The Fate of a Genteel Career Woman: Lucy Snowe in “Villette”

In Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, the narrator, Lucy Snowe, a poor, genteel young woman, is lucky to find a job teaching English at a girls’ school in Villette (a fictitious city based on Brussels).   

Brontë’s masterpiece, Villette, is a dark take on her more popular novel, Jane Eyre.  Like Jane, the penurious Lucy is an orphan.  She is plain. She has no relatives or connections. And the  kind old woman to whom she was a paid companion has died.

Most of the women characters in Villette – all except the teachers and servants – have the opportunity to  marry. As for Lucy, her prospects of marriage are scant.  Remember Newsweek’s notorious claim in 1986 that women over 40 were “more likely to be killed by a terrorist than find a mate”?  This famous line was not based on statistics – it was printed to sell magazines – but much the same thing was probably gabbled in the 19th century about poor genteel English women over, say, 20.  Lucy is only 23, but seems doomed to spinsterhood.  (The sell-by date was younger then.)

Like modern women, plain or pretty, Lucy lived under the shadow of this future Newsweek scare.  Unlike the heroines of BBC costume dramas, she would not be discovered at a ball or weekend party by a dazzling, charming, preferably rich gentleman.  Lucy wishes she could marry and have a home, but knows how unlikely it is.

Modern women have the same problems.  As for the marriage prospects of single or divorced women in the late 20th century and the zips, we cannot pretend they were sanguine.  Love scenes did not unfold like a Netflix comedy:  you would not meet the ideal man at a club, i.e., a dimly-lit, gritty warehouse with black walls, loud bands, and terrible acoustics, nor would you metamorphose into Meg Ryan and end up with Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle.  And the darling friend who urged you to place a personals ad was a fantasist:  she was sure you could meet the owner of a baseball team (“We’re not Jane Fonda!”), the director of an orchestra (dubious, as we did not listen to classical music)  or the wealthy director of a private charitable foundation (our reaction was blank, because we couldn’t imagine such a person).              

Single, solitary Lucy courageously travels to Belgium, thinking it will be an adventure and that she might as well starve there as in London.   Arriving in Villette at night, she has two experiences with men, one comforting and the other terrifying.  An English gentleman gives her directions to an affordable hotel and accompanies her part of the way; but then she is stalked by two intimidating men, runs away, and ends up serendipitously in front of the school where she finds a job. 

And so Lucy becomes a career woman.  She has 60 students in a class, all of whom are ready to rebel at any sign of weakness.  She establishes her dominance on the first day by pushing an unruly girl into a cabinet and locking her in.  This is not an acceptable practice, of course,   but even the other girls empathize with Lucy, because they dislike the troublemaker and respect Lucy for quelling a riot in her class.  (Ah, this would make a great film, like Up  the Down Staircase, The Emperor’s Club,  To Serve Them All My Days, To Sir with Love, and maybe even Bad Teacher!)

Much is made of Lucy’s quietness, her grey dresses, her uneasiness when she is given a pink dress, and her general invisibility.  

But she isn’t quite invisible. By chance, Lucy meets and falls in love with Dr. Graham, a young doctor who is called in when the girls at school are sick.  He likes Lucy  – he saves her life when a priest finds her collapsed on the street with delirium and illness – but he certainly doesn’t love her.  When Lucy regains consciousness, she is in a bed in a strange room, and yet not totally strange, because she recognizes the furniture of her godmother, Mrs. Bretton.  Lucy learns that Mrs. Bretton has  moved to  Villette and that Graham is her son.  And so Lucy becomes their pet and is frequently invited to concerts and theater.

But Lucy is Graham’s pal, not his girlfriend.  He confides in her about the two women he falls in love with.

It is difficult to maintain the role of buddy, and it doesn’t help that Graham regards her as the perfect friend. 

At one point Graham says,”I believe if you had been a boy, Lucy, instead of a girl – my mother’s god-son instead of her god-daughter -we should have been good friends:  our opinions would have melted into each other.”

Basically he is saying they are soulmates, but he doesn’t want to think of her as a woman. Later, she wonders if  Graham would have regarded her differently if she had had money or was of a higher class, like the two women he falls in love with.

Perhaps Lucy is more attractive than she thinks.  She has a suitor, M. Paul, the literature teacher at the school.  He is ugly, bossy, histrionic, snoopy – he goes through her desk – and I find him exasperating, even though he gives her books and chocolates.  Lucy finds him ridiculous at first, but gradually comes to appreciate his good qualities.  He is definitely second-best.

Villette is a brilliant novel, with a surprising ending that shows you Charlotte doesn’t always aim to please.  This novel isn’t exactly about work, or love, or triangulation (so many triangles!), or marriage:  it is a portrait of the messy, scraped-togethr lives of poor, genteel women in the 19th century.

“Shirley” by Charlotte Bronte: Romance and the Industrial Revolution

Writers’ museums are enjoyable, yet boring. I considered traveling from London to Haworth, The Bronte Parsonage Museum, but it seemed too complicated, and would probably be  too touristy anyway.  Even the Dickens Museum is too touristy.  There are do’s and don’ts:  don’t linger in Dickens’ dining room, because you will not want to see plate settings labeled John Forster and Thackeray.  It is also, if I remember correctly, a  talking dining room, with a loop of The Pickwick Papers set on “forever.”  Do go upstairs and look at Dickens’s desk, specially designed for his readings.  I love the upper floors of the Dickens museum

I fear that Haworth’s dining room might recite Jane Eyre.  In fact, the only writers’ museums I can honestly recommend are in Nebraska:  Willa Cather’s in Red Cloud and Bess Streeter Aldrich’s in Elmwood.

The Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, West Yorkshire

Charlotte Bronte is, of course,  best known for Jane Eyre and Villette, both masterpieces, while her novel, Shirley, which she finished in 1849, after the deaths of her siblings Branwell, Emily and Anne, is unfairly overlooked. 

Shirley is an entertaining, well-written, serious book, if wildly uneven.  One gets the feeling that the mourning Charlotte lost her sense of form when she went back to writing Shirley.  It begins as an industrial novel, set in Yorkshire, centered on the clash between workers and manufacturers in 1811.  But soon it turns into a romance, and a fascinating study of women’s depression.

Bronte begins by introducing us to a a comic trio of  curates.

Of late years, an abundant shower of curates has fallen upon the north of England: they lie very thick on the hills; every parish has one or more of them; they are young enough to be very active, and ought to be doing a great deal of good.  

And then we meet Mr. Helstone, a well-respected, crusty clergyman, who interrupts the curates’ party, and commands Malone, his Irish curate, to accompany him to Robert Moore’s mill.  Moore expects trouble: he has ordered new machinery to be delivered. And many of his out-of-work employees, whom he has fired because of a trade embargo during the Napoleonic Wars, are militant.  And indeed there is violence:  the wagons are stopped and the machinery broken.

I am fond of Victorian novels about industrial change:  I love Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, a masterpiece, and Mary Barton.  In fact, Charlotte was worried when Mary Barton was published before Shirley, in case it affected sales and reviews.

But never mind:  Shirley is not entirely an industrial novel.   Bronte abruptly changes tack  and focuses on the heroine, Caroline Helstone, an intelligent young woman who has been brought up by her unaffectionate uncle, Mr. Helstone.  He wrecks Caroline’s happiness when he forbids her to spend time with  Hortense Moore, Robert Moore’s sister, who is teaching her French, mathematics, and English literature.  The Moores are Caroline’s Belgian cousins. Mr. Helstone fears that Robert may want to marry Caroline, for the little money she has.  (Mr. Helstone miscalculates:  there is not enough money for cold, calculating -yet supposedly lovable- Robert.)

Caroline in solitude changes overnight from a charming, lively woman into a depressed, mousy, miserable girl.  Caroline is completely alone, so she follows a schedule, studying, doing good works, and exercising every day.  She tells her uncle she would like to go away find a position as a governess.  He is angry, because of class reasons:  Caroline will never have to work, he says, and he will not allow it.  

But what is Caroline to do in the village?

We do not meet the heiress, Shirley Keeldar, until page 203 (the Everyman’s Libray edition).  And so I cannot seriously regard Shirley as the heroine and think the title is a misnomer. The heroine is Caroline, and that should be the title.

But Shirley’s move to Fieldhead saves Caroline from despair. The two become best friends, yet Caroline still longs to go away and work.  And, because she pines for Robert (and has no work) she becomes very ill and falls into a terrible depression. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this odd book.  Yes, it rambles, but Charlotte Bronte is brilliant, witty, and is one of the best – perhaps the best – writers of the 19th century. 

I don’t know the history or politics, but Bronte takes the side of the mill owners, because they cannot compete internationally unless they mechanize; yet she is fair to the unemployed mill workers and their starving families on a personal level. 

A Psychological Bildungsroman: Love and Morals in Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre”

Jane Eyre isn’t exactly chill,” a friend said when I admitted Jane Eyre had lifted my mood.

Any shade of “chill” I ever attained has been erased by the struggles and weariness of the pandemic.  This month, I fell off the chill charts and climbed to the far edge of the intense Jane Eyre “spectrum.” Charlotte Brontë’s classic, Jane Eyre, is one of the most intense Gothic romances of the 19th century. Charlotte’s Villette is a better book, but Jane Eyre is certainly the most popular.

For most of us,  Jane Eyre proves a role model after we outgrow Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. Like Jo in Little Women and Anne (of Green Gables), Jane is intense, intelligent, passionate, ethical, honest, and has moral vision. Jane Eyre is the best of these three books; indeed, it is a perfect book.  Jane argues ethics with an intensity her fictional sisters can’t match. But what Jo and Anne have, and Jane lacks, is humor.

Charlotte Brontë herself had a sense of humor: consider the scintillating remarks of Jane’s dark, witty, worldly suitor, Mr. Rochester. The following exchange is typical.

“I only remind you of your own words, sir:  you said error brought remorse, and you pronounced remorse the poison of existence.”

…”Once more, how do you know?  By what instinct do you pretend to distinguish between a fallen seraph of the abyss and a messenger from the eternal throne–between a guide and a seducer?”

This is my copy: the Heritage Press edition (1974)

Rereading Jane Eyre is the best idea I’ve had in months. It is a book to get lost in–and I began it on a gloomy, rainy day, like the one Jane describes on the first page. “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further outdoor exercise was now out of the question.”

Brontë’s detailed account of Jane’s psychological coming-of-age follows her from an orphan bullied by her sadistic cousin John at Aunt Reed’s house, where Jane has reluctantly been given shelter; to Lowood School, a charity school for girls, where the teachers try hard but the students are starved by the appalling minister, Mr Brocklehurst, until a typhus epidemic kills the majority of students.  After Lowood is reformed, Jane becomes one of the best students, and then teaches there for two years.

But girlhood–even the extended girlhood of teaching at one’s old school–must end eventually, and Jane decides to leave when the head of the school, Miss Temple, gets married. Jane advertises in the paper for a position and becomes the governess at Thornfield Hall.

Jane is a happy governess–unlike the narrator of Agnes Grey, the autobiographical novel by Charlotte’s sister, Anne Bronte. Jane enjoys teaching her flighty charge, Adele, the daughter of a French dancer and possibly an illegitimate byblow of Mr. Rochester’s–and Jane and the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax, become close friends.

When Mr. Rochester comes back to Thornfield Hall, there are conversations and parties. Brilliant, witty, and ugly, he is not the typical hero. But he and Jane, a plain, small, thin 18-year-old, spar back and forth and fall in love. Like Mrs. Fairfax, who says Rochester is old enough to be Jane’s father, we wonder if he’s a father figure. And yet this age difference is so common in 19th-century novels:  think of Emma and Knightley, who we assume will be happy when they marry. But then, of course, there are novels by Trollope, such as The Way We Live Now and Phineas Finn, in which an age difference in marriage has a bad psychological effect on a woman (Lady Carbury and her older husband; Laura Kennedy and Mr. Kennedy).

Lithograph by Barnett Freedman, “Jane Eyre” (Heritage Press)

Jane and Rochester believe they will be happy. And then–what could be more Gothic?– their wedding is interrupted at the altar, because someone testifies that Rochester is already married.  Rochester is forced to tell the story of his mad wife Bertha, who is locked up in the attic (from which she occasionally escapes to set Rochester’s room on fire or to rip up Jane’s wedding veil). Rochester’s well-told story is as mesmerizing as the best short stories of the 19th century. But on this reading, I noticed for the first time that Rochester admits Bertha sometimes has “lucid” spells for weeks at a time. It’s a small detail–but it does help us understand why Jean Rhys wrote her novel Wide Sargasso Sea from the point of view of Bertha. (I do not particularly admire Wide Sargasso Sea, but I do admire Rhys’s other novels and her autobiography.)

This time around, I am also appreciating the final part of the novel, when Jane leaves Rochester, starves and faints, and meets St. John, the rigid minister, and his lovely sisters, Diana and Mary. These scenes are very quiet after the excitement of Thornfield Hall. And yet I am fascinated by Jane’s new job, as teacher at a village girls’ school, where many are illiterate.  The idea of “doing good”  instead of being a pampered governess, or a beloved wife at Thornfield Hall, is preeminent.

In Jane Eyre, some characters are obviously  based on Charlotte’s family. Diana and Mary are Charlotte’s sisters, Emily and Anne Bronte. And at Lowood, Jane’s friend and role model, Helen, who dies of consumption, seems to be based on one of Charlotte’s older sisters who died at school. (N.B. I haven’t read a biography of Charlotte in years, so I am a bit fuzzy about this point.)  As for Rochester, he seems far too passionate anr rakish to correspond to any lover in Charlotte’s life, and St. John too fussy for a love object (though handsome).  But Charlotte was madly in love with  a married teacher/headmaster of a school in Brussels where she taught. (He is portrayed as M. Paul in Charlotte’s Villette.) Perhaps Charlotte decided to mix up a little Byron with the headmaster.  Why not?  It’s fiction.

Jane Eyre seems to ask, What is the best direction to take in life?  The ending is unexpected–not at all romantic, in my view, though many find it so. Jane has more determination and fearlessness than most women, as she proves as the Gothic grows more Gothic than Gothic in the final scene.   Jane’s moral decisions make us think we could run away to face poverty, hunger, and loneliness for the sake of goodness.

For Jane, it’s more than that.  Rochester broke moral and actual laws.  A happy ending or a sad ending?  It’s strange.  You decide.

%d bloggers like this: