Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 743 words.)