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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1192

As a young girl, Lucy Snowe visits her godmother, Mrs. Bretton, about twice each year. It is a warm, active household, and Lucy loves Mrs. Bretton. During one of Lucy’s visits, young Polly Home, whose widowed father is leaving England for the Continent, comes to stay with the Brettons. Polly is mature and worldly for her years, and she develops a tender, almost maternal, fondness for Mrs. Bretton’s son, Graham. Because Lucy shares a room with the young visitor, she becomes the recipient of her confidences. Polly’s father had originally intended to send his daughter to Mrs. Bretton’s home for an extended stay, but he becomes lonely for her and returns to take his daughter back to Europe with him. Lucy’s visits with the Brettons come to an end when they lose their property and move away. After that, Lucy loses track of her godmother.

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As a grown woman, Lucy earns her living by acting as a companion to elderly women. Tiring of her humdrum existence, she travels to France. There an unusual chain of circumstances leads her to the city of Villette and to a school run by Madame Beck and her kinsman, Monsieur Paul Emanuel. Owing to Lucy’s calm disposition, ready wit, firm character, and cultivated intellect, she soon receives an appointment as instructor of English at the school.

Attending the school is Ginevra Fanshawe, a pretty but flighty and selfish girl whose relationship with Lucy takes the form of a scornful friendship. Madame Beck is a clever schoolmistress. She conducts her school, which has both day students and boarders, through a system of spying that includes occasional furtive searches among the personal possessions of others and also a constant stealthy watching from her window. Despite Madame Beck’s behavior, Lucy feels a firm respect for her. Her system is steady and unflagging. Monsieur Paul is a voluble and brilliant instructor. He always seems to be at Lucy’s elbow admonishing her, tantalizing her intellect, attempting to lead her. Often, Lucy attributes the peculiar notions of the pair to their Catholicism, which Lucy abhors. Dr. John, a handsome, generous young practitioner who attends the school’s students, is a general favorite at the institution. Although she does not betray her knowledge, Lucy recognizes him as the John Graham Bretton, whom she had known as a child.

In her characteristically scornful and triumphant manner, Ginevra Fanshawe confides to Lucy that she has a pair of ardent suitors: Isidore, who, according to Ginevra, is madly in love with her, and Colonel de Hamal, whom Ginevra herself prefers. One night in the garden, Lucy finds a letter intended for someone at the school. Dr. John appears in time to assist Lucy in disposing of the missive before the spying Madame Beck can interfere. The young doctor apparently knows the person for whom the letter is intended. Some time later, Lucy learns that Ginevra’s Isidore is Dr. John himself, and that the nocturnal letter had been sent by de Hamal; Dr. John had been trying to protect his beloved. Dr. John confesses that he hopes to marry the schoolgirl.

Alone at the school’s dormitory during a vacation, Lucy is overcome by depression. She has been haunted in the past by the apparition of a nun, and the reappearance of this specter so exacerbates the already turbulent emotions of the young teacher that she flees into the streets of the town. There she wanders, driven to despair by her inner conflicts, until she comes to a Catholic church. Under a strange compulsion, she is led to make a confession to the priest, but she later regrets her action. While trying to find her way back to the school, she faints. Upon regaining consciousness, she finds herself in a room with familiar furnishings. She is in a Villette chateau occupied by her godmother, Mrs. Bretton, and Graham Bretton—the man...

(The entire section contains 1192 words.)

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