Stepping Out of the Shadows

A Sister Act. It is, without a doubt, that one of the most iconic groups of sisters in the ambit of literature is the Brontë sisters. Sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne have gifted the world with some of the most celebrated and sensational works of literature. Their interest in writing manifested when they were younger and never waned. Before being recognized as novelists, they first began as poets. Their first book was a collection of poems, simply titled Poems, and was jointly published in 1846. However, they had to contend with the prejudices of society that existed during the period, thus, the usage of male pseudonyms. Poetry was viewed, at that time, as a largely male job, an occupation not suitable for women. It was a huge obstacle they must overcome but the sisters were nonplussed by this stereotype. In choosing the pseudonyms Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily), and Acton (Anne), the sisters were able to obscure their real sex while, at the same time, preserving their initials.

Their first work did not take off as expected but it didn’t take long before they made their breakthroughs. In 1847, their first novels were finally published, all under the same pseudonyms they used for their self-published poetry collection. In October, Charlotte’s Jane Eyre was published despite the rejection of The Professor, the first book she forwarded for acceptance. It was followed in December 1847 by Anne’s Agnes Grey and Emily’s Wuthering Heights. This trio of novels would transcend time and would establish themselves, both on an individual and collective basis, as classics of English literature. The passage of time did little to dim their luster. Not only will their works transcend time but they will also transcend borders, with their reach and influence going beyond their native England.

Of the three sisters, Charlotte is the eldest; they outlived their older sisters Maria and Elizabeth. Her novel, Jane Eyre, was the novel that established Charlotte’s reputation. It singlehandedly made her a household name in Victorian London society, albeit under her pseudonym. But underneath the book’s shadows is an equally compelling book, Villette. Originally published in 1853, Villette was the third and last novel published by Charlotte during her lifetime. The second book published during her lifetime was Shirley. It was published in 1849 under the cloud of successive family tragedies, i.e. the untimely demise of her siblings. Her first completed novel, The Professor, was eventually published posthumously in 1857; Charlotte passed away in 1855 following the complications of her pregnancy.

“The love, born of beauty was not mine; I had nothing in common with it: I could not dare to meddle with it, but 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, in this Love I had a vested interest; and whatever tended either to its culture or its destruction, I could not view impassibly.”

~ Charlotte Brontë, Villette

A Final Act. Villette was divided into three volumes. The opening chapters of the first volume introduced the novel’s main character and primary narrator, Lucy Snowe, who was fourteen years old upon the story’s commencement. We first meet Lucy while she was staying with her godmother, Mrs. Bretton, who was also a distant relative and was already widowed. As Lucy described it, the Brettons lived in “a handsome house in the clean and ancient town of Bretton.” The first chapter was fittingly titled Bretton, a town in the English countryside. Generations of the Bretton family have lived in the town but Lucy was unsure if the town derived its name from one of its most distinguished denizens.

When she was younger, Lucy visited her godmother twice a year, a visit she looked forward to because “its inmates specially suited me.” It was in the Bretton household that Lucy first met Mrs. Bretton’s teenage son, John Graham Bretton, fondly referred to as Graham by his family. Another young girl took up residence in the household, six-year-old Paulina Home, briefly referred to as Polly. She was the daughter of a friend and distant relation of Mrs. Bretton’s late husband. She also recently lost her mother and Mrs. Bretton volunteered to look after her. At first, Polly, a serious and precocious girl, was distraught about being left behind by her father with the Brettons. But soon enough, Polly developed a fondness for Graham who doted on her. Meanwhile, Lucy tried to help Polly deal with her erratic emotions. Polly’s visit was cut short by her father’s sudden summon for her to join him live in continental Europe. Shortly after Polly’s departure, Lucy left the Bretton household for reasons not stated.

Seizing One’s Destiny. In Chapter Four, Miss Marchmont, we meet Lucy now as a young adult. Time has passed by and, again for reasons that were not stated, it seems that Lucy no longer has any family of her own and has become self-reliant: “I know not that I was of a self-reliant or active nature; but self-reliance and exertion were forced upon me by circumstances, as they are upon thousands besides. Apart from relying upon herself, she had to rely on the kindness and the care of strangers. She no longer visited her godmother nor had she any lines of communication with them. The very little news about her distant relations came in the form of rumors which were few and far in between. For instance, she learned that Graham and his mother left Bretton and were now living in London. With no one else to rely on, Lucy started taking on different jobs, such as being a caregiver for Miss Marchmont, a woman of fortune who has been rheumatic and crippled for the past twenty years.

“If there are words and wrongs like knives, whose deep inflicted lacerations never heal – cutting injuries and insults of serrated and poison-dripping edge – so, too, there are consolations of tone too fine for the ear not fondly and for ever to retain their echo: caressing kindnesses – loved, lingered over through a whole life, recalled with unfaded tenderness, and answering the call with undimmed shine, out of that raven cloud foreshadowing Death himself.”

~ Charlotte Brontë, Villette

The crux of the story, however, was Lucy’s experiences in the titular Villette where the heft of the story was set. Following another demise, that of Miss Marchmont, Lucy left the English countryside for London. She then boarded a ship to the (fictional) kingdom of Labassecour in continental Europe despite having little knowledge of French. By the time she arrived in the kingdom’s capital of Villette, Lucy was already 23 years old. In Villette, Lucy found work as a bonne (nanny) at Mme. Beck’s boarding school for girls. After some time, she was eventually hired by the school to teach English. Her teaching responsibilities were on top of her job of looking after Mme. Beck’s three children. 

A Psychological Profile. Rather than a robust plot, Charlotte provided her readers with an engaging story that mapped out Lucy’s mind. The main actions in the story took place in Lucy’s mind. The story was, brick by brick, built through Lucy’s perspective and astute observations of everything around her. Lucy related events that transpired at the boarding school while, at the same time, sharing her own observation of the characters she met in Villette, such as her employer Mme. Beck, a domineering woman who commanded attention. Another character who was a subject of Lucy’s observations was Ginevra Fanshawe, a flirtatious, vain, and shallow 18-year-old English girl. Lucy first met Ginevra on the ship traveling to France. She was also one of the students at Mme. Beck’s students.

The singularity of the novel’s focal point contributed to an overall sense of claustrophobia. In Villette, Charlotte vividly captured loneliness. Unlike most of the characters she dealt with, Lucy had very little external freedom. We often find Lucy confined in a convent, a stark dichotomy to the vibrancy of the world outside of the convent. Villette, as a setting, was a rich landscape that further underlined the solitude of Lucy’s world. Her limited external freedom made her retreat to the depth of her imagination, and by extension, her faith. Lucy may have been deprived of a lot of things such as money, family, health, and even physical beauty but she was intelligent and a keen observer. Her personality was the product of the deprivation she experienced. She was reserved. Her emotional self-control made her ill at ease in social situations.

“For a long time the fear of seeming singular scared me away; but by degrees, as people became accustomed to me and my habits, and to such shadows of peculiarity as were engrained in my nature – shades, certainly not striking enough to interest, and perhaps not prominent enough to offend, but born in and with me, and no more to be parted with than my identity – but slow degrees I became a frequenter of this straight narrow path.”

~ Charlotte Brontë, Villette

Reason vs Passion. Despite the downsides of her personality and beyond the veneer that lacked warmth, she dreams of romance and independence. These are two themes vividly captured by the novel. Unrequited love was a major theme as Lucy found herself falling in love and having it be broken. Those she fell in love with did not reciprocate her feelings. When the man she fell in love with loved her back, the people around her conspired to keep them apart under the guise of religious differences. Like Charlotte, Lucy was a Protestant but the majority of Villette’s denizens were Catholics. It did not help Lucy’s cause that she constantly rationalizes her passion. It precludes her from establishing a firm romantic connection as she suppresses anything that was beyond her nature. Other characters were also in love but were, at times, deluded by the facade they see before them.

Lucy’s strong feelings extend beyond the romantic. Perhaps due to the awareness of the things that she lacked, Lucy cared deeply for the people she met in Villette, including the ornery and shallow Ginevra. She was fond of her despite her character flaws. Lucy’s nurturing nature was ostensible during her stay with Polly and the Brettons. Lucy was also a resilient character. Her young life was rife with tragedy yet she never let these tragedies define her. Rather than be shackled by them, she drew strength in them. Her resilience, coupled with her mental fortitude and her, made her take over her destiny. From the English countryside, she traveled to Villette, and there, she learned more about herself. It was also in Villette that a new dream took root. Lucy wanted to put up her own school

Frailties of Human Nature. In Lucy, we see a complex character and her psychological profile was wonderfully mapped out by Brontë. At times, however, Lucy can be an unreliable narrator. Nevertheless, in Lucy’s resolve, the novel resonated with feminist elements. While she had redeeming qualities, Lucy had horrible qualities obscured by the depth of secrecy she exhibited. For one, she loathed the task of taking care of children with disabilities when her peers were on vacation. She also had subtly xenophobic and anti-Catholic sentiments. While these persist in the contemporary, they were dated facets of the story. These were also among the several paradoxes that were interspersed in the story.

Another fine example was the stark dichotomy between Ginevra and Polly, who reappeared later in the story as a 17-year-old young lady. It was revealed that they are cousins and both were equally beautiful. Polly was of a more affluent background but her cousin was from a humbler background. Where Polly, also known as Countess Paulina Mary de Bassompierre, was delicate and prim, Ginevra was vulgar, flirtatious, and tactless. While Polly was kind and pure, Ginevra can be rude, particularly towards Lucy. Polly was the quintessence of a lady. It was between them that Lucy found herself caught in between. The supernatural also clashed with reality as Lucy encountered an apparition with the figure of a nun. The eerie appearance underlines the book’s gothic elements. Elsewhere, the novel subtly explored identity, sexuality, and even gender roles.

“Whatever the cause, I could not meet his sunshine with cloud. If this were my last moment with him, I would not waste it in forced, unnatural distance. I loved him well – too well not to smite out of my path even Jealousy herself, when she would have obstructed a kind farewell. A cordial word from his lips, or a gentle look from his eyes, would do me good, for all the span of life that remained to me; it would be comfort in the last strait of loneliness; I would take it – I would taste the elixir, and pride should not spill the cup.”

~ Charlotte Brontë, Villette

A Lyrical Display. The fine elements of the novel were woven together by the eldest Brontë sister’s lyrical prose. The novel was accentuated by idyllic passages. The descriptive quality of her writing also made the lush literary landscape come alive, particularly in capturing the intricacies of Lucy’s psyche. She made the readers inhabit her mind. With her adept writing, she was able to capture Lucy’s growth and journey. But while the writing was beautiful, Villette can be inaccessible at times. It is the longest of Brontë’s oeuvre and it requires patience to get through the experience. Lucy’s unreliability and her compunction for secrecy create a virtual divide between the readers and her. This was most ostensible in the story’s conclusion which was wrapped in ambiguity, which can be frustrating to many readers. Lucy herself had no scruples leaving the readers shortchanged.

Villette has long existed under the shadow of its more popular predecessor, Jane Eyre. The two books do, however, share similar elements in that they were inspired by seminal chapters in the author’s life. The book captured her experiences in Brussels, Belgium; Villette was an allegory. Driven by their dream of putting up their school, Charlotte and her younger sister Emily traveled in 1842 to Brussels to learn French and German. There, they stayed in the boarding school of Constantin Héger, which would eventually be the inspiration for Mme. Beck’s school. While it was cut short by another untimely demise, this experience became a rich well of experience that would lay the foundation for the eldest Brontë sister’s final act.

For its flaws, Villette provides an engaging reading journey; one can’t expect anything less from the Brontë sisters. Beyond the personal contexts that drove the story, Villette was, on its own, an absorbing literary masterpiece. In Lucy, Charlotte created yet another memorable character. She also did a commendable job of capturing the intricacies of her character while, at the same time, exploring seminal subjects such as feminism, gender roles, sexuality, and identity. In Lucy’s story, we see a resilient character who was resolute in her drive to rise above the circumstances that constantly pushed her down the ladder. The convergence of romantic, gothic, and semi-autobiographical elements made up for an engaging literary masterpiece.

“Here pause: pause at one. There is enough said. Trouble no quiet, kind heart; leave sunny imaginations hope. Let it be theirs to conceive the delight of joy born again fresh out of great terror, the rapture of rescue from peril, the wondrous reprieve from dread, the fruition of return. Let them picture union and a happy succeeding life.”

~ Charlotte Brontë, Villette
Rating

92%

Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%) – 
26%
Writing (25%) – 
23%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
15%

After Jane Eyre, Villette is my second novel written by the eldest of the famed British literary sister act; it is also just the third book from them. The third book is Emily’s Wuthering Heights. I bought my copy of Villette about three years ago but like most of my books, it was left to gather dust. Before I started reading the book, my initial impression was that Villette was the name of the book’s main character, in the same spirit as Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey. I, later on, realized that I was wrong.  I have also listed Villette for my 2021 Beat the Backlist Challenge. At first, I thought Villette was the name of the novel’s main character. I, later on, realized I was wrong. For sure, Villette was no easy read. Lucy can be quite a challenging, even frustrating character to decipher. Her several qualities belie a cunning character. It took me time to settle down. Once I did, the story started to unravel before me. The novel has several outstanding elements that kept me invested in Lucy’s life in Villette.

Book Specs

Author: Charlotte Brontë
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics
Publishing Date: 1993
Number of Pages: 462
Genre: Gothic, Autobiographical novel, Romance novel

Synopsis

Based on Charlotte Brontë’s personal experience as a teacher in Brussels, Villette is a moving tale of repressed feelings and subjection to cruel circumstance and position, borne with heroic fortitude.

Rising above the frustrations of confinement within a rigid social order, it is also a story of a woman’s right to love and be loved.

About the Author

Charlotte Brontë was born on April 21, 1816, in Thornton, Yorkshire, England. She was the eldest of the three famed Brontë sisters who survived into adulthood. Her father was Patrick Brontë (1777–1861), an Irish-born Anglican clergyman who served in different parishes before finally moving to Haworth with his wife, Maria Branwell Brontë, and their six small children in 1820. Shortly after, Maria and the two eldest children, Maria and Elizabeth, died. This left Patrick to look after the remaining three girls—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—and a boy, Branwell.

In 1824 Charlotte and Emily, together with Maria and Elizabeth, attended Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, near Kirkby Lonsdale, Lancashire. The younger sisters returned home a year later, following the death of their elder sisters due to tuberculosis. For five years, the Brontë siblings learned and played there. They wrote and told romantic tales for one another and invented imaginative games played out at home or on the desolate moors. Between 1831 and 1832, Charlotte continued her education at Miss Wooler’s school at Roe Head, near Huddersfield. She left the school to teach her sisters but returned to Roe Head in 1835 as a teacher. In 1839, she took up positions as governess to families in Yorkshire to earn money to pay for her brother’s debt. Three years later, Charlotte and Emily went to Brussels as pupils to improve their qualifications in French and acquire some German. The sisters, with the financial assistance of their aunt, planned to open a school together.

In Brussels, they enrolled at the boarding school run by Constantin Héger (1809–1896) and his wife Claire Zoé Parent Héger (1804–1887). To pay for the tuition and their keep, Charlotte taught English while Emily taught music. Unfortunately, their time at the school was cut short by the death of their aunt Elizabeth Branwell, who had joined the family in Haworth to look after the children. In 1844, Charlotte attempted to start the school she long dreamed of in the parsonage itself; their father’s failing sight precluded her from leaving home. However, no pupils were willing to attend school at distant Haworth.

Charlotte’s, and by extension, her sisters’ literary break came in 1846 when Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell was published at their own expense. It was a collection of poems written by the sisters; in the autumn of 1845, Charlotte came across some poems by Emily. The sisters used pseudonyms to preserve secrecy and avoid the prejudice reviewers accorded female poets. The book received few reviews and barely sold any copies. This did not discourage the sisters and a year later, they tried placing three novels. Charlotte’s The Professor: A Tale failed to place but she was nearly done with Jane Eyre which was accepted by Smith, Elder and Company as part of a three-volume novel deal with more action. The book was published on October 16, 1847, to immediate success and was based on her experiences in Clergy Daughters’ School.

Her success, however, was followed by months of tragedy, starting with the death of Branwell in September 1848, followed by Emily in December, and Anne in May 1849. Prior to these unfortunate events, Charlotte has already started working on Shirley which was published in October 1849. Following the success of her works, Charlotte was convinced by her publisher to visit London occasionally to reveal her true identity; both her works were published under her preferred pseudonym Currer Bell. During this period, she met William Makepeace Thackeray and sat for her portrait by George Richmond. She stayed in 1851 with writer Harriet Martineau and also visited her future biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, in Manchester, even entertaining her at Haworth. In 1853, her last novel published during her lifetime, Villette appeared in print.

After four declined marriage proposals, Charlotte finally married Arthur Bell Nicholls (1817–1906), an Irishman, on June 29, 1854, in Haworth church. Unfortunately, her health started to decline following her pregnancy. She passed away, with her unborn child, on March 31, 1855, three weeks shy of her 39th birthday. In 1857, The Professor was published posthumously.