My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Villette is the thickly-written, slowly-paced, and emotionally distant first-person narrative of Lucy Snowe, a young Englishwoman who goes to work as a teacher in a boarding school in the fictional titular city, a capital of Catholic Europe that stands in for the Brussels of Charlotte Brontë’s own unhappy experience. The novel is as plotless as they come in Victorian fiction, largely covering a period of only eighteen months in which Lucy experiences an attraction to two men (the handsome, glib English doctor Graham Bretton and the fiery, domineering, French-Spanish professor of literature Emmanuel Paul) and comes to understand the extent of the secret domination exerted by Madame Beck at her school for young girls. Famous for its strangely reticent heroine and its diffidently unhappy ending, Villette tends to be regarded by the true connoisseur of fiction as Brontë’s finest novel, surpassing Jane Eyre. George Eliot and Virginia Woolf thought so.
Kazuo Ishiguro, to name another eminent successor of Brontë’s in English fiction, had this to say about Villette (via):
Almost everything I know about first-person narration comes from this novel. Its plot lacks the clean lines of Jane Eyre, but this is the richer, more daring achievement. What looks at first like laughably flowery language steadily builds into one of the most extraordinary narrative voices in literature. Lucy Snowe is a lonely young Englishwoman teaching in a provincial Belgian boarding school. What she relates has almost the texture of a diary in its patient attention to the everyday, but seethes with unspoken love— and almost indistinguishable from it, a yearning for a fuller, freer life. The ending is a heartbreaker.
I would suggest, then, that the contemporary reader can best approach Charlotte Brontë’s final novel as a distant ancestor of Never Let Me Go: the narrative of a sensitive, reasonable, subterraneanly passionate young woman who knows she is born to lose in this life and who therefore makes her small designs and takes her small triumphs when she can without ever imagining a total transformation of her context that would render her completely free. My edition has an introduction by the eminent critic Tony Tanner; he provides a more or less Marxist reading of the novel, according to Adorno’s negative aesthetic. On this theory, the novel registers the damage society has done to Lucy Snowe, which consequently compels the reader to grasp the necessity of revolutionizing society. But what if—even at the risk of attracting pejoratives such as “nihilist” or even, God forbid, “conservative”—we take these novels at their word and agree that, for the individual, there is really nothing to be done except the aesthetic-narrative arrangement of an experience that will not be redeemed by the coming of the secular messiah Marxism (and also its rival material eschatology, liberal capitalism) promises? The final chapter hauntingly begins: “Man cannot prophecy. Love is no oracle.” A hard saying, but maybe a necessary point of departure in the depiction of existence.
So if not Progress, what is left to us? This is a novel of interiors. It is a novel of small rooms, small privacies: a half-hidden path in a garden, a hiding-place in a tree trunk, a room like an undersea cave, an attic where one can read a letter, a desk where one can keep one’s books—even, at the happy ending before the unhappy ending, a “room of one’s own” for the heroine. And the novel itself is a hiding place for Lucy Snowe’s secret feelings, feelings she holds back even from the reader. She hides the identity of a new character for pages at a time; she leaves her feelings unexpressed, reporting only dialogue, words we sense are breaking her heart; she rarely tells us all she knows, and she ends the novel by not telling all she knows. Her book is her secret room, her attic, her undersea cave, where she can keep her treasures safe from prying eyes, including the reader’s. What I suspect began as a formal or stylistic question—how to generate suspense naturally or plausibly in a first-person narrative, given that an actual memoirist has no reason to conceal relevant facts and events from the reader—becomes a form of writing that invites us to a study of the narrator’s psyche, even as its silences and indirections also repulse us. The resulting difficulty of reading Lucy Snowe makes the reader more active, more critical, and ultimately more self-scrutinizing (what am I keeping from myself? how would I arrange my knowledge of my own life?). But just as the novel’s politics do not tempt us to revolt, so its psychology does not allow us to imagine that a person can be solved like a puzzle. The pleasure of difficult reading is, instead, the lesson; learning to be satisfied with what may be accomplished under insurmountable exigencies is, again, the teaching Lucy Snowe has for her literary pupils. Note her satisfaction in this crucial sentence:
Who wills, may keep his own counsel—be his own secret’s sovereign. In the course of that day, proof met me on proof, not only that the cause of my present sorrow was unguessed, but that my whole inner life for the last six months, was still mine only.
This is a novel of violated privacies, of interiors turned into prisons. Madame Beck’s school is the proverbial panopticon, and I am not anachronistic when I import Foucault’s concerns into this text: the words “surveillance,” “surveillant,” and “survey,” according to a search of an online text (searching online is a, or the, major form of surveillance in our time after all), collectively occur 28 times in the novel. The movement of the plot is Lucy’s gradual understanding of the net or snare her watchers have prepared for her. Fully as much as Oedipus or Hamlet, Lucy slowly recognizes the prison fate has constructed around her (“fate” occurs 23 times in the novel). So if she writes in a kind of code, an emotional cypher of scene and metaphor that can only be translated by the reader’s warm sympathy, she has her reasons. And if we, too, are in the prison of the world, we should also secure our treasures and communicate in the secret language of the heart, which is to say, literature.
This is a Protestant novel, or, more specifically, an anti-Catholic novel. (It is, likewise and for the same reasons, an English or anti-French novel.) “God is not with Rome,” Lucy tells us clearly. She is the devotee of bodiless reason and of its literary incarnation, prose. (The novel, considered as a literary form, here appears, as in later theorists from Lukács to Kundera to James Wood, as an agent of modern disillusion, an emancipating bearer of reason.) Catholicism is Brontë’s name for the society of spectacle and surveillance: it dazzles its habitués with the irrational pleasures of the flesh the better to addict them to its tyranny. It is a creed of sensuality and expedient inhumanity, a cult of the exterior with no regard for the inner life. It is the Catholics who spy on your secrets, interposing their “Moloch Church” between your soul and God. Whereas of Protestantism Lucy explains:
…doubtless there were errors in every church, but I now perceived by contrast how severely pure was my own, compared with her whose painted and meretricious face had been unveiled for my admiration. I told him how we kept fewer forms between us and God; retaining, indeed, no more than, perhaps, the nature of mankind in the mass rendered necessary for due observance. I told him I could not look on flowers and tinsel, on wax-lights and embroidery, at such times and under such circumstances as should be devoted to lifting the secret vision to Him whose home is Infinity, and His being—Eternity. That when I thought of sin and sorrow, of earthly corruption, mortal depravity, weighty temporal woe—I could not care for chanting priests or mumming officials; that when the pains of existence and the terrors of dissolution pressed before me—when the mighty hope and measureless doubt of the future arose in view—then, even the scientific strain, or the prayer in a language learned and dead, harassed: with hindrance a heart which only longed to cry—”God be merciful to me, a sinner!”
But this is also a novel with a persistent poetic idiom that gives evidence of Lucy’s susceptibility to flesh and mysticism, as well as her very writerly penchant for spying on others even as they spy on her. Largely this idiom is an Oriental or at least Southern one, with images from the Hebrew Bible, the Arabian Nights, Greek myth, and folklore serving as organizing symbols (and often chapter titles: “The Cleopatra,” “Vashti,” “The Dryad,” “Malevola,” “The Apple of Discord”) for Lucy’s experience. All of this pre-modern, un-English, non-Protestant allusion serves as Lucy’s resource for describing mental experiences beyond what reasonable prose could convey. Sometimes these experiences are beneath Lucy’s contempt, as with the sensuous painting of the sated Cleopatra that Lucy uses to symbolize what woman is reduced to under the Catholic/Eastern regime of individual moral indolence. But when Lucy sees the actress she likens to the Biblical queen Vashti, she has an experience of otherness and possible power that is too intense to be dismissed:
I had heard this woman termed “plain,” and I expected bony harshness and grimness—something large, angular, sallow. What I saw was the shadow of a royal Vashti: a queen, fair as the day once, turned pale now like twilight, and wasted like wax in flame.
For awhile—a long while—I thought it was only a woman, though an unique woman, Who moved in might and grace before this multitude. By-and-by I recognised my mistake. Behold! I found upon her something neither of woman nor of man: in each of her eyes sat a devil. These evil forces bore her through the tragedy, kept up her feeble strength—for she was but a frail creature; and as the action rose and the stir deepened, how wildly they shook her with their passions of the pit! They wrote HELL on her straight, haughty brow. They tuned her voice to the note of torment. They writhed her regal face to a demoniac mask. Hate and Murder and Madness incarnate she stood.
It was a marvellous sight: a mighty revelation.
It was a spectacle low, horrible, immoral.
Swordsmen thrust through, and dying in their blood on the arena sand; bulls goring horses disembowelled, made a meeker vision for the public—a milder condiment for a people’s palate—than Vashti torn by seven devils: devils which cried sore and rent the tenement they haunted, but still refused to be exorcised.
Suffering had struck that stage empress; and she stood before her audience neither yielding to, nor enduring, nor, in finite measure, resenting it: she stood locked in struggle, rigid in resistance. She stood, not dressed, but draped in pale antique folds, long and regular like sculpture. A background and entourage and flooring of deepest crimson threw her out, white like alabaster—like silver: rather, be it said, like Death.
No wonder some in the novel suspect Lucy of secret attraction to Catholicism, when she can look with such sympathy, however resistant, on the possessed actress. When Lucy is sent to the “Malevola” who holds some of her life’s secrets, she must go to the Rue des Mages; in the novel’s climactic phantasmagoria, in which Lucy wanders drugged through a midnight celebration in the city, the scenery is Egyptian. If some of the magic and the mysteries are dispelled by the end of the novel, they linger in the mind as plausible sources for its aesthetic power.
The novel may be literature’s attempt to triumph over myth; Protestantism may be Christianity’s attempt to triumph over paganism. But what if the heathen mysteries really are the treasures of our inner life, the lares in our secret room? This novel is a masterpiece to the extent that it fails to realize its didactic intention.
This novel is a masterpiece. Its insight into the problems of telling one’s own story lead on to Beckett and, yes, Ishiguro. Its picture of a conflict between modernity and the Old World, a conflict staged over a young woman’s conscience, strongly anticipates Henry James (this novel is in the background of The Portrait of a Lady). Its mystery of consciousness and desire foreshadows Woolf. Its endless complexity of ethics and imagery demand that it be read and re-read, because and not in spite of its difficulty. If Lucy Snowe instructs us in difficult pleasures, we who are pacified by titillating surfaces and without any Roman Church to blame for it, then she will have been one of our best teachers.