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.