Lucy, I wonder of anybody will ever comprehend you altogether?Charlotte Brontë, Villette (1853)
Over the April and May this year, I revisited Charlotte Brontë’s fourth and final novel Villette (1853; but it was the third to be published; her first, The Professor, was published later) with a book group on Goodreads. Villette is seen as a reworking of sorts of The Professor, with Brontë having drawn from her own experiences living at a pensionnat in Belgium run by the Hégers, though in one edition, author May Sinclair in her introduction disputes that the novel is autobiographical or even that Charlotte was ever in love with M Héger (J.M. Dent and Sons, 1946).
Instead of writing a review of the book (I haven’t reviewed it or put down any thoughts earlier either, save for a few lines on Goodreads), I thought of finally writing a post which was in my mind when I last read the book, about its narrator and central character, Lucy Snowe. I have tried to keep this spoiler free for the most part, but there might be some minor ones.
Lucy Snowe isn’t as well known a heroine as Brontë’s Jane Eyre of course. Jane Eyre is rather an inspiring character—upright, honest, with a strong sense of self-respect and one who is never afraid to speak her mind, but also not unrealistic for she has a temper and loses it, only learning to calm her emotions as the book goes on. Lucy shares some of Jane’s traits, but is a very different person—far more complex, certainly more interesting, and very hard to understand—an enigma of sorts.
In fact, when we first meet her, as the book opens, for an entire chapter, she doesn’t even tell us her name! The story begins when Lucy is about fourteen (this fact we learn much later), when she is staying with her godmother Mrs Bretton (whom she visits regularly) and her son Graham, some years older, and at the time home from school. Here another little visitor, six-year-old Polly Home, comes to stay as her estranged mother has died, and father taken ill because of this. Polly is deeply attached to her father, and very upset at being separated from him. But she soon becomes curiously devoted to Graham who also takes a liking to her. At this point, Lucy seems distant, detached, cold even (like her name ‘Snowe’) telling us of these people as an observer, though she shares a cordial relationship with Mrs Bretton who cares for her. While Lucy tells the reader all about the Brettons and the Homes and all that plays out during that visit, she volunteers no detail about herself.
The story takes a small leap forward in time and a different turn when tragedy strikes Lucy and her family (again, we are given no details), and she is now left to earn her own living. She starts off as a companion to an older lady she knows, Miss Marchmont, with whom she develops a friendship. After Miss Marchmont’s death, Lucy travels, first to London and then to the continent, finding her way to the fictional Villette, where she becomes initially governess to the children of Madame Beck, the owner of a pensionnat, and soon the English teacher at the establishment. With these developments, Lucy begins to become more central to the story, at times centre stage, at others still in her role of observer; yet in all that happens, she continues to remain a puzzle.
Lucy’s background and family are one such question which is never resolved. We can gauge that they must have been fairly well off, for Lucy has had a governess and describes her childhood as being idyllic. Working for a living has never been in question (‘self-reliance and exertion were forced upon me by circumstances’); yet unlike as is usual, when the question does arise after tragedy strikes, she claims she has no accomplishments, doesn’t ‘play or sing or speak three or four languages’. This seems strange since one would have expected her to have had some form of education. Perhaps being told nothing means that we are to see her only for who she is, as she presents herself at that moment with no heed to her background, or previous life.
Though Lucy seems cold to start with, we see her as a deeply emotional person as the story moves on. Yet she takes great pains to hide her feelings both from the reader and others she interacts with. Her emotions and reason are constantly at battle, with her giving way more to reason than emotion (in fact almost always), for instance, writing replies to letters in a more detached manner to be sent, while a different set, expressing her true feelings, only for herself to keep (the letters of a particular correspondent, of course).
Her social position (as a governess and then a teacher) and lack of wealth (she never refers to what had been) seem an obstacle in the way of some dreams. People certainly do treat her differently (perhaps a little shabbily) simply based on what they perceive, but some action on her part or a past connection made known changes things oftener than not. Those who like her (and most who know her do) like her for herself, even though more than one admits they don’t really understand her.
Lucy often seems to belittle herself, thinking her appearance unattractive (though she never describes what she looks like clearly at any point), and herself undeserving of anything good or even the briefest happiness, though why this is so, we never really learn.
However, while she may be a touch diffident at times, she also has, almost contrary to the self-deprecating tendencies she shows, a strong sense of independence and self-respect. She might give in a little to others’ wishes, but she refuses to do what goes against the grain for her, for instance, turning down a well-paid position as companion to Polly who reappears in her life later, which will change the relationship between them or agreeing to acting in a school play only on her own terms and in a costume of her own choosing when asked to be a last-minute substitute (other examples go into more spoilery territory). She is not content to live as a spinster aunt or friend on the sidelines but wishes to set up her own school and have her own property as Madame Beck does. She is also steadfast on matters of religion, sticking to and believing staunchly in her Protestantism, where in Villette almost everyone is Catholic, and later too, when the issue assumes a more direct, more personal turn. Lucy holds strong opinions on some aspects like English versus French morality and practices (which mightn’t be entirely PC by present-day standards), but is fair too, in acknowledging the good where she believes it lies.
But for all that we find out about her, she remains secretive all through, ‘choosing’ what she will and will not reveal to the reader, and indeed also when. So, things she seems to have known all along are suddenly sprung on us as surprises, and her own feelings as to people or situations must often be pieced together from what hints we can pick up. On some things, she chooses to make her feelings known immediately and clearly, others we are left guessing at, and some we can’t tell at all.
At one point in the story, Lucy thinks about how differently the different people in her life perceive her—some as a friend (Graham), some as sombre teacher who will disapprove of radical plays (Mr Home), Madame Beck as a trusted employee who deserves respect, her friend/student Ginevra as a sort of Diogenes, while one character perhaps is able to see the real her. But for us the readers, while we may feel sympathy for her on some occasions and frustrated or even exasperated by her secretiveness on others, she continues to remain a puzzle, but one that keeps us engaged for long!