Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
In Villette, Charlotte Brontë effectively uses the format of the traditional romance novel to tell a story of a most unlikely heroine who achieves an unusual fate for ladies who inhabit the pages of such works. Like many of her fictional sisters, Lucy Snowe is an orphan; unlike them, however, she is plain looking and seemingly unaffected by the social interactions that characterize the lives of so many heroines in women’s novels of the nineteenth century.
As a teenager, Lucy spends a brief time with her godmother, Mrs. Bretton, and Graham Bretton, a haughty young man given to ignoring Lucy and innocently flirting with ten-year-old Polly Home. That interlude in Lucy’s life plays a key role in determining many of her later actions, but it hardly characterizes her early adult years, eight of which are spent in lonely service to an elderly lady whose only gracious act is to die and free the heroine to travel to the Continent in search of employment. Aided by advice from a shipboard acquaintance, Ginevra Fanshawe, and a mysterious stranger who helps her find her way in the foreign city of Villette, Lucy ends up at the Pensionnat, where Mme Beck runs a girls’ school. Hired by Mme Beck initially as a governess, Lucy soon becomes a teacher, and much of the novel relates her efforts in dealing with the students at Mme Beck’s establishment.
Through Lucy’s first-person narration, Brontë introduces readers to Paul Emmanuel, an unlikely hero to match with her unlikely heroine. Emmanuel teaches at Mme Beck’s school; he is opinionated, cantankerous, and demanding. He seems to be unusually critical of Lucy’s dress and deportment at various social functions; she is decidedly put off by his behavior on more than one occasion. Beneath his gruff exterior, however, he is deeply concerned...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Villette. Capital city of the fictional country of Labassecour. With a name that literally means “little city,” Villette is not large; students walk out to the surrounding countryside before breakfast from the city center. The city is divided into two main parts: the Basse-Ville, the lower city, and the Haute-Ville, the upper city. The lower city contains the older, run-down areas. Here Dr. John goes on his philanthropic medical visits, and here is situated the rue des Mages, on which the house of Madame Walravens and other dependents of Monsieur Paul stands.
The upper city is the fashionable area in which the royal palaces, galleries, museums, and society meeting places are located. In one of the art galleries, the exhibition of a painting occasions an argument between Lucy and Monsieur Paul. At one of the theaters, she attends a concert also attended by the king and queen. Later, she spends the night enjoying a festival of lights and fireworks. It would be true to say that Lucy belongs to neither of these worlds, low or high.
Bretton. Old cathedral town in England. Lucy’s godmother’s family have lived here on St. Ann’s Street for generations; in fact, her family name is also Bretton. Her son, John Graham, lives there with her. On one of Lucy’s visits she meets Polly Home, a little girl.
Lucy’s home. Situated fifty miles north of London, the place is never named or described. After her parents’ death, she lives in the same place as companion to Miss Marchmont, an invalid. “Two hot rooms” become Lucy’s world for a while until...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Brontë is frequently celebrated as one of the earliest feminist novelists; her works express discontent, sometimes even anger, with the patriarchal society that limited the possibilities for both economic advancement and personal fulfillment for women. Many critics have viewed Lucy Snowe in Villette as a feminist heroine refusing to succumb to the expectations of society, rejecting the traditional route for achieving social acceptance through marriage. Her decision at the end of the novel to reject Paul Emmanuel and remain single is touted as a courageous act of defiance against custom.
Reception to Villette by Brontë’s contemporaries was decidedly mixed; even some women reviewers criticized her for creating a heroine who did not conform to the expectations of the reading public, which was accustomed to having romances end with a happy marriage. The author’s choice of a plain heroine who remains guarded in her relationships—even with readers—was disturbing for some. Nineteenth century critics who praised the novel, and many writing in the first decades of the following century, qualified their enthusiasm by focusing first on the fact that the novel was written by a woman rather than on Brontë’s accomplishments in creating complex characters or pursuing an important social and political theme.
Scholars writing later in the twentieth century, especially feminist critics, have judged the novel Brontë’s finest work. They applaud her for creating a complex, independent central character who is willing to challenge preconceptions about the role of women and to examine her own social and psychological circumstances honestly and directly. Feminists have embraced all Brontë’s works, seeing beneath the conventional surface of her romances a strong, critical voice attacking the social conventions that circumscribed opportunities for women. Although they have not ignored the autobiographical genesis of much of her work, they have noted her special genius as an observer and chronicler of the plight of women in a society that was decidedly male dominated.
Ideas for Group Discussions
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Allott, Miriam, ed. The Brontës: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974. Fascinating collection of sixteen reviews and comments from 1853, the year of Villette’s publication. William Makepeace Thackeray is admiring, if condescending, for example, whereas Matthew Arnold finds the novel “disagreeable.”
Allott, Miriam, ed. Charlotte Brontë: “Jane Eyre” and “Villette”: A Casebook. London: Macmillan, 1973. Various writings about Villette, including several opinions from the year the novel was published, as well as later Victorian assessments and critical views from the 1950’s...
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