Patriarchy or Paranoia? When Women’s Best Writing Is Suppressed

The Penguin hardcover edition of Villette.

Charlotte Bronte’s brilliant novel, Villette, is not as popular as Jane Eyre, the Gothic romance we all loved as girls.  More complicated and brutally realistic than Jane Eyre, Villette is a classic for adults, a feminist anti-romance with Gothic elements, ghosts, surveillance, unrequited love, and even drugs.  The narrator, Lucy Snowe, is Jane Eyre’s doppelgänger,  a plain, nearly invisible young woman who does not “get the guy” though she becomes a respected professional.

Like many impoverished 19th-century women, Lucy must work rather than marry, though she has no qualifications to earn a good living.  She finds a position as a companion, and when her employer dies, decides to take her chances in a foreign country:  she travels to Belgium.  By leaving England for Brussels (known as Villette in the novel), she has the opportunity to succeed on different terms:  serendipity leads her to a boarding school where she becomes a successful English teacher.  In this alien Catholic culture, Lucy is able to construct a strong, independent personality that, we surmise, would have been impossible in England.

I’ve mentioned Villette often here as one of my favorite books, most recently  in 2015, but have never blogged about it at length:  I know it too well, I love it too much.

But I was fascinated to read about Villette  recently in an excerpt from Joanna Russ’s book, How to Suppress Women’s Writing, at Literary Hub: she cited it as a book suppressed by the patriarchy.

Russ’s premise is that, by promoting a single novel by a woman writer as her “best, ” i.e., Jane Eyre in Bronte’s case, which Russ considers “less good,” and keeping the others out-of-print,  publishers persuade readers  that the output of great books by women is tiny, and that great women writers manage only one worthwhile book or poem.  The sexist society wants to suppress anything subversive.  Does this sound paranoid?  Well, perhaps.

Russ writes,

In about 1971 I was teaching Charlotte Brontë in a women’s studies course and decided to use her Villette instead of Jane Eyre. The number of different publishers who have in print different paperback editions of Jane Eyre I know not; I found several editions in the bookstore of my university (and one more, a year later, in the “Gothic” section of the local supermarket). But there was not one edition of Villette in print in the United States, whether in paperback or hardcover, and I finally had to order the book (in hardcover, too expensive for class use) from England. (The only university library editions of Villette or Shirley I could find at that time were the old Tauchnitz editions: tiny type and no leading.)

But I wondered if Russ had her dates right, because in the 1960s I found a hardcover copy of Villette  at the public library–not a university library.  Then my aunt gave me a used paperback copy.  And in 1974 I bought a Penguin of Shirley (it’s in my journal!). So was there a long or short gap when these books were out-of-print? I would really need dates, not anecdotal evidence.   If these books were out-of-print, one can only suppose that publishers raced to reissue them  when the growth of Women’s Studies departments assured sales.

Russ, best-known for her SF novel, The Female Man (which I think is very dated), has a radical Second Wave feminist outlook, based on the belief that the patriarchal publishers deliberately suppressed certain women’s books.  She writes,

I think it no accident that the myth of the isolated achievement so often promotes women writers’ less good work as their best work. For example, Jane Eyre exists, as of this writing, on the graduate reading list of the Department of English at the University of Washington. (This is the only PhD reading list to which I have access at the moment. I mention it not as a horrid example, but because it is respectable, substantial, and probably typical of first-rate institutions across this country.) Villette does not appear on the list. How could it? Jane Eyre is a love story and women ought to write love stories; Villette, “a book too subversive to be popular,” is described by Kate Millett as “one long meditation on a prison break.”

Wow, I love Kate Millett’s description!  But do I believe the omission of Villette from the Ph.D. lists was deliberate suppression?  No, I do not.

Men dominated English departments then.  Men doubtless didn’t read Bronte much.  Charlotte was a woman; why should they read her?  That was probably the sexist attitude.  They probably hadn’t even read Jane Eyre, just knew the title. Hence the need for women’s studies classes.  Or not even women’s studies, just women at the university!

Women dominate publishing today, or so I’ve read:  is that why Villette is in print? Did men or women dominate publishing in the ’60s and ’70s?  Again, I don’t know whether Russ’s theories apply.  Was she paranoid, or was it patriarchy behind it?

As for the patriarchy wanting to promote love stories so women subordinate everything to love…  it sounds paranoid, but it is possible.  Today book review publications edited by  men and women are reviewing romance novels. I find that disturbing.  Does that prove Russ’s theory?

Honestly, I would be more likely to reread Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics than read Russ’s book, but I do laud University of Texas Press for reissuing this.  But there was, and is, a lot of  criticism written by people with political agenda and insufficient data.  My attitude: proceed with caution.

Love in the Cotton Mills: Elizabeth Gaskell’s “North and South”

After you’ve read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, whom do you read?   Well, the obvious answer is Anne Brontë, and there has been an Anne boom in recent years.  May I admit I’ve never admired Anne?

I prefer Elizabeth Gaskell, who is as earnest and intelligent as Charlotte if not as exotic as Emily. I recently reread her North and South, one of the great industrial novels of the 19th century; it is clearly influenced by Charlotte’s industrial novel, Shirley (which I posted about here).  Both novels are page-turners, written by women of conscience.  Earnest industrial politics, plus everybody falls in love with a mill owner!

Before I make a few comments about the romantic relationship in North and South, here’s the plot summary  via the book description:

North and South tells the story of Margaret Hale, a southerner newly settled in the northern industrial town of Milton, whose ready sympathy with the discontented millworkers sits uneasily with her growing attraction to the charismatic mill owner, John Thornton. The novel poses fundamental questions about the nature of social authority and obedience, ranging from religious crises of conscience to the ethics of naval mutiny and industrial action. Margaret’s internal conflicts mirror the turbulence that she sees all around her. This revised and expanded edition sets the novel in the context of Victorian social and medical debate and explores Gaskell’s subtle representations of sexual passion and communal strife.

Here’s why fans of Charlotte Bronte should read North and South.   It’s not just the industrial politics: it’s the relationship between beautiful, earnest Margaret Hale, the daughter of a minister who has lost his faith, resigned from the church, and moved his family to the industrial town of Milton, and earnest, sexy Mr. Thornton, the owner of a cotton mill. The tension between reluctant Margaret and wary Mr. Thornton recalls the sparring between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, with a dash of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  And the name Mr. Thornton alone evokes Mr. Rochester, who lived at Thornfield Hall.

Adjustment to life in smoky Milton is arduous for the Hales. But Margaret befriends and is charitable to some of the workers, as a basket-bearing former minister’s daughter should.  She is, however, contemptuous of “men in trade,” as she characterizes Mr. Thornton, a mill owner who is a classics student of her father’s.  Neither she nor Mr. Thornton sees the other’s point of view: she insists (rightly) on the workers’ need for higher wages, but he explains (also rightly) that new economic demands make it impossible to raise wages now.  Then during a strike, when Margaret throws herself in front of him to prevent his being hit by a rock and is hit instead,  Mr. Thornton falls in love with her.  When he proposes the next day, she is furious and says his way of speaking shocks her, and “is blasphemous.”  Granted, she has already turned down one unwelcome marriage proposal, but her treatment of Mr. Thornton is outrageous.

“And the gentleman thus rescued is forbidden the relief of thanks!” he broke in contemptuously. “I am a man. I claim the right of expressing my feelings.”

“And I yielded to the right; simply saying that you gave me pain by insisting upon it,” she replied, proudly. “But you seem to have imagined, that I was not merely guided by womanly instinct, but”—and here the passionate tears (kept down for long—struggled with vehemently) came up into her eyes, and choked her voice—“ but that I was prompted by some particular feeling for you—you! Why, there was not a man—not a poor desperate man in all that crowd—for whom I had not more sympathy—for whom I should not have done what little I could more heartily.”

What a couple!  But North meets South, and eventually each educates and alters the thinking of the other.  And Gaskell also provides a fascinating look at Victorian factories and of communication between workers and owners.

A great book!

Passionate Governesses and Sexy Spinsters: Why We Love Charlotte Bronte

Illustration in Jane Eyre (Folio Society edition) by Santiago Caruso

It began with Jane Eyre. We loved her, to a woman. We were convinced that, plain though we were, except when dressed as bridesmaids or in suits for job interviews, we would marry Mr. Rochester.

Only one friend laughed–the friend who never married. (Radical feminist, or evil fairy at the wedding?) “Rochester didn’t marry Charlotte Bronte:  he married Jane.  And she’s fictional.”

Perhaps she had a point. We were twentieth-century women—what did we know about the Brontes’ chaste dreams of passion? Charlotte did not marry Mr. Rochester:  she married her father’s curate at the age of 37. Then, alas, she got pregnant and died the next year, apparently of complications in pregnancy.

Most of my friends did marry curates, or the well-educated twentieth-century equivalent, and since we weren’t rich, most of us, at one time or another, were teachers:  like Jane Eyre and Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey, we taught the children of the rich.  As the years passed, we continued to love Jane Eyre but lost faith in Mr. Rochester.  There but for the grace of God… we said.  Think about it:  Jane married Rochester only after he was “castrated/crippled,” as  the Freudians say.   And then we read Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a retelling from the point of view of Rochester’s “mad” wife, and it confirmed our suspicions of his character.

In Charlotte’s later books, things were less pat. In Villette, my favorite Bronte novel, Lucy Snowe, a plain Jane Eyre-like heroine, teaches English at a girls’ school in the Belgian city Villette (Brussels), as did Charlotte, as did I (not in Brussels), but she doesn’t get the guy, though I did. Or rather, she doesn’t get the guy she wants. He prefers someone else. And isn’t that the way it would have been for Jane Eyre, a brilliant but plain orphan governess? Only my beautiful friends, the ones who married doctors, would have attracted Mr. Rochester. (There is a pecking order of beauty.)   And beauty is so fragile.  You can be beautiful one year, get sick or unhappy, you lose sleep, and your looks fade.  Just like that.

Villette is a novel for the middle-aged and elderly  Though I appreciated it as a young woman, I revere it now. It is Charlotte’s Gothic masterpiece, a smart un-Bridget Jones study of single life, complete with ghosts, cross-dressing, and drug-induced hallucinations.

But what happens when you’ve read Jane Eyre and Villette over and over and need some Charlotte you don’t know by heart?  You turn to Shirley.   It’s the the plain Jane sister novel, albeit the only one with attractive heroines, and has never been quite weird enough to capture a huge audience in our time.

It should be called Caroline, not Shirley, I’m convinced.  Shirley doesn’t appear till page 204 in my edition.  The real heroine, to my mind, is Caroline Helstone, the blonde, delicate, intelligent young woman, who muses on, of all subjects, being an old maid.

Everyone assures Caroline she will not be an old maid. But she wants to be prepared.  She is in love with her cousin, Robert Moore, a charming, impecunious mill owner, who is determined, despite the levels of unemployment among the men,  to introduce machines into his business.  He is by turns hot and cold with her:  poor Caroline!  He flirts for a few hours then withdraws for days.   And after her uncle/guardian, Mr. Helstone, the clergyman,  fights with Robert about politics, she is forbidden to see him and his sister Hortense. Caroline wastes away—but she is not sure that Robert loved her anyway.

I love a good soliloquy, and what better soliloquy than Caroline Helstone’s musings on being an old maid?  And she is very kind and insightful about two old maids in the neighborhood, who never married because they are ugly and eccentric, and she begins to respect them and to understand their character.

Convinced that she will see Robert married to someone else and that she will never marry, she pictures herself alone and wonders how old maids live.

“What was I created for, I wonder?  Where is my place in the world?”

She mused again.

“Ah, I see,” she pursued presently, that is the question which most old maids are puzzled to solve: other people solve it for them by saying, ‘Your place is to do good to others, to be helpful whenever help is wanted.’ That is right in some measure, and a very convenient doctrine for the people who hold it; but I perceive that certain sets of human beings are very apt to maintain that other sets should give up their lives to them and their service, and then they requite them by praise: they call them devoted and virtuous. Is this enough? Is it to live? Is there not a terrible hollowness, mockery, want, craving, in that existence which is given away to others, for want of something of your own to bestow it on? I suspect there is. Does virtue lie in abnegation of self? I do not believe it. Undue humility makes tyranny; weak concession creates selfishness. …”

There’s much more of that, fascinating stuff, and such philosophizing is not so entirely unsuited to our modern day.

Much more lies ahead for Caroline Helstone .  Don’t give up on her yet!

A London Bookstore in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette and the Tenth-Year Anniversary of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight

villette-charlotte-bronte-paperback-cover-artI am rereading Villette, Charlotte Bronte’s autobiographical masterpiece: rereading classics is the best remedy for jet lag.  In this intense, gorgeously-written novel about a solitary woman, the narrator, Lucy Snowe, travels to Belgium in search of work.  Stalked by two men as she seeks a hotel in  Villette, she loses her way and finds herself in front of a girls’ school.  She believes fate has led her to the school, where she finds  a post as an English teacher. Her life is gray and quiet, but it is not dull.  Orphaned and alone, Lucy is a more repressed, quieter doppelgänger of Bronte’s Jane Eyre.   She does not get the guy.  She will never meet Mr. Rochester.  Well, there is a guy, M. Paul, but he is less romantic than Mr. Rochester (whose brusque, sadistic manner does not endear him to me).   Bronte spices up the restrained narrative with a fit of  delirium, a ghost, and a drug dream.  The narrative has the effect of being as sharp, crystalline, and claustrophobic as a hall of mirrors.

In a chapter set in London, Lucy wanders into a bookstore and spends money she can’t afford.

Elation and pleasure were in my heart:  to walk alone in London seemed of itself an adventure.  Presently I found myself in Paternoster Row–classic ground this.  I entered a bookseller’s shop, kept by one Jones:  I bought a little book–a piece of extravagance I could ill afford; but I thought I would one day give or send it to Mrs. Barrett.  Mr. Jones, a dried-in man of business, stood behind his desk:  he seemed one of the greatest, and I one of the happiest of beings.

No wonder I identify with Lucy!

I wonder if she ever sends that book to Mrs. Barrett…


twilight HT_Stephenie_Meyer1_ml_151006_4x3_992I love Twilight!

Yes, I really do.

Some years ago, a friend pressed this book into my hands.   She said I would not be able to put it down.

Not only did I race through Twilight, but I dashed off to Target to buy the other three books.

Okay, the story is unrealistic.  Bella falls in love with a vampire. But so what?  Are humans so great?  Edward is a sensitive, well-educated guy. He  is great at sports.  He fights evil vampires.  And eventually Bella saves the world.  I mean it!

Meyer is a witty writer and a great storyteller.  There is a lot of humor in this novel.

Is the writing good?  Well, some of it is.

In the beginning of Twilight, we learn that the narrator, Bella, has “exiled herself” to Forks, Washington, a town she detests, to live with her father.  Her description is amusing and reasonably well-written.

In the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington State, a small town named Forks exists under a near-constant cover of clouds.  It rains on this inconsequential town more than any other place in the United States of America.  It was from this town and its gloomy, omnipresent shade that my mother escaped with me when I was only a few months old.  It was in this town that I was compelled to spend a month every summer until I was fourteen.  That was the year I finally put my foot down…

In honor of the tenth anniversary of Twilight, Hachette as published a “double feature” edition of Twilight.  In addition to the original novel, you can read Life and Death, Meyer’s reimagining of the story from a male point of view.

I do want to read this, but I can certainly not buy any more books this year.  Instead, I will reread Twilight.

Bronte and Meyer together:  why not?

Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor

…she liked to learn, but hated to teach.”–Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor

the professor charlotte bronte penguin 2d75c63740421e9f9973990a553df465 Teachers seldom express a distaste for teaching.

It takes the Brontës to say what you shouldn’t say.

Certainly the Brontë sisters had mixed feelings about teaching.  Anne wrote a hair-raising novel about the experiences of a governess, Agnes Grey.

And Charlotte wrote two novels about teachers, The Professor and Villette, based on her two years spent teaching in Brussels.

Charlotte’s The Professor, her strange little first novel, is not an anti-teaching novel.  In fact, the hero is an inspired teacher.  The autobiographical material in this simple, sketchy book was later reworked and polished in her last novel, Villette.  Charlotte’s characters are very competent teachers.  It is their morbid romances that create the Bronte mystique.

the professor charlotte bronte 64577The romance in The Professor is not, however, morbid.  The plot is wan compared to that of the racy Villette, which is enlivened by ghosts, drugs,, and cross-dressing. In Villette, the narrator, Lucy Snowe, moves to Villette (Brussels) and becomes a stellar teacher, but her students are dull and unimaginative.  She needs relationships outside the repressive Belgian school, and by chance her godmother, Mrs. Bretton, and her son Dr. Graham have moved to Villette. Alas,  Graham, whom she loves, fails to notice her except as “a friend.” Lucy attracts only the least attractive of men.  Her eventual love for  M. Paul Emanuel, a fussy, often unpleasant little man,  seems to be a rebound thing, though  he is supposedly based on her great crush, M. Heger, the owner of the boarding school where she taught.  (I cannot love him.)

The Professor is a  novel about work.   The narrator, William Crimsworth, an orphan (like Lucy Snowe and Jane Eyre), does not know what to do after Oxford.  His father was in trade and his mother was an aristocrat, and his aristocratic relatives wish him to go into the church.  He is not religious, and decides togo into trade.  He works briefly for his vicious mill owner brother as a clerk.  This is a waste of his abilities.  He is stuck translating German and French correspondence.  And his brother hates him.

No man likes to acknowledge that he has made a mistake in the choice of his profession, and every man, worthy of the name, will row long against wind and tide before he allows himself to cry out, ‘I am baffled’ and submits to be floated passively back to land.  from the first week…I felt my occupation irksome.

After a brutal scene in which  his brother whips him, he quits and very happily decides to move to Brussels, where he becomes a professor of English and Latin at a boys’ school;.

He also teaches at the girls’ school next door, where he is attracted to the headmistress .  Her morals, however, are bad:  this is a problem with Belgian women in Charlotte’s books.   What woman does he fall for instead?  Frances, a sewing teacher who is taking his English class .  She is not a good teacher, though she is a great student.

Poor Frances is only 19 and bad at discipline!  She is very unhappy.  William writes that the young are merciless.

…a pupil whose sensations are duller than those of his instructor, while his nerves are tougher and his bodily strength perhaps greater, has an immense advantage over the instructor, and he will generally use it relentlessly, because the very young, very healthy, very thoughtless, know neither how to sympathize nor how to spare.  Frances, I fear, suffered much.

Villette is a masterpiece, so if you have a choice between that and The Professor, please read Villette! But The Professor is interesting for those of us who love the Brontës.

P.S.  What biography of the Brontës do you recommend?  Juliet Barker’s?  (But it’s so long.)

Rereading Bronte and Austen & Modern Versions

As I grow older, there is nothing I like better than rereading the classics. If I only have three or (optimistically) four decades left, I want to go out with the Charlotte Bronte-Jane Austen party.

Jane Eyre old penguin bronteLast month I partied rather intensely with Bronte and Austen.  I reread Jane Eyre and Northanger Abbey.

I hadn’t read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre in 20 years, because I’m such a Villette devotee that I feared disappointment.

And I hadn’t been able to face Austen’s Northanger Abbey, because it is so slight.

Villette, Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece, is Jane Eyre for adults (I have written extensively about Villette here), and it is by far the better of the two books. Indeed, the heroine of Villette, Lucy Snowe, has a more challenging time as a woman (she is sexy but too plain to attract the hero) and as a teacher has no training and must figure out both how to teach and how to discipline a class of unruly girls.  She has it harder than the plain, girlish Jane Eyre, who fulfills all our romantic dreams. Jane Eyre is Charlotte’s dream autobiography; Villette is the realistic version.

The good news? I loved  Jane Eyre.  It is a beautifully-written work of great literature, not just for teenagers.   Bronte penned a stunning, fast-paced, emotionally pitch-perfect blockbuster.

Jane Eyre is an orphan who stands up for truth–and who of us hasn’t felt like an orphan?. Her cruel aunt banishes her to a charity school, where she is forced to wear a sign that says “liar” because her vicious aunt told the lie that she was a liar.  She wins many friends at the school, and becomes a teacher, and finally lands a governess job at the romantic house, Thornfield Hall.  The owner, witty, rakish Mr. Rochester, whose love child, Adele, is her charge, falls in love with here.

Bronte’s dialogue is witty and, if not quite realistic, compelling.  Who can help but fall in love with Mr. Rochester when he jokingly compares his dog Pilot to his bastard, Adele, by his opera-singer girlfriend, Celine Varens?

But unluckily the Varens…had given me this fillette Adele, who, she affirmed, was my daughter; and perhaps she may be, though I see no proofs of such grim paternity written in her countenance:  Pilot is more like me than she.”

And Rochester presents himself as a hero:  he says Celine deserted Adele, so he took “the poor thing out of the slime and mud of Paris , and transplanted it here, to grow up clean in the wholesome soil of an English country garden.  Mrs. Fairfax found you to train it;…”

And on an emotional level, we love it that the plain, smart heroine wins the hero’s affections.

But we worry about the mad wife in the attic who constantly sets the house on fire, seeming to know that Jane Eyre is there, and exactly who she is.  The mad wife is at the center of Jean Rhys’s sequel, Wide Sargasso Sea.  I didn’t think Wide Sargasso Sea was very good when I read it years ago; I tried to reread it last month, and my original judgment stands.  But I do like the idea of it.  Anybody know any modern versions of Jane Eyre?

Northanger Abbey jane austenI reread Austen’s Northanger Abbey so I could read Val McDermid’s retelling, also called Northanger Abbey, the second in a series of updated Austen novels (the first was by Joanna Trollope, Sense and Sensibility).

Austen’s Northanger Abbey is thoroughly enjoyable, a novel about a novel reader so absorbed in Gothic fiction that she is constantly fantasizing about ghosts and murders.  But it is mainly the story of a likable, if ordinary and rather silly, young woman, Catherine Morland, who goes to Bath with her neighbors, and falls in love with Henry Tilney.  The difference between Northanger Abbey and Austen’s other novels?   There is no suspense; we know immediately who will get the girl, and whom the girl will get.  And the writing is uneven.

Naturally, we all fall in love with Henry, because he, like Catherine, is a novel reader.  He says,

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has no pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again,–I remember finishing it in two days–my hair standing on end the whole time.”

He also teases her about writing in her journal, and predicts she will go home at night and write abouit their meeting.

Austen is always witty, and I laughed aloud as I read this.

Northanger Abbey val mcdermidI have read half of McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, and it, too, is lots of fun.  The 21st-century Cat is a fan of paranormal romances, and , indeed, at one point she wonders if Henry is a vampire.  He teases her about updating her Facebook page, rather than writing in her journal, and she spends a lot of time texting. A missed appointment has to do with Henry’s sister’s having written down the wrong phone number.  McDermid is an award-winning mystery writer, and she is up to the challenge of rewriting Austen’s lightest novel.  Don’t expect too much here, but it is charming and will certainly make  good “summer reading.”  The writer who has signed on to update Pride and Prejudice or Emma will have the greatest difficulty!

Triangular Relationships in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette

Villette in the Mirror

Villette in the Mirror

I have read Charlotte Bronte’s Villette many times.

I am rereading it now.

To a woman of a certain age, Bronte’s Villette, an unflinching report of solitude and isolation, is more interesting than Jane Eyre.  By the time one is thirty, Mr. Rochester no longer appears romantic, and we frankly think Jane would have been better off with St. John.

We’re sorry that the heroine of Villette, Lucy Snowe, ends up with whom she does, but nonetheless we adore the book.

Here is my Villette chart.  I read it at:

Age 14:  Thought it odd.  Perhaps I would end up like Lucy Snowe.  My aunt seemed to think so…  She stressed education over romance.

Age 24:  Despite the fact that I had been married and was engaged once more, I  felt like Lucy Snowe.  I was teaching and perhaps in love with Dr. John Graham Bretton.

Age 37:  I was teaching again and rereading Villette.

Age 44: No longer thought I was Lucy Snowe, but loved the book.

Age __:  This bold novel is much tougher and yet more nuanced than Jane Eyre, and feminist readers and Bronte fans should give it another chance.

villette-charlotte-bronte-paperback-cover-artThroughout Villette, Lucy Snowe, the solitary narrator, is the invisible woman in triangular relationships.  Attachments become triangulated without her realizing it, and the men certainly do not realize it, but whenever she has a friendship with a man, there is another woman in the foreground.

When we first meet Lucy, she seems cold.   There is something almost voyeuristic about Lucy’s cold scrutiny of her godmother Mrs. Bretton’s household, though she loves her godmother.  As a teenage girl, Lucy has no interest in Graham Bretton, the handsome, lively teenage son.   But in minute detail Lucy describes Graham’s friendship with Polly, a small child who becomes passionately fond of Graham when she stays with the Brettons’ during her father’s illness. Graham teases her and behaves like an older brother, while Polly is like a tiny woman.  Lucy cannot understand the magnitude of the child’s attachment.

Lucy is shadowy.  She tells us very little about her family, and there is a Gothic mystery about her intense solitude and taciturnity.

We wonder who this woman is, who in later chapters is thrown on the world without money, and who eventually ends up a teacher at Madame Beck’s school in Villette (an imaginary city like Brussels, where Bronte taught) and meets Graham Bretton (now called Dr. John) again.

villette-charlotte-bronte-hardcover-cover-art Two people have an enormous influence on Lucy’s position  in Villette.  Ginevra, a beautiful, giddy, merciless, heartless student, whom Lucy first meets on the boat from England, tells her about the school.  She mentions that Madame Beck, the headmistress, needs a nurse for her children. Lucy ends up teaching there coincidentally, and she also coincidentally meets John, whom she does not recognize, and who helps her with the language when she needs to inquire about her luggage.

We learn that he is in love with Ginevra.

Lucy and Ginevra have a borderline-lesbian relationship.  Lucy has nothing good to say about Ginevra, and yet when both are in a school play,  Lucy, who plays a man, does her best to flirt and out-woo the other man for Ginevra.  It is partly because John is in the audience (she does not yet know he loves Ginevra) and she wants to shine, but Lucy also favors Ginevra at breakfast by trading bread for coffee, and likes her company, despite her dislike of the girl.

Lucy falls in love with John, though he does not realize it. The triangle does not affect him, because he does not know Lucy cares.   She realizes she is likely to be single all her life.  She is intelligent but not pretty or charming.

Reason tells her not to hope after she returns from a visit to the Brettons and John promises to write to her.

Lucy thinks he won’t and tells us:

This hag, this Reason, would not let me look up, or smile, or hope:  she could not rest unless I were altogether crushed, cowed, broken-in, and broken-down.  According to her, I was born only to work for a piece of bread, to await the pangs of death, and steadily through all life to respond.  Reason might be right; yet no wonder we are glad at times to defy her, to rush from under her rod and give a truant hour to Imagination–her soft, bright foe, our sweet Help, our divine Hope.  We shall and must break bounds at intervals, despite the terrible revenge that awaits our return.”

Lucy’s hopelessness is harsh, because aren’t we all madly in love in our twenties and secretly believe ourselves irresistible?  But this is Charlotte Bronte talking, and we never doubt her, because Lucy’s style is both meticulously restrained and passionate.  Lucy is a fiery woman stuck in the drudgery of teaching unintelligent girls English.

There are other triangular relationships, including Madame Beck’s rivalry for John with Ginevra, but she soon realizes it won’t work.  She is middle-aged; John is in his mid-twenties. There is another triangular relationship when  John falls for Polly, who is now a woman:  Lucy is unnoticed.  Later, Lucy and Madame Beck are earnest rivals for M. Paul.  And Lucy is visible when the man is ordinary, plain, and intelligent.

A very complicated book!