(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Villette cover image

In Villette, Brontë once again tells the story from the point of view of an autobiographical narrator. Unlike Jane Eyre, however, the narrator of Villette, Lucy Snowe, is neither entirely reliable nor likable. Her unpleasant nature and habit of withholding information from the reader is responsible for the lack of critical consensus about Villette. While some literary scholars see the novel as a well-constructed discourse on the repressive nature of Victorian society, others view it as a disordered representation of a neurotic character. The mixed response to Villette was evident in the first reviews it received, and it never achieved the popularity of Jane Eyre.

There are marked similarities between Villette and Jane Eyre: Both narrators are orphans, both teach to earn their livings, and both consider themselves unattractive. In both novels, Brontë drew on her own experience to create a realistic setting; indeed, Villette is placed in the same Belgian territory as Brontë’s first novel, The Professor. Yet Villette differs from the previous novels in a number of important ways. Formally, the shifting focus, plot coincidences, and length of time that passes between Lucy’s narration and the events that she recounts all challenge the conventions of the realistic novel. This departure is particularly evident in the ending, when Lucy refuses to explain what has happened to her fiancé, Paul Emanuel, and instead tells the reader to imagine that she has been reunited with him and has embarked on a blissful life. The reality, which Lucy condescendingly assumes the reader is too sentimental to accept, is that Paul has been drowned in a violent storm at sea.

Lucy’s open ending of her story points to another important difference...

(The entire section is 753 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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.

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,...

(The entire section is 1192 words.)