Read an Excerpt
From Laura Engel’s Introduction to Villette
Unlike the straightforward narratives of Brontë’s earlier novels, particularly Jane Eyre, Villette is at times deliberately difficult to follow. With its mix of literary genres, the dizzying array of characters who appear, disappear, and appear again with different names, and a narrator who resists disclosure at the same moment that she is telling the story, the novel is a hall of mirrors, a descent into an uncanny world of deceptions and ambiguities. Throughout the book Brontë suggests that what you see is not always real, and that what you believe is imagined has its own haunting reality.
Lucy is narrating the story from her recollections of a distant past; she is the central actress in the novel, but also the novel’s principal ghost. As she tells us, “I speak of a time gone by: my hair which till a late period withstood the frosts of time, lies now, at last white, under a white cap, like snow beneath snow.” This is one of the few moments in the novel when Lucy refers to her present self. What we see is her past persona, the young Lucy coming of age, falling in love, bitterly disappointed and then finding romance again with a more appropriate and less conventional suitor. The narrative is an extended memory, and like all memories it is told through a series of emotions that have already occurred. Brontë captures this sense of doubleness, of existing in both the present and the past, through Lucy’s embodied and spectral personas. In imagining a heroine who remains ghostly and inaccessible, Brontë thwarts a strategy of reading that assumes complete knowledge and mastery. We cannot fully see and understand Lucy Snowe, in the same way that we will never be able to gain access to the real Charlotte Brontë.
The first scenes of Villette take place at Lucy’s godmother’s house, where she is a frequent guest. There is no quick summary of her background or childhood; instead we are introduced to Polly Home, the small, doll-like child who will be the focus of the beginning of the novel and will later return to become one of the central female characters in the book. Lucy’s role as narrator/spectator, the ambiguous figure in the room with no established place or remarkable qualities, contrasts sharply with the theatrical presence of the young Polly, who demands constant attention. Unlike the opening of Jane Eyre, when Jane is forced to endure the cruelty of her ruthless relatives, Lucy is an accepted figure in the Bretton household. Lucy’s motivations and passions are less clearly defined than Jane’s enraged outbursts and steely silences. We hear very little about how Lucy feels in this domestic situation where she is both wanted and ignored. She becomes a kind of mothering figure for Polly, whose own mother, “a very pretty, but a giddy, careless woman,” had abandoned her. Polly is dealing with her father’s absence and her newfound love, Mrs. Bretton’s son Graham.
Lucy watches as Polly transfers her attachment from her father to an obsession with the young Bretton:
With curious readiness did she adapt herself to such themes as interested him. One would have thought the child had no mind or life of her own, but must necessarily live, move, and have her being in another: now that her father was taken from her, she nestled to Graham, and seemed to feel by his feelings: to exist in his existence. She learned the names of all his schoolfellows in a trice; she got by heart their characters as given from his lips: a single description of an individual seemed to suffice. She never forgot or confused identities: she would talk with him the whole evening about people she had never seen, and appear completely to realize their aspect, manners, and dispositions.
Brontë seems to be juxtaposing Polly’s visible development with Lucy’s invisible adolescence. Throughout these early chapters she hints that there is something haunting and perverse about Polly’s unquestioning faith in the passive, debilitating sacrifices of being female. Polly is described as an object, “a mere doll; her neck, delicate as wax,” and as a spirit, “a small ghost gliding over the carpet,” and as “some precocious fanatic or untimely saint.” Polly’s function as a doll, a picture, and a wax figure suggests that she is a fixed and static representation of femininity. Her saintly, ghost-like qualities are manifestations of her manic, almost religious dedication to the process of becoming a woman. When she sits embroidering with her needle, a “perverse weapon,” she remains “silent, diligent, absorbed, womanly.” Polly’s devotion to Graham, which involves memorization, mimicry, undivided focus, and a complete immersion of her identity with his, is a kind of primer for the expectations of a good wife. Polly is in the process of materializing—the reader has the sense of who she will become even at six years old—but, we seem to be led to ask, what will become of Lucy?