationalism later on, Lucy grapples with the death by challenging herself to reach for a different horizon. She starts by deciding to leave the country and travel to the London: A bold thought was sent to my mind; my mind was made strong to receive it. ‘Leave this wilderness,’ it was said to me, ‘and go out hence.’ ‘Where?’ was the query. I had not very far to look: gazing from this country parish in the flat, rich middle of England—I mentally saw within reach what I had never beheld with my bodily eyes; I saw London (Brontë 49). She sees this formulation of thought in her mind as some intervention of divine providence for what will follow next in her life. However, upon arriving to London, she is enthralled with the bustle of the city and its stark contrast with the country, but she is quick to set her sights elsewhere, a more “resolute, and daring—perhaps desperate—line of action” (Brontë 55). She goes as far to associate the nation as a whole with her trauma and suffering (though it is repressed from the reader): “Unutterable loathing of a desolate existence past forbade return. If I failed in what I now designed to undertake, who, save myself, would suffer? If I died far away from—home, I was going to say, but I had no home—from England, then, who would weep?” (Brontë 55). Lucy paints a dramatic but heartfelt picture of the lonely reality she faces upon Miss Marchmont’s death. Though Brontë uses Villette as an outlet for her own political and religious views, she does still recognize the stagnancy and suffering that Lucy would face by staying in England.
However, Britishness becomes much more evident in her character once she leaves the country and arrives in Labassecour. Specifically, Lucy’s attraction to John Graham Bretton lies in his British identity and handsome physical appearance, which she uses to forgive him for any unkind deed he does to her. When she first arrives in Labassecour, the English man who helps her (who later is revealed to be Dr. John) is an oasis amongst her disorientation and confusion. While it may seem standard for the traveler to be comforted by the familiar in a foreign place, Lucy’s reaction to finding help from an English man is different: “But I had heard the Fatherland accents; they rejoiced my heart…I saw that he was a young, distinguished, and handsome man; he might be a lord, for anything I knew: nature had made him good enough for a prince” (Brontë 69-70). Bretton is in every way Lucy’s “savior,” when it just happens to be a stroke of luck and an act of intermitted kindness. While any weary, lost traveler would appreciate the help, she assigns his kindness and chivalry towards her to his Englishness. She asserts this as she continues: “The remembrance of his countenance, which I am sure wore a light not unbenignant to the friendless—the sound in my ear of his voice, which spoke to a nature chivalric to the needy and feeble, as well as the youthful and fair—were a sort of cordial to me long after. He was true young English gentleman.” (Brontë 70). Furthermore, she puts Bretton on a pedestal in her mind where he can do little wrong when he later is often inconsiderate and even rude to her. This first encounter with Bretton serves as an assertion by Brontë that though Lucy has left England, her identity and attraction is rooted in her British nationality.
The conversation through Lucy’s narrative between English Protestantism and Catholicism is furthermore a central tension of the novel, specifically enacted through her relationship with Monsieur Paul. M. Paul is entirely incompatible with Lucy’s fantasies about England: he is a Labassecour nationalist, misogynist, and devout Catholic. Lucy shows what Catholicism represents to her while describing the refectory at Villette: “This said ‘lecture pieuse’ [religious instruction] was, I soon found, mainly designed as a wholesome mortification of the Intellect, a useful humiliation of the Reason” (Brontë 129). Though Lucy is characterized by her modest and quiet nature, she spares little to assert her strong opinions against Catholicism early into the novel. This particular quality of hers is obviously related to her Britishness and Protestantism, which makes it so interesting that she forms a bond of any kind with M. Paul. Furthermore, these two separate realities almost unite, but do not consummate (or at least as it appears to the reader in the ambiguous ending). M. Paul and Lucy love each other, but do not have a chance to be together in their love for long and, to the reader’s knowledge, never marry. Perhaps this lack of union shows the incompatible reality of the two worlds in Charlotte Brontë’s eyes. Though Lucy does not think herself superior to M. Paul in the end, she is left alone with her British nationalism and identity.
While Villette may be a radical text in the sense that Lucy ultimately gains independence and autonomy, it still enforces standards of Britishness that are seen as superior to everything else, thus “othering” or demonizing other ideologies and methods as a result. It seems Lucy challenges British tradition by recognizing that she does not belong in the country following Miss Marchmont’s death. However, her Britishness becomes more deeply entrenched into her psyche when she arrives into Villette, associating it with her standard of what is “correct.” This enacts particular through her prolonged attraction to John Graham Bretton, despite his continual mistreatment of her and consistent preference for other women over Lucy. Her complicated relationship with Monsieur Paul thickens the divide between British mode of thought and everything else in Lucy’s mind, while at the same time challenging her beliefs through her attraction to a man so distinctly not English. Lucy’s identity is traced through the imaginative space of Labassecour, forcing her to question her British nationalism and Protestant beliefs, but through Brontë’s voice, British supremacy will never be exposed for the problem that it is.
Brontë, Charlotte. Villette. New York: The Penguin Group, 2004. Print.
The Lady Doth Protest Too Much: Confession and Villette’s Protestant Lucy Snowe
Lucy Snowe, the narrator in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, delivers a narrative that is very much the story that she wants the reader to hear. She explicitly details some facets of her life and leaves others drenched in opaque clouds of metaphor. Within her realm of inconsistent disclosure, one thing is explicitly clear: Lucy believes herself to be the embodiment of the Protestant ideal. She adamantly waves a banner of English Protestantism, in particular, and makes clear her dislike — bordering on contempt — of Catholicism. In scholarship of English literature, the novel has been understood as a Protestant form of narrative in which the individual’s right to his own story is paramount. One must outwardly lead the life of a good English citizen; any secrets he harbors may remain between the individual and his maker. Marina MacKay argues that, in Villette, Lucy stays “true to both her national identity and her narrative destiny” (219). However, as the novel runs its course, Lucy is unable to maintain her wall of architected omission and semi-silence; that is, she is unable to maintain control of her own story. Her ultimate outpouring to M. Paul, when “fluent [she tells her] tale” (490) – faults and all – transcends her understanding of herself as existing on one side of a religious divide. Although ultimately outside the confines of a Catholic confessional, Lucy nonetheless makes herself public and betrays her own understanding of her role as an English Protestant.
It is not just in her eventual disclosure that Lucy strays outside the supposed boundaries of Brontë’s chosen literary form. Fundamentally, the Protestant narrative prizes realism over the gothic or romance genres. Villette is rife with gothic elements such as the spectral nun and the setting of the majority of the book on mainland Europe. “Where evil occurs in the English novel, it is located on the continent, in dirty old abroad, in the gothic novel” (MacKay 218). Even the narrative’s psychological complications, such as Lucy’s own omissions, deny the reader a realist account of her story. In initial scholarship of the English novel, a certain Protestant ideal was maintained in the best of English literature. “The model of society [was] essentially conservative, whereby every subject [knew] his or her place and [remained] there in the interest of great literature” (MacKay 218). We see Lucy defy this expectation first by existing as an outsider at home and then with her journey to Belgium, a foreign Catholic land. In Victorian England, the nation “firmed up its national identity by resisting the conversion plots of the Catholics on the continent” (Heady 357). Yet instead of staying safe on her home island, Lucy travels to the land of the Other and attempts to play out her Protestant role in the presence of the Catholics around her.
This journey is key to understanding Lucy’s tendency to construct her identity through circumstance as opposed to nature. Unremarkable while in England, Lucy’s decision to travel to the “land of convents and confessionals” (Brontë 100) positions her as the foreigner and while no less alone, she is now afforded significance by the sheer nature of her national identity. “Lucy escapes her insignificance within English society by fleeing to a setting where her adherence to the mores of the very culture she has fled sets her apart, in her own mind, as superior” (Clark Beattie 825). She admits a “base habit of cowardice” and an inclination toward inadventurousness” (Brontë 76). So, by standing firm in her position as an outsider, nationally and religiously, Lucy can position herself as excused from the rituals peculiar to those domestic identities and, therein, find a sort of strength. The “appropriation of the foreign as the domestic is precisely the structure of the colonial economy” (O’Malley 66) and just as Lucy admired the missionary in Paulina’s childhood story, one she described as a “good, good Englishman” (30), she now adopts the position of one existing as a civilized example among the natives. She clings to identities defined by situational details, which is less a self-determined narrative tack and more a resignation, a relinquishing of responsibility.
Where the Protestant novel prizes realism and good English citizenry, it also emphasizes the prerogative of the narrator to remain reticent. Lucy, as a grey-haired old woman, relates what she calls “this heretic narrative” (163) which depicts episodes of her life from many years prior. The story of one’s life is a revelation of one’s own personhood as it coincides with circumstance. Rosemary Clark-Beattie calls Villette itself a sort of “subverted confession” (824). She argues that the novel calls specific attention to the relationship between the sacrament of confession and the non-religious rite of self-revelation (823). Through the course of her life, Lucy may have “gained more through suppressing her identity than she does through revealing it” (Haller 155). The question then becomes: will such ideology work in a reflective narrative? An audience who embarks upon this journey with the narrator is entitled to, if not truth, then at least, substance. “Brontë associates forced speech or mandatory confession with foreign compulsion, and thus Lucy’s learned reticence reflects an ingrained understanding of the English constitution, which . . . [asserts] the right to remain silent” (Heady 357). I argue, however, that silence and narrative are incompatible; something in Lucy’s design is destined to give.
The reader receives different impressions of Villette’s narrator, in terms of the degree to which she is self-determined. She certainly aims to give the impression that she can clear her own path. For example, at the Rue Fossette, she “lived in a house of robust life and [she] chose solitude” (Brontë 126). In addition, she would rather have “made shirts and starved” (Brontë 298) than be a paid companion to Paulina. On the other hand, there are points at which she claims she is not determining her path, but that others or the Fates are doing it for her. After the death of Miss Marchmont, she states, “There remained no possibility of dependence on others; to myself alone could I look.” (Brontë 36). It seems less that she is willing control of her own life and more that she is resigned to it. She is “split between the functions of unarticulated faculties that refuse to collaborate in the production of an amendable world” (Hughes 717). Perhaps most to the point, it is difficult to credit a narrator with self-determination when she is willing to allow her reader to imagine events that did not occur:
It will be conjectured that I was of course glad to return to the bosom of my kindred. Well! The amiable conjecture does no harm, and may therefore be safely left uncontradicted. Far from saying nay, indeed, I will permit the reader to picture me, for the next eight years as a bark slumbering through halcyon waters . . . Brontë 35
Though the Protestant novel is supposed to afford an individual the right to tell his own story, Lucy waffles between articulate claims that this is exactly what she is doing and indications that she wants nothing more than to conceal as much about herself as possible. Lucy “follows bewildering, perverse, or obscure anti-narrative principles that raise the shock and intensity of narrative alienation or disappointment to a new level” (Hughes 716). To the reader, she does not reveal details about the traumas in her past; from other characters, she remains removed.
Her relationship with Ginevra, a fellow Englishwoman, is perhaps the most interactive for much of the novel, but even Ginevra ends up questioning, “‘Who is Lucy Snowe?’” Lucy masks herself through situational detail, almost as though she chooses to be acted upon as opposed to taking action herself. “[S]he takes on a persona that befits what is required by a given circumstance . . . she suppresses her true identity through concealment that is both literal and figurative” (Haller 149). When she appears in the dramatic production with Ginevra, “it was not the crowd she feared, but [her] own voice” (Brontë 140). A narrator who fears her own voice is problematic not only for the engaged reader, but also for the tradition of Protestant narrative.
Lucy overcompensates for her lack of personal divulgence by stressing hard and fast the key points of cliché English identity with which she wishes to be associated. To that end, Catholicism, the ominous foreign institution with its fanaticism, ritual, and misplaced priorities, serves as an easy Other off of which Lucy can project her self-importance. When Isabelle tells her that it is a pity she is a Protestant, Lucy coaxes the reasoning out of her pupil with condescending patronage. “I laughed as, indeed, it was impossible to do otherwise” (Brontë 84). By having others speak while she remains reticent, Lucy almost delights in making them seem foolish. She claims to want control, as with her costume during the play. It “must be arranged in my own way,” she says, “nobody must meddle; the things must not be forced upon me” (Brontë 139). Such self-awareness is desirable, were the cast off clothing of others replaced with something of her own making. Instead, it may be argued that Lucy presents only a protestation, not an alternative. She retains her grey frock and places bits of male attire over it. A strange layering that is neither wholly Lucy nor wholly other; a confused mask from behind which Lucy is most comfortable, but the reader which leaves the reader slightly confused.
Lucy’s eventual disclosure to M. Paul is foreshadowed by her experience in the Catholic confessional. Despite her contempt for “popish superstition” (Brontë 163), despite her dismissal of saints’ lives as “no more than monkish extravagances, over which one laughed inwardly” (Brontë 117), despite her view of her charges as “little Catholics” who say “little prayers,” it is to a Catholic church that she flees when experiencing a fevered episode of solitary suffering. She makes it a point to state, “I was not delirious: I was in my sane mind” (Brontë 160). When the Benediction ends, Lucy watches those that remain go one-by-one into the confessional. When the woman next to her invites Lucy to take her turn, she proceeds, considering the fact that “it might soothe [her]” (Brontë 161). The arena in which the faith she loathes solicits complete disclosure from its flock is the last place one would expect to find Lucy Snowe. Yet, she goes in. She begins the exchange with her familiar announcement, “Mon pere, je suis Protestante.” She is “a practicing Protestant, who would be assumed to keep her sins between herself and God” (Heady 351). However, she ends up “[pouring] her heart out” (Brontë 162), divulging much more about herself than is her habit. Though she is adamant to let the priest know that it is no sin that has brought her to his confessional, the mere fact that she is “perishing for a word of advice or an accent of comfort” (Brontë 161) is such an intimate divulgence, such an emotional profession, its significance can not be understated. “Lucy’s confession is . . . the next step in a long line of narrative maneuvers that require her to move interior matters outside, to tell her secrets, and to project her hidden self into visible spaces” (Heady 351). She has refrained from disclosing details to the reader. She has remained on the emotional periphery of those in her daily life. Yet it is here, in the Catholic confessional, that she admits weakness, admits loneliness, and it is here that, in so doing, she finds comfort.
This sacrifice of thoughts and feelings, usually kept contained, is decidedly unProtestant and unEnglish; it frightens her. She returns to safely English arms – the Bretton home – where she is welcomed and almost encouraged to remain distant and unknown. As the novel continues, as her relations with the Brettons diminish and her intimacy with M. Paul intensifies, she is hard pressed to keep her inner world contained. M. Paul becomes a more significant part of her life; his role as a friend and companion grows. “It is only through M. Paul’s companionship that Lucy ceases suppression of her identity” (Haller 158). She is confused by her attraction to him and perhaps to his faith and thus overstates her own religious convictions. This attraction makes her vulnerable, however, and it is before him, to whom she eventually refers as “my king,” that she is unable to sustain her guarded posture. After he reveals to her the school he has procured on her behalf, she tells the reader, “It was the assurance of his sleepless interest which broke on me like a light from heaven” (Brontë 487). To her Little Jesuit, she says, “‘I want to tell you all.’” Though she will insist to the end that it is M. Paul who is relenting in his allegiance to his faith, Lucy is actually the one faltering in her duty to her ‘narrative destiny.’ “I spoke. All leaped from my lips. I lacked not words now; fast I narrated; fluent I told my tale; it streamed on my tongue” (Brontë 490-1). She feels no call for restraint this time. He encourages her narrative, coaxes her on. Ultimately, she admits, “I was full of faults; he took them and me all home” (Brontë 491). M. Paul has heard her secrets, forgiven her sins, given her relief, brought her home.
Lucy maintains her Protestant mantra until the end, but her appreciation that M. Paul accepts her despite the fact that she is “full of faults” is an appreciation of an absolution, though she recognizes it only as kindness. “I deserved severity,” she writes, “he looked indulgence” (Brontë 491). To a Catholic, the sacrament of reconciliation is intended to bring one closer to God; it should serve as a comfort to unburden one’s self of those details which cause anxiety, those bits of our past from which we turn away. Lucy cannot see confession in this way; she understands it to be a sacrifice of one’s self, an abandonment of one’s individual comportment. “As to what lies below,” she believes, “leave that with God. Man, your equal, weak as you, and not fit to be your judge, may be shut out thence: take it to your Maker” (Brontë 179). Nonetheless, her relief in telling M. Paul about herself, the comfort she takes in relaying to him her story, must be read as a parallel to the divulgence of a confessional, particularly coming from one so guarded as Lucy Snowe. Her attraction to M. Paul is an “acknowledgement that his religious faith, though seemingly other at first, is not” (Klein 110). Both she and Paul are prepared to accept each other and their respective religions as cornerstones to their identities (Lenta 425).
Charlotte Brontë has chosen a Protestant narrative form to depict an admission of guilt and a forgiveness of sins. M. Paul, through, his love has provided Lucy an opportunity for reconciliation with her past, with her own character, and he has provided absolution in the form of a tolerant, generous love that does not condemn or entice, but tolerates. She uses Protestantism as a screen behind which she can hide her personal character. However, her eventual self-revelation undermines the nature of her narrative and confuses her position as one self-regulated and self-possessed. “Lucy believes M. Paul to be pure and honest in his religious belief, which sets him apart from the other members of his faith” (Edgren-Bindas 257-258). It is this acceptance, along with M.Paul’s blessing of her Protestantism, his approval of its “severe charm,” his statement that it is the “sole creed for Lucy Snowe,” (Brontë 494) that combine to set Lucy about “the happiest years of her life” (Brontë 493). When Catholicism is no longer entirely evil, when Protestantism is no longer partially a pretense, then Lucy’s story becomes her own.
Brontë, Charlotte. Villette. Oxford:, Oxford UP, 1984. Print Clark-Beattie, Rosemary. “Fables of Rebellion: Anti-Catholicism and the Structure of Villette.” ELH 53.4 (Winter 1986): 821-847. JSTOR. 12 October 2012.
Edgren-Bindas, Tonya. “The Cloistering of Lucy Snowe: an Element of Catholicism in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette.” Brontë Studies. 32.3 (Nov 2007): 253-259. EBSCO. 31 October 2012.
Haller, Elizabeth. “Perception and the Suppression of Identity in Villette.” Brontë Studies 35.2 (July 2010): 149-159. ingentaConnect. 20 October 2012.
Heady, Emily W. “‘Must I Render an Account?’: Genre and Self-Narration in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette.” Journal of Narrative Theory 36.3 (Fall 2006): 341-364. Project Muse. 12 October 2012.
Hughes, John. “The Affective World of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 40.4 (Autumn, 2000): 711-726. JSTOR. 12 October 2012.
Klein, Katherine. “Ambivalent Desires in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette and Grace Aguilar’s Vale of Cedars.” Brontë Studies 35.2 (July 2010): 107-117. EBSCO. 29 October 2012.
Lenta, Margaret. “The Tone of Protest: An Interpretation of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette.” English Studies 64.5 (October 1983): 422-431. EBSCO. 31 October 2012.
MacKay, Marina. “Catholicism, Character, and the Invention of the Liberal Novel Tradition.” Twentieth Century Literature 48. 2 (Summer 2002): 215-238. JSTOR. 5 September 2012.
Nelson, Victoria. “Faux Catholic: A Gothic Subgenre from Monk Lewis to Dan Brown.” boundary 2 34.3 (Fall 2007): 87-107.
O’Malley, Patrick R. “Goths and Romans; The Literature of the Gothic from Radcliffe to Ruskin.” Catholicism, Sexual Deviance, and Victorian Gothic Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006. Print.
The Forces of Nature in Villette
Supernatural events and portents are a major theme in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. While Brontë never crosses into a truly magical realm, it is clear that Lucy Snowe believes that certain events pertain to the supernatural world. Forces of nature play a large part in Villette, through weather and other natural elements, such as the stars. Lucy believes that weather ties closely with events in her life and the lives of those around her, and also turns to nature in times of distress to guide her in the appropriate direction. In Villette, the supernaturalism within nature affects individual human activities through Lucy’s eyes.On the night of Miss Marchmont’s death, there is a terrible storm. Lucy predicts that the storm is a portent of this tragedy: “Three times in the course of my life, events had taught me that these strange accents in the storm—this restless, hopeless cry—denote a coming state of the atmosphere unpropitious to life. Epidemic diseases, I believed, were often heralded by a gasping, sobbing, tormented, long-lamenting east wind” (38). Lucy philosophizes that the unsettled weather tends to predict misfortune at home. Miss Marchmont was clearly not in good health, or she would not have needed Lucy to be her nurse. Despite this reality, Lucy places her trust in nature as the main reason for the death of her companion. Although blaming the storm for the catastrophe seems unusual at the beginning of the novel, similar events later on support Lucy’s philosophy of nature’s supernatural powers. Feeling lost for direction after Miss Marchmont’s death, Lucy trusts nature and the stars to guide her in the darkness: “I should have trembled in that lonely walk… I should have quailed in the absence of moonlight, for it was by the leading of stars only I traced the dim path; I should have quailed still more in the unwonted presence of[…] the Aurora Borealis. But this solemn stranger influenced me otherwise than through my fears. Some new power it seemed to bring” (43-44). Alone in her travels, Lucy follows the stars, trusting them to take her wherever it is she belongs. Lucy as the speaker rarely offers specific, personal details about her character. This event shows that she has a vivid imagination which allows her to heed the advice she receives from the natural world. It also reveals Lucy as a dependant person, needy of guidance and uncomfortable without a companion. When the person dearest to her passes away, she immediately searches for a new mentor. She finds comfort in the form of the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, rarely seen in northern England. The rare star’s appearance during this helpless time in Lucy’s life is significant in proving that nature has supernatural powers.At the end of Chapter XV, Lucy collapses in the Basse-Ville during a terrible rainstorm. “Strong and horizontal thundered the current of the wind from north-west to south-east[…] it was cold and pierced me to the vitals[…] I tried to reach the porch of a great building near, but the mass of frontage and the giant-spire turned black and vanished from my eyes. Instead of sinking on the steps as I intended, I seemed to pitch headlong down an abyss. I remember no more” (163-164). At this point in the plot of Villette, Lucy is realizing that Polly and Dr. John’s relationship is deepening. The reality that she will never be more than a sisterly figure to him creates a severe coldness in her heart. The coldness of the snowstorm outside is a portrayal of the internal pain Lucy is experiencing. Also, similar to when she loses Miss Marchmont, Lucy is alone and searching for some sort of companion, this time looking to a Catholic priest. Feeling she may reconsider her Protestant faith, she decides to venture back to Madame Beck’s. In this case, at first the awful weather predicts the unfortunate event of Lucy fainting. Once the weather clears up, Lucy awakens to find herself back in Mrs. Bretton’s house. In essence, the bad weather causes a bad event, and once the weather becomes good again, Lucy experiences a moment of triumph in realizing the true identity of Dr. John as Graham. At the end of the novel, Lucy alludes to M. Paul’s possible death being caused by a storm. “That storm roared frenzied for seven days. It did not cease till the Atlantic was strewn with wrecks[…] Peace be still! Oh! a thousand weepers, praying in agony on waiting shores, listened for that voice, but it was not uttered” (495). Lucy’s prophecy of a storm brewing is essentially a description of her fears. She dreads that her love M. Paul will not return to her, thus decides that it will happen. Evidence throughout the novel supporting that nature indeed reflects events that occur in Lucy’s life causes the reader to believe this storm will in fact occur. For example, Miss Marchmont’s death also occurred during a storm, thus this foretelling is a reflection of Lucy’s past. She believes that she has the ability to feel these tragic events before they occur, reflective of her strong connection with nature. Clearly, Lucy believes that the mysterious powers of nature influence reality. In conclusion, there are various occurrences throughout the novel in which weather and other natural elements either predict or reflect events in Villette. When viewing these cases in chronological order, it becomes apparent that each case has significant impact on the plot of the novel. Miss Marchmont’s death causes Lucy to search for a new home, and in effect maps out the remainder of the plot. During her search, she experienced the natural force of the stars to guide her on her path. Another terrible storm caused her to arrive back at a home she hadn’t seen in years. The end of the novel demonstrates a different side of Lucy’s belief in the supernaturalism of nature. In this case, rather than nature taking a part in current plot events or reflecting on past experiences, the weather takes part in Lucy’s prediction of the future. In Villette, Brontë uses Lucy’s perceptions of nature effectively to support current events, reflect history, and predict the future.
“I, Lucy Snowe:” Identity as Performance in Villette
Following a foray into third-person omniscience in her second novel, Shirley, Charlotte Brontë’s Villette returns to the first-person narration for which Jane Eyre remains famous. Unlike that novel’s immediately vivid and feisty eponymous narrator, however, Villette’s Lucy Snowe begins and ends the novel a shadowy, largely unknowable figure. As narrator, Lucy seizes absolute control of her narrative, and yet her characterization is rife with contradiction. Lucy, who rejects and condemns performance even as she recognizes an affinity for it in herself, fails to recognize the inherently performative nature of her own identity. In her very attempt to avoid performance, Lucy actively constructs and controls her character, enacting for the reader a carefully rehearsed role of Lucy Snowe. Meanwhile, just as Lucy fails to recognize her own inevitable tendency to perform, she likewise fails to recognize that even the most calculated performance is subject to interpretation by the audience. In her constant attempt to maintain complete control over both her own characterization and her representation of others, Lucy bristles when other characters exercise this same right, repeatedly rejecting other interpretations of her character even when they appear to align with her own. Clinging to her elevated role as narrator, Lucy forgets that she is both a participant and an observer in the story she relates, equally among the watched and the watching. Her identity is constructed as much by her own performance as it is by others’ interpretation of it.
While motifs of performance recur throughout the novel, the final disrobing of the costumed “nun” can be understood as Villette’s consummate rejection of the possibility of objective characterization. The anticlimactic and bizarre, if vaguely humorous, revelation of the ghostly nun thought to embody Lucy’s deepest psychological torment as nothing more than a mere tertiary character in drag exposes both Lucy’s and the reader’s inability to correctly interpret Lucy’s character. Meanwhile, Lucy’s failure to unmask the performance of another in conjunction with her own unwittingly performative tendencies casts doubt on the representations of other characters with which she, as the narrator, is entrusted. Lucy’s unwitting role as one equally among the observant and the observed calls her reliability into doubt, but her role as an unreliable narrator is symptomatic of a greater inability to truly know others. In rendering Lucy unknowable, Brontë positions the reader as one in a series of failed interpreters—Lucy fails to know others just as the reader fails to know Lucy—suggesting a broader commentary on the impossibility of accurate interpretation and representation of the self and the other.
Well before Lucy discovers her thirst for acting in her first performance at Madame Beck’s fête, she has already assumed her first role: that of Lucy Snowe. Despite being a first-person narrator, Lucy refers to herself by her first and last name often, almost as if in the third person. These detached references to her own name frequently accompany Lucy’s claims to particular characteristics she seems to consider—or wants to present as—inherent, thus becoming a verbal marker of her self-characterization. In Lucy’s first mention of her name, she states it as if declaring an oath: “I, Lucy Snowe, plead guiltless of that curse, an overheated and discursive imagination” (10). Repetitions of this seemingly unnecessary antecedent appear alongside similar claims to faultless cool-headedness: “I, Lucy Snowe, was calm” (19). It is unlikely that either Lucy or Brontë believe any clarification of the first-person antecedent is truly necessary here. Rather, Lucy seems for reach to this rhetorical device in an attempt to establish and contain her ideal characterization within a verbal signifier. Indeed, the name “Lucy Snowe” is one of few concrete identifying details the novel provides about its narrator. However, through this obsessive eponymous characterization, the narrator ultimately distances herself from the Lucy Snowe she describes, almost rendering that Lucy Snowe a character distinct from the narrator. In fact, Lucy’s name, with its almost heavy-handed meaning—Lucy meaning “light,” Snowe suggesting cold—seems to literally suggest the harsh, cool characteristics to which Lucy lays claim. While Brontë’s use of such a name is hardly a coincidence, I posit that Lucy’s own use of the name is likewise not coincidental. Of an unreliable narrator who not only fails to provide, but actively conceals almost all information about her past and family, there is little reason to assume that “Lucy Snowe” is not an alias. Lucy clings to this assumed name as an embodiment of her own self-characterization, allowing that embodiment to become a character itself.
Despite her repeated attempts to solder her name, assumed or otherwise, to her first-person narration, Lucy herself often suggests a split between her name and identity. In one instance, after relating an episode of “complicated, disquieting thoughts,” Lucy concludes, “However, that turmoil subsided: next day I was again Lucy Snowe” (110). Here, Lucy suggests that her own status as Lucy Snowe is conditional, dependent on her performance of the qualities she has deemed appropriate for that character. Interestingly, other characters also seem to view Lucy’s name as inherently indicative of their expectations of her identity, though those expectations differ from Lucy’s. Upon learning that Lucy is now a teacher, Polly remarks in surprise, “‘Well, I never knew what you were, nor ever thought of asking: for me, you were always Lucy Snowe’” (267). Like Lucy, Polly clings to the name Lucy Snowe as a signifier, though her (mis)interpretation of the signified has more to do with Lucy’s class and station than her personality. Ultimately, Polly, too, suggests a conditional quality to Lucy’s identity, one that Lucy proceeds to question. In response to Lucy’s somewhat sarcastic inquiry, “‘And what am I now?’” Polly replies “‘Yourself, of course’” (267). This response, while seemingly redundant, actually does little to close the gap between “Lucy Snowe” and the narrator’s identity. If anything, Polly’s refusal to restate the name only reinforces the distinction between “Lucy Snowe” and “yourself.” Lucy actively performs the role of Lucy Snowe, both for the reader and other characters. However, as Polly’s use of the name reveals, Lucy’s performance remains open to interpretation, despite her best attempts to maintain control over her character.
Lucy’s active splitting of her own character resurfaces in her attitude toward performance itself. During her initially unwilling participation in the vaudeville at Madame Beck’s fête, Lucy discovers “a keen relish for dramatic expression.” Although Lucy even goes as far as to acknowledge this “newfound faculty” as “part of [her] nature,” she rejects it immediately, stating that such a passion “would not do for a mere looker-on at life” (131). Here, Lucy again alludes to a distinction between her nature and her character. Although acting has “revealed itself” as part of her nature, Lucy rejects it, as it does not suit her carefully constructed characterization as cool, calm, and never prone to an “overheated imagination.” Thus, Lucy’s rejection of performance becomes a kind of performance in itself. Lucy buries her performative impulse out of an obligation to continue her own performance of the character she has created for herself, who must remain “a mere looker on at life.”
Of course, Lucy can be no such thing. She is no more capable of being a mere onlooker than any of the characters on which she herself looks. There is no such “quiet nook, whence unobserved I could observe” (131). Because she has control of the narrative, Lucy forgets that she, too, is among the observed. When reminded, Lucy bristles, rejecting others’ interpretations of her character even when they align with her own. Although Lucy dedicates herself to the construction and preservation of her character as cold and unassuming, she is not always pleased when others characterize her as such. Throughout the novel, Lucy often figures herself as a shadow. Dressed in a “gown of shadow,” Lucy recalls “feeling [her]self to be a mere shadowy spot on a field of light” (122). Yet, when offered a position as Polly’s paid companion, Lucy retorts with the disdainful declaration, “I was no bright lady’s shadow” (279). Lucy may well perform the role of “quiet Lucy—a creature inoffensive as a shadow,” but when so characterized by any external observer, Lucy lashes out against her lack of absolute control (315). It is not enough for Lucy to have complete control over her presentation, she must also be the sole interpreter—the impossibility of which she cannot accept. Lucy is neither sole performer nor sole audience member. She is as vulnerable to interpretation as the “fellow actors” whose performances she observes and seeks to represent in her narrative (130).
Ultimately, Lucy can no more accurately separate performance from identity in others than they can in her, or than she can in herself. By positioning the reader as one in this series of failed interpreters, Villette takes its stance on the impossibility of objective characterization as cemented in the novel’s absurd anti-climax. While the novel repeatedly resists both climax and closure at various points throughout its final chapters, the bizarre unmasking of the ghostly “nun” figures as the cornerstone of the novel’s rejection of objective characterization. The supposedly spectral nun, the novel’s gothic apparition of choice, seems to haunt Lucy throughout her narrative. Often appearing in moments of psychological distress, both Lucy and the reader are invited to view the nun as “a case of spectral illusion” symbolic of some repressed aspect of Lucy’s past or character (235). The ultimate unmasking of the nun as a mere tertiary character—the Count de Hamal, the underdeveloped and largely inconsequential beau of Ginevra Fanshawe—reveal that both the nun’s spectral qualities and their relevance to Lucy were purely imagined. Both Lucy and the reader misinterpret the nun as somehow related to Lucy, when in fact the “nun’s” presence is entirely coincidental, and is merely a disguise assumed in order for the lovers to carry out their affair in secret. This revelation signals Lucy’s failure to unmask the performance of another, as well as a self-centered propensity to misinterpret coincidental figures and events as deeply intertwined with her own character, despite claims of immunity to any “overheated imaginings.” This humorous anti-climax calls Lucy’s powers of interpretation and representation into question. More broadly, however, Lucy’s inability to unmask another’s performance while constantly engaged in a seemingly unwitting performance of her own identity renders this a novel in which no one—neither the narrator nor the reader—is capable of objective interpretation or characterization.
Lucy begins and ends her narrative in shadow. This imagery, however, suggests a doubleness to Lucy’s nature; Where there is shadow, there must also be light. Lucy manages to paint herself as a shadow while providing very little illustration of what is casting it. Lucy’s characterization is rife with such contradictions that split her personality, and the doubleness implied by her shadow imagery is reflected in her very name. While Lucy chooses to live in shadow, her name means “light.” Perhaps the real Lucy Snowe exists somewhere between the light cast by that alias, and the shadow she seeks to embody. However, if there is such thing as a “real Lucy Snowe,” Brontë gives no indication of it. While Lucy, on stage at Madame Beck’s fête, gradually becomes aware of her fellow performers, she neglects to recognize that this performance continues well after the curtain closes. In Lucy, Brontë presents a lens through which the novel’s other characters all become increasingly obscured. If Lucy begins the novel as a shadow, she ends it a shadow among shadows.
“An Uneasy Fusion:” Navigating Genre in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette
Critics have long puzzled over what Emily Heady terms an “uneasy fusion” of genres in Charlotte Brontë’s final novel, Villette (341). Toeing the line between two dominant—and, in many regards, opposing—literary modes of the era, realism and Gothic romance, Villette resists generic categorization just as its shadowy first-person narrator infamously resists being known. While scholarship has long entertained the question posed by Villette’s generic ambivalence, asking to which genre the novel should appropriately be assigned, more recent criticism has sought a different approach. Rather than viewing the novel’s generic balancing act as a source of tension, this more recent scholarship attempts to reveal the once-competing genres as working in conjunction to produce a decidedly less uneasy fusion. Instead of writing off the novel’s generic inconsistency as a failure of the text to subscribe to any one set of genre expectations, modern critics figure the novel’s split between the real and the Gothic as part of a carefully orchestrated narrative strategy. Often, critics interested in navigating Villette’s generic landscape use the novel’s dual allegiance to both Gothic romance and literary realism as a framework through which to position and interrogate parallel systems of binary subversion at work in the novel, before broadening the argument to suggest that Brontë’s strategies offer some kind of critique or commentary on Victorian culture or authorship.
Robyn Warhol’s response to the traditionally-perceived tension between the Gothic and realist modes of the novel figures the two genres as “not so much in competition as in continuous oscillation with each other” (858). Taking a narratological approach to the text, Warhol seeks to explain the novel’s generic inconsistency by aligning it with one of the text’s other most infamous sources of bewilderment: Lucy’s narration. According to Warhol, there are in fact no fewer Lucys than there are genres at work in Villette. Calling on Dorrit Cohn, Warhol explains that in Villette, as is not uncommon in first-person texts, Lucy’s “experiencing self” is distinguishable from her “narrating self” (860). A self-aware and often dissonant narrator who remarks on her past self’s ignorance from a now-lucid perspective, Lucy-the-narrator is distinct from Lucy-the-character. Warhol parallels this “textualized splitting of the fictional self” against the novel’s splitting of genre, ultimately arguing that “in Villette—as in Jane Eyre—the heroine and the narrator, though they are the same ‘person,’ are inhabiting two separate genres of fiction. The heroines are living a Gothic romance, and the narrators are telling a realist tale” (860, 863-864). Having established a parallel between the novel’s generic and narratological splitting, Warhol argues that the autodiegetic narrator’s duality within both the Gothic and the real dismantles the generic binary: “Binary oppositions between genres (the assumption that either a novel is realistic or not, and that its value resides in its generic consistency) cannot hold, even in any given moment of a particular narrative” (864). For Warhol, this generic binary is intimately related to a gender binary also under scrutiny in Villette. Ultimately, according to Warhol, Brontë “destabilizes the fixity of Victorian genres” in order to issue a challenge to other problematic binaries dominant in Victorian society (869).
Like Warhol, Toni Wein’s analysis of Gothic desire in Villette figures “Brontë’s structural Gothicizing…as evidence that she consciously engaged in rewriting gender codes” (Wein 735). In Villette’s Gothic elements, “carved emphatically onto what had been principally a double bildungsroman,” Wein’s analysis traces a new model of structural desire that thwarts both male and female modes of desire inherent in traditional and serialized plot structures, respectively (734). Just as Villette thwarts categorization into any one genre, neither will it submit to any one structural model of desire. With its series of abortive plotlines and deferred climaxes, Villette appeals to neither the male structure of desire, “inviting sustained arousal of attention until the narrative climax is reached,” nor the female model of multiple climaxes represented in serialization: “Instead, in true Gothic tradition [Brontë] hybridizes: she encloses her structurally deferred climaxes in a three-volume tomb, at the same time that she thwarts the serial’s construction of intimacy between readers and characters through her (and Lucy’s) refusal to provide closure” (735). Once again, Brontë’s use of the Gothic is shown to “hybridize” gender just as it hybridizes genre in Villette. For Wein, Brontë’s Gothic restructuring of desire challenges dominant modes of desire permitted in Victorian literature by “free[ing] the hallmark of the pornographic, the desire for desire, into the space of literary contingency” (743).
In her navigation of Villette’s “uneasy fusion” of the Gothic and realist modes, Heady also positions Brontë’s Gothic maneuvers in the broader context of the conventions and limitations of the Victorian literary landscape. “For Brontë,” Heady argues, “Victorian England’s literary tastes reflect and reproduce its damaging blindness to abstract, non-material modes of meaning…and she uses the whole of Villetteto propose a narrative alternative to this perspectival error” (342). For Heady, this narrative alternative ultimately takes the form of what she calls a “narrative conversion” (357). Heady’s reading first dissolves the oft-perceived tension between the realist and Gothic modes in the novel by accusing both genres of “undo[ing] the authority of the inner life by making interior matter, such as emotion, desire, or identity, publically visible” (341). Her argument proceeds to trace Lucy’s rise to narrative authority, first through her initial failures in both the realist and Gothic modes of the novel, both materialist modes that force Lucy into public exposure. Heady then presents Lucy’s narrative conversion, “a movement away from the erroneous publicity inherent in the Gothic and in realism and toward the privacy permitted by the typological concept of account rendering,” as the ultimate signal of Lucy’s claim to narrative authority (357). This narrative conversion authorizes non-material modes of meaning, a shift that, according to Heady, Brontë uses Villetteto prescribe to Victorian society as a whole.
In conversation with Heady is Elizabeth Preston, who likewise tracks Lucy’s narrative progression as she navigates the split generic tracks of her story. However, while Heady sees Lucy finding authority through a narrative conversion that allows her to escape the compulsive speech and outward expression mandated in both the Gothic and realism, Preston sees Lucy stake her claim to narrative authority not through her “right to silence and secrecy,” but rather when she finds her voice and abandons her withholding tendencies (Heady 357). Heady’s Lucy finds authority when she thwarts compulsory speech, while Preston’s thwarts compulsory silence. Ultimately, however, both critics settle somewhere within the popular discourse, positioning Brontë in opposition to Victorian gender codes. While Preston’s suggestion that there is ever a point at which Lucy “withholds nothing,” or constitutes a “reliable spokesperson” remains dubious, her conclusion that Brontë’s Gothic maneuvers ultimately serve to “contest the Victorian codes that arrest female development, both professionally and personally,” is in keeping with the dominant discourse (Preston 397).
However, while Preston holds that Brontë’s challenge to Victorian gender codes successfully “acknowledges women as desiring, speaking subjects,” Laura Ciolkowski’s reading exposes the flaws in feminist criticism that seeks to claim Villette as a “powerful literary assertion of female identity” (Preston 397, Ciolkowski218). As Ciolkowski points out, “The task of assimilating Villette smoothly and unproblematically into a single critical framework” is accomplished with no more ease than any attempt to fit the novel into one set of generic constraints (218). According to Ciolkowski’s reading, Brontë recognizes Victorian womanhood as “both invented and counterfeited,” and, in Villette, establishes a narrative that thwarts both literary and gender conventions. Instead of weaving a domestic tale that satisfies the conventions of the Victorian novel with an image of matrimonial closure, Brontë presents a novel that resists the demands of the era and “frustrates attempts to assimilate Lucy’s fictional autobiography in the romantic conventions of Victorian fiction” (230). Villette“slips into and out of the Gothic register,” resulting in “a narrative in which all such plots and the subjects they authorize come apart at their ideological seams” (231). Here, Ciolkowski succinctly summarizes the views of her fellow critics in their shared endeavor to rewrite the narrative surrounding Villette’s generic ambivalence not as one of failure, but as a deliberate deconstruction designed to dismantle dominant structures of Victorian thought at their “ideological seams.”
While these readings provide a framework through which to navigate Villette’s generic landscape by defusing the tension between the novel’s mixed uses of the Gothic and realist modes, I propose that they ignore certain instances in which the tension between these two genres is not only present, but provides meaningful commentary on the novel’s feminist treatment of mental health. While various critics cited here point to Villette’s nun as the novel’s key Gothic element, they fail to address what I read as an increasing sense of unease when realism intervenes to provide a logical explanation. While Warhol aligns Brontë’s use of the Gothic in Villette with that in Jane Eyre, I instead figure the former’s stunted Gothicism as a feminist response to the latter’s uncurbed flights of fancy. While Jane Eyre’s principle Gothic figure, the madwoman in the attic, remains untempered, the realist undercutting of Villette’s Gothic specter of choice ultimately absolves Lucy of the accusations of madness leveled against her. A dissolution of the tension between the Gothic and realist modes in Villette ignores crucial ways in which Brontë’s jarring undercutting of her own Gothic maneuvers seeks to carve space for a feminist reconsideration of mental health. I suggest that incorporating Jane Eyre’s treatment of the Gothic into our thinking about Villette’s generic landscape enables us to understand the Gothic and realist tensions at work in the novel as a critique of gendered Victorian attitudes toward mental health.
Ciolkowski, Laura E. “Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Villette’: Forgeries of Sex and Self.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 26, no. 3, 1994, pp. 218–234. JSTOR, JSTOR www.jstor.org/stable/20831876.
Heady, Emily W. “‘Must I Render an Account?”: Genre and Self-Narration in Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Villette.’” Journal of Narrative Theory, vol. 36, no. 3, 2006, pp. 341–364. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30224655.
Preston, Elizabeth. “Relational Reconsiderations: Reliability, Heterosexuality, and Narrative Authority in ‘Villette.’” Style, vol. 30, no. 3, 1996, pp. 386–408. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42946335.
Warhol, Robyn R. “Double Gender, Double Genre in Jane Eyre and Villette.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 36, no. 4, 1996, pp. 857–875. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/450979.
Wein, Toni. “Gothic Desire in Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Villette.’” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 39, no. 4, 1999, pp. 733–746. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1556271.