Villette (novel)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Villette is a novel by Charlotte Brontë, published in 1853. After an unspecified family disaster, protagonist Lucy Snowe travels to the fictional city of Villette to teach at an all-girls school where she is unwillingly pulled into both adventure and romance. The novel is celebrated not so much for its plot as its acute tracing of Lucy’s psychology, particularly Brontë’s use of Gothic doubling to represent externally what her protagonist is suffering internally.

Contents

Biographical background

In 1842, Brontë traveled to Brussels with her sister Emily, where they enrolled in a pensionnat (boarding school) run by M. and Mme. Constantin Héger. In return for board and tuition, Charlotte taught English and Emily taught music. Their time at the pensionnat was cut short when Elizabeth Branwell, their aunt who had joined the family after the death of their mother to look after the children, died of internal obstruction in October 1842. Charlotte returned alone to Brussels in January 1843 to take up a teaching post at the pensionnat. Her second stay at the pensionnat was not a happy one; she became lonely, homesick and fell in love with M. Héger. She finally returned to her family's rectory at Haworth in January 1844.

Brontë drew on this source material for her first, unsuccessful novel The Professor. After several publishers rejected this early work, Brontë reworked the material as a basis for Villette. In particular, most literary historians believe the character of M. Paul Emanuel to be closely based on M. Héger. Furthermore, the character of Graham Bretton is widely acknowledged to have been modelled on Brontë's publisher, George Murray Smith, who was at one time a potential suitor.

Plot summary

Villette begins with its famously passive and secretive protagonist, Lucy Snowe, age 14, observing her godmother, Mrs. Bretton, Mrs. Bretton's son, Graham, and a young visitor, Paulina Home, known to everyone as "Polly." The child is a peculiar little thing and soon develops a deep devotion for the older Graham, who showers her with attention until her stay is cut short when her father comes to take her away. In the ensuing years, an unspecified family tragedy forces Lucy into action, causing her to seek employment, and at age 23 she boards a ship for "Labassecour" (French for 'farmyard' and based on Belgium) despite not speaking a word of French on a hope that maybe she may find something in a new place. After arriving in the capital city of Villette, Lucy finds work as a teacher at Mme. Beck's boarding school for girls (which can be seen as a literary representation of the Hégers' Brussels pensionnat), and thrives despite Mme. Beck's constant surveillance of the students and staff.

Dr. John, a handsome English doctor, frequently visits the school because of his love for the coquette Ginevra. In one of Villette’s famous plot twists, Dr. John is later revealed to be Graham Bretton, a fact that Lucy has known but deliberately concealed from the reader. After Dr. John discovers Ginevra's unworthiness, his brotherly instincts turn his attention to Lucy, and they become close friends which she values very highly despite her usual emotional reserve. We meet "Polly" again at this point (although her father has come into the title de Bassompierre which makes her now Paulina Home de Bassompierre) when Dr. Bretton saves her from being trodden upon at the theater one night. They soon discover that they know each other and renew their friendship, which quickly blossoms into something more. The two fall in love and eventually marry, which Lucy has long seen coming, and she understands without sharing their facile happiness.

At the same time, Lucy has the first of several encounters with a shadowy nun in the attic who may be the ghost of a nun buried alive on the grounds for breaking her vows of chastity; in a highly symbolic scene, she finally finds the nun's habit in her bed and destroys it. She later discovers it to be the disguise of Ginevra's amour, de Hamal.

Lucy finds herself becoming closer to a colleague, the fiery schoolmaster M. Paul Emanuel; the two eventually fall in love. However, a group of conspiring antagonists, including Mme. Beck, the priest Père Silas, and the relatives of M. Paul's long-dead fiancée, struggle to keep the two apart, and finally succeed in forcing M. Paul's departure for the West Indies to oversee his plantation there. He nonetheless declares his love for Lucy before his departure, and arranges for her to live independently as the headmistress of her own day school or externat, which she later expands into a pensionnat. Villette’s final pages are ambiguous; though Lucy says that she wants to leave the reader free to imagine a happy ending, she hints strongly that M. Paul's ship was destroyed by a storm on his return from the West Indies, killing him. She claims, for example, that "the three happiest years of [her] life" were those before M. Paul's return journey, which would suggest that he did indeed fall victim to the "destroying angel of tempest". Brontë described the ambiguity in the ending as a "little puzzle".

Themes

Villette is most commonly celebrated for its explorations of gender roles and repression. In The Madwoman in the Attic, critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have argued that the character of Lucy Snowe is based in part on William Wordsworth's Lucy poems, emphasizing this idea of a feminine re-writing. In addition, critics have explored the issues of Lucy's psychological state in terms of the patriarchal constructs that form her cultural context. [1]

Villette also incisively explores isolation and cross-cultural conflict in Lucy’s attempts to master the French language, as well as the conflicts between her English Protestantism and the Catholicism (her denunciation of which is unsparing: 'God is not with Rome') of Labassecour.

Characters

Lucy Snowe: The narrator and main character of Villette. A twenty-three year old self-reliant, quiet, intelligent young lady; she has, as Miss Ginevra Fanshawe asserts, ‘no attractive accomplishments – no beauty,’ and no relations. Though usually reserved and emotionally self-controlled (‘I, Lucy Snowe, was calm’), she has strong feelings and affections for those she really values, and even sincerely cares for the giddy Ginevra, albeit in a blunt curmudgeonly fashion. She is a firm Protestant, and denounces Roman Catholicism as false (‘God is not with Rome’). She is generally cool and collected (for instance, at the fire at the theater, she is firm and calm, while Paulina is knocked down, almost crushed).
M. Paul Carlos David Emanuel: A fiery, autocratic schoolmaster, a professor of literature; moody, irritable, blunt, and hot-tempered, he is apt to fly into passions and roar out lectures without hesitation. However, he shows a surprisingly naïve love of power, of applause, and of supremacy at times, which much amuses Lucy. Despite all his faults and bursts of fire at little trifles, Lucy relishes his good qualities. He is generous: he delights in giving Lucy secret presents, and when he holds a breakfast out in the country for his students, he is never stingy; if rather brusque at times, his frank sincerity, especially well displayed in his childlike praying, is refreshing to Lucy; he is strong and able, like his kinswoman, Madame Beck; he is kind and magnanimous, as is shown by his supporting and sheltering the loveless misanthrope grandmother of his dead fiancée, Justine Marie, together with his old tutor and servant, faithfully. He has a habit of smoking, which Lucy does not approve of, but which he seems to enjoy immensely. He is a Catholic, and therefore frightened by Lucy’s Protestanism, but is somewhat reassured when Lucy herself affirms that she believes and loves God and the Bible, and finally gives up trying to convert her to Catholicism. His black head is as close-shorn as raven-down, he has a broad, sallow brow, a thin cheek, a wide, quivering nostril, and a passionate eye. He is related to the cool Madame Beck, and is a great help to her in the school. It is strongly hinted that he dies at the end of the story.
Dr. John Graham Bretton: A handsome, gentlemanly young English doctor, the son of Lucy’s godmother. He is described as ‘bland,’ ‘sunny,’ ‘supple,’ ‘cheerful,’ ‘benignant,’ and ‘bland.’ Lucy, when young, showed no particular fondness for him as did Polly, saying, “I told you I liked him a little. Where is the use of caring for him so very much? He is full of faults.” However, when they meet again ten years later, their cool friendship is more than rekindled, and Lucy secretly begins to cherish affection for him. He does not return this affection, however, any more than the usual boundaries of friendship, and lightly calls her “quiet Lucy Snowe,” and “a being inoffensive as a shadow.” He has, at first, a passion for Ginevra Fanshawe, which she treats very irreverently, “for amusement, sometimes.” Her love of money and sneer at Mrs. Bretton quenches his love at last, and he later falls in love with Paulina, and they have a happy marriage. Lucy conquers her own affection for him, and symbolically buries all his treasured letters to her, saying, “Good-night, Dr John; you are good, you are beautiful; but you are not mine. Good-night, and God bless you!”
Mrs. Bretton: Dr John Graham Bretton’s mother and Lucy’s godmother. She is a widow, and has “health without flaw,” and an even, equal, cheerful temper and supply of steady sense.
Ginevra Fanshawe: A very pretty, blooming, but rather shallow and selfish young girl of eighteen, with a light, careless temperament. She is very vain, but not proud, thus making a sort of friend and confidant of Lucy; an incorrigible coquette, with a relish for flirtation, but “honest enough,” as Lucy puts it. She is a student at Madame Beck’s, and it is her random, slight remark, “I wish you would come to Madame Beck’s; she has some marmots you might look after: she wants an English gouvernante, or was wanting one two months ago,” which prompts Lucy to go to Villette. With all her selfishness and faults, however, Lucy does cherish a certain fondness for her: ‘while we wrangled daily, we were never alienated.’ She thinks of Lucy as ‘caustic, ironic, and cynical,’ calling her ‘old lady’ and ‘dear crosspatch,’ and most frequently ‘Timon,’ after a Greek philosopher renowned for his austere style of living (SOED). She elopes with a man named de Hamal later, and keeps in touch with Lucy via letter.
Polly Home/Paulina Mary de Bassompierre: an eighteen-year-old cousin of Ginevra Fanshawe. She is first introduced to the story when a very little girl, called “Missy” or “Polly.” She is capricious and whimsical towards Lucy, polite and “tractable enough” towards Mrs. Bretton, but excessively fond of John Graham Bretton. ‘Oh! I do like you…I do like you very much,” she says once. Later, she grows up to be a quite beautiful young lady of eighteen, delicate and intelligent. She loves her father deeply, and upon meeting Graham again, their friendship develops into love. She does show, however, a chord of shallowness: she has a portion of pride, and Lucy says, “She looked a mere doll,” and describes her as shaped like “a model.” However, the two like each other, and though Lucy is often pained by her relationship with Dr Bretton, she gently looks upon their happiness without a grudge.
Mr. de Bassompierre: A sensitive and thoughtful count, who very dearly loves his daughter (‘she is my comfort!’)—he hates parting with her; when he playfully suggests that Paulina enroll in Madame Beck’s school, Paulina said that he was sure to come with her, as he did the last time he enrolled her in a school; and when he observes Paulina’s relationship with Dr Bretton, he is very averse to parting with her (‘I don’t want to part with her,’ said he, and he groaned). He regards her as a mere child, however, and calls her his ‘little treasure,’ or ‘little Polly.’ He at last relinquishes Polly to Dr Bretton, however, saying, “May God deal with you as you deal with her!”
Fraulein Anna Braun: Polly and Lucy’s German mistress, a hearty, honest woman of about forty-five. She is afraid of, and is fascinated by, Paulina, who sometimes treats her with cool pride, and leans more towards Lucy.
Madame Modeste Maria Beck: The headmistress of the boarding school for girls where Lucy works at. She is rather short and stout, but not uncomely: her complexion is fresh and sanguine, with the color, but not the texture, of youth; her eye is blue and serene; and “she looked well, though a little bourgeois…” She has strong sense, though unblended with the gentleness of kindness and feeling, and possesses high administration powers. Lucy says, “…she had no heart to be touched: it reminded her where she was impotent and dead,” and she goes on further to describe her as “wise, firm, faithless; secret, crafty, passionless; watchful and inscrutable; acute and insensate – withal perfectly decorous – what more could be desired?” She seems to have a lurking liking for Dr John at first, but it dies away quickly; and she seeks to marry M. Emanuel herself, doing all she can to break Lucy and M. Emanuel up.
Rosine: the unprincipled though pretty portress at Madame Beck's boarding school. She is "smart, trim, and pert," but "not a bad sort of person," according to Lucy, and likes bribes.

Adaptations

In 1970, the BBC produced a television miniseries based on Villette, directed by Moira Armstrong and written by Lennox Phillips. It starred Judy Parfitt as Lucy Snowe, Bryan Marshall as Dr Graham Bretton, Peter Jeffrey as Paul Emmanuel, and Mona Bruce as Mme Beck.

In 1999, the novel was also adapted as a 3-hour radio serial for BBC Radio 4, broadcast in February 1999 with Catherine McCormack as Lucy Snowe, Joseph Fiennes as Dr Graham Bretton, Harriet Walter as Mme Beck, James Laurenson as Paul Emmanuel, and Keira Knightley as Polly. It was directed by Catherine Bailey and written by James Friel. Villette went on to win a Sony Award.



Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Villette (novel)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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