The Bookshelf: Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Villette’

In the first of our blog series on your favourite books and poems, Jenny Scoones finds the passionate love and faith in Bronte’s later, lesser-known novel to rival the author's more canonical works

A painting by Patrick Branwell Brontë of the three Brontë sisters, on a dark background.
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Until this week Jane Eyre was my favourite novel. After struggling through it a few years ago, never quite managing to see what it was everyone so loved about it, I re-read it this Michaelmas term and felt my world transformed. My conception of self was revealed to me in new and exhilarating ways; Jane Eyre became the most important book in my life. This was until I happened to read Brontë’s lesser known work, Villette, a copy of which I had picked up in the Oxfam opposite the Lamb and Flagge amidst the exhaustion and rushed packing of eighth week.

In Villette, Brontë presents us with a protagonist who is, in many ways, far removed from the cageless, storming Jane. Lucy Snowe, as her name suggests, is colder, more distant, and lonelier. In one striking instance, the iconic image of Jane Eyre as the wrongly punished pupil is turned on its head, as Lucy locks one disruptive student in a closet. She does so without remorse, “in an instant and with sharpness”. Whilst Jane was an innocent unjustly persecuted, and the punished student in Villette is perhaps deserving of some rebuke, the contrast is absolute and surely deliberate.

Lucy seems far less willing than Jane to bare her soul; hers begins as a far more reserved form of characterised autobiography. Indeed, in reading the novel one is only ever sure where her heart lies after something happens, not before. There are things she won’t admit, not even to herself, and certainly not to the reader. Equally, however, there are moments when her essence, when the workings of her soul, escape into the prose and shine all the brighter for it: in attempting to write the oppression of “the quick of [her] nature”, it defies her and breaks through. She describes being woken by a storm:

“The tempest took hold of me with tyranny: I was roughly roused and obliged to live […] too resistless was the delight of staying with the wild hour, black and full of thunder, pealing out such an ode as language never delivered to man – too terribly glorious, the spectacle of clouds, split and pierced by white and blinding bolts.”

It’s the sort of prose one wishes one had written oneself, being so riveting and precise, and it entirely captures Lucy’s stifled but impassioned self. This “rous[ing]” of Lucy against her will by a storm is an interesting point of comparison with Jane’s wish that the “wind [would] howl more wildly”. Whilst for Jane this visceral energy seems striven after and exulted in, Lucy seems less at ease, as if her passions haunt her. It is significant that whilst Jane is a distinctly artistic figure – producing her portraits, paintings, and little busts – Lucy declares herself incapable of an imaginative faculty. She refuses to accept the sensibility thrust upon her, and this uneasy relationship between melodrama and stoicism makes the novel a tender but explosive exploration of the female psyche.

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Seen at a glance, the plot of the novel follows the blossoming and burial of Lucy’s unrequited love for one “beautiful” man, and her later, requited love for another. Brontë’s figuring of female desire, as in Jane Eyre, is heart-wrenchingly true to life, although perhaps more profoundly so in Villette because of just how cautiously Lucy herself seems respond to and embody her own emotions. It takes her a long time to admit even to the reader that she has fallen for Dr. John, her first and unrequited love, and until she admits as much the reader is given only faint, thwarted impressions. Of a portrait of Dr. John, at age 16, Lucy asks “How was it that what charmed so much, could at the same time so keenly pain?”. She does not clarify the nature of the “charm” and even less so the “pain”, and yet this presentation of heterosexual female desire as painful resounded with me in ways I can hardly tell.

Later Dr. John’s kindness is “lingered over through a whole life” as the “deep inflicted lacerations [of knives] never heal”, and Lucy “prize[s]” his letter “like the blood in [her] veins”. The physicality of Lucy’s desire, the bodily, violent nature of the love Brontë portrays, is both radical and beautiful; these moments of pure emotion which burst through are what make the prose so poignant.  When Lucy finally renounces Dr. John, she says, “Good night, Dr. John, you are good, you are beautiful; but you are not mine”, and it is the first time Lucy fully acknowledges to the reader the extent of her feelings for John – the moment she sets them free.

In her second love Lucy finds her match, though this is all but clear from the start. Once it becomes obvious, however, with the narrative’s development into a case of suspicious, greedy third parties attempting to keep her and M. Paul apart, the admissions of her love are harrowing. She talks of her “riven, outraged heart” and asks, “[c]ould my Greatheart overcome?”. Oddly, in her second love, with a far less amiable, often misogynistic man, Lucy is more able to voice her true feelings. This is because she is not in the slighted position of a humble, unrequited lover. Indeed, much of M. Paul’s less-than-pleasant behaviour can be explained by his jealousy, something Lucy at one point goes so far as to relish in:

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“It seemed to me that I felt a pulse of his heart beating yet true to the whole throb of mine.”

So she says of herself and M. Paul, and as a reader, one cannot help but feel one’s own heart beat passionately along. When Lucy, her love and future happiness under threat, finally cries, “My heart will break!”, I cheered and underlined the quote vigorously. Finally, she had voiced what she had gone to such lengths to suppress.

Thus Lucy describes the culmination of their great romance:

“He gathered me near his heart. I was full of faults; he took them and me all home. For the moment of utmost mutiny, he reserved the one deep spell of peace.”

And the reader, too, feels as they are taken home, embraced by this deeply taut and tender book.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the novel, however, is Lucy’s expression of her faith. The narrative ends ambiguously, and we do not know whether she and M. Paul are ever to be reunited. Yet this matters little. We know Lucy will survive. The faith she has by this point, expressed in a series of gushing, enchanting passages of prose concerning God, assures the reader that she has the faith in store with which to sustain herself, come what may:

“Dark though the wilderness of this world stretches the way for most of us: equal and steady be our tread.”

Villette is a novel laced with heartache and bound tightly with things unsaid. But it is also a novel of survival, a story of one woman’s journey into herself and her desire, and her unshakeable will to survive.