Tuesday 13 September 2022

Defending VILLETTE


Way back in June 2016 I took part in an event for the Brontë Society at Haworth Parsonage called ‘The Great Charlotte Brontë Debate’. Up for friendly yet heated discussion was the question, ‘Whether  Brontë’s greatest book was Jane Eyre or Villette?’ Jane Eyre was ably defended by Joanne Harris and Claire Harman, while Lucy Hughes-Hallett and myself took the part of Villette and its heroine Lucy Snowe. Tracy Chevalier presided and saw fair play, while the wonderful Maxine Peake read extracts from both novels. The audience, members of the Brontë Society, were asked to vote for their preferred title before the debate, then vote again afterwards to see if we had changed any minds. This was my contribution, and I began by reading a couple of paragraphs from about a third of the way through Villette, when a violent thunderstorm breaks over the town one night. While her colleagues and pupils in the seminary wake in panic and pray, Lucy reacts differently. ‘Roughly roused and obliged to live,’ she dresses, gets out of the window and sits on the outer ledge with her feet on the sloping roof below.

It was wet, it was wild, it was pitch dark. [...] I could not go in: 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.

            I did long, achingly, then and for four and twenty hours afterwards, for something to fetch me out of my present existence, and lead me upwards and onwards. This longing, and all of a similar kind, it was necessary to knock on the head, which I did, figuratively, after the manner of Jael to Sisera, driving a nail through their temples. Unlike Sisera, they did not die: they were but transiently stunned, and at intervals would turn on the nail with a rebellious wrench; then did the temples bleed, and the brain thrill to its core.

                        Villette, Chapter 12

This is an absolutely fabulous passage. Dramatic though it is, the thunderstorm Lucy climbs from her window to experience is less terrible than her mental anguish and that extraordinary simile of ‘turning on the nail with a rebellious wrench’. For the really striking thing is that Lucy’s communion with the storm, her delight in the wildness of nature, is not cathartic. It awakens more pain. And the only way she can deal with the pain is to try and kill something in herself: that awakening, that emotional response. There is no room in her cramped life for it: it cannot take her anywhere. It must be kept down. It will not quite die, but while it’s under control she can exist, and existence, not life, is all she can hope for.

            ‘I, Lucy Snowe, was calm.’ That’s the first thing this heroine tells us about herself, but of course she isn’t calm at all. ‘I had feelings’, she says... She just never allows herself to express them. Why? Because no one cares. She is just as passionate as Jane Eyre, but where Jane from her very childhood lets it out, Lucy shoves it all down out of sight – even out of our sight, for unlike Jane, Lucy makes no bid for our sympathy. If anything her opinion of us is low. She is abrasive and witty. She mocks, keeps secrets from us, makes wry, bitter comments about the gap between her experience and our illusions, satirises our complacence and naïvety.

On quitting Bretton [...] I betook myself home, having been absent six months. 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 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 weather, in a harbour still as glass [...] A great many women and girls are supposed to pass their lives something in that fashion; why not I with the rest?

                       Villette, Chapter 4

            Villette is a book about constant mental suffering. No one has ever written better about the agony of powerlessness. Lucy is poor and plain. Jane Eyre is poor and plain too, or so we’re told – but we don’t really believe it any more than we believe Rochester is not handsome. We believe it about Lucy, though: she’s too painfully conscious of it. This lack of beauty, her social status and her sex require her to remain silent when she wants to speak, restrain herself when she wishes to act: there is no one even among her few friends in whom she can confide, for that would be to presume upon their affection – which is only affection, not love. She longs for love but she’s clear-sighted and knows the difference. To her friends the Brettons she’s ‘quiet Lucy Snowe’, not so much calm as nearly invisible. She can be drily funny about it, though never without pain. Handsome Dr John Bretton is smitten with shallow Ginevra Fanshawe and imagining Lucy to be hurt by her neglect, he feels the need to assure Lucy that ‘at heart, Ginevra values you’.

‘You are very kind,’ I said briefly. A disclaimer of the sentiments attributed to me burned on my lips, but I extinguished the flame. I submitted to be looked upon as the cast-off and now pining confidante of the distinguished Miss Fanshawe: but, reader, it was a hard submission.

Soon afterwards Lucy does lose patience and breaks out, ‘There is no delusion like your own. [...] On this exceptional point you are but a slave. I declare, where Miss Fanshawe is concerned, you merit no respect, nor have you mine.’ All this does is to cause coolness in their unequal but real friendship and she soon asks his forgiveness, which he warmly grants. But it’s a socially impossible relationship. When you can’t say what you want to say, you can’t be known. Out of kindness, Dr John promises to write to her: when she receives his first letter she draws out the happiness – saves up it for later. Will it be long or short? Cool or kind? She lives from letter to letter, but what’s vital emotional nourishment to her is little to him, and when the letters stop for weeks and she doesn’t know why and can’t ask – she’s  like a starving animal in a cage desperate to be fed…

            Villette is an extraordinary book. The heroine is in love with two different men at the same time and not a hint of censure. Charlotte Brontë looks us straight in the eye and dares us to blink. ‘This is how it is,’ she seems to say. ‘Accept it.’ Lucy buries Dr John’s letters in a casket in the garden, but is haunted by an image of golden hair growing irresistably out though the cracks of a coffin... Like the image of Sisera ‘turning on the nail with a rebellious wrench’, her feeling for Dr John cannot be killed. It’s folded up tight like a magical tent from the Arabian Nights which, released, could open into a vast pavilion... and at the same time, she’s growing into a different kind of love with her fellow teacher M. Paul Emanuel, the crotchety, fiery little man who sees her, who perceives the fire, the strength and the soul that no one else sees. Perhaps not even herself.

            Villette is a pressure-cooker of a book, boiling with desperate, contained, suppressed passion. Every time some of the steam escapes, every time there’s a moment’s relief, it all gets battened down again. Close to the end, Lucy believes she’s lost Paul Emanuel, that he’s sailed for the Indies without a word of farewell. Wandering desolate among lively crowds at a midnight fete in the park, she suddenly glimpses him, and listen to this –

I clasped my hands very hard, and I drew my breath very deep; I held in the cry, I devoured the ejaculation, I forbade the start, I spoke and I stirred no more than a stone; but I knew what I looked on; through the dimness left in my eyes by many nights’ weeping, I knew him.

No sniggering please, at a word that did not then carry the only meaning it seems to have now. Not for  another seventeen pages does the pressure cooker finally explode. At last, after she’s waited and waited and waited for him, Paul Emanuel comes to speak to Lucy but  Madame Beck tries to prevent him from doing so, and the pressure can’t be contained any longer. Lucy cries aloud,

            ‘My heart will break!’ 

Four short, almost banal words: in a burst of anguish Lucy Snowe lets go her iron grip on herself and is recognised, acknowledged. ‘Trust me’, says Paul Emanuel, and his words ‘lifted a load, opened an outlet. With many a deep sob, with thrilling, with icy shiver, with strong trembling, and yet with relief –  Lucy weeps.

The overflowing fountain of Lucy’s deeply repressed emotion, and the fiery banishment of Madame Beck by Paul Emanuel, which follows, form the climax of the novel. There is no ‘Reader, I married him’. There’s a brief, very brief interlude of happiness, followed by the famously ambiguous ending, which of course isn’t ambiguous at all unless you want it to be. As if speaking to children, Lucy Snowe says to us, ‘I know you can’t cope with the truth, so here’s the lie. Believe it if you wish. Human kind cannot bear very much reality.’ And she withdraws from us: ‘Farewell.’ 

Post-script: Which side won the Great Debate? Well, the votes cast before it began strongly favoured Jane Eyre as Charlotte Brontë’s greatest novel, but the votes cast at the end showed a distinct swing towards Villette. Although Jane Eyre still came out top, Lucy Hughes-Hallett and I can claim that we changed some minds, that evening. The Bronte Society's own post on the occasion can be read here: https://bronteparsonage.blogspot.com/2016/06/the-great-charlotte-bronte-debate.html)


Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Katherine Langrish, Maxine Peake, Tracy Chevalier, Joanne Harris and Claire Harman

Picture credits

Lucy Snowe at the door of the Pensionnat de Demoiselles - by Edmund Morison Wimperis

Photo of the Great Charlotte Bronte Debate team - Brontë Society