Charlotte Brontë’s 1853 novel, Villette, is impossible to read as pure fiction. In 1842, Charlotte and Emily Brontë traveled to Brussels, to teach English and music at a boarding school. Charlotte returned a year later. While she was there, she had the misfortune to fall in love with a married man (see below). Many of the events in the school portrayed in Villette have the ring of bitter experience about them, much as the events of her sister Anne’s novel Agnes Grey do. Of course, Charlotte adds her own Gothic touches (because I’m pretty sure she couldn’t resist). Villette is not her best work. It’s a muddle. But I think it’s a muddle because there is so much of her own life in it, and who can be objective about one’s own life?
Lucy Snowe has nearly always had to fend for herself. Her family were not rich, and they suffer an unexplained tragedy that leaves Lucy to pursue employment. She worked as a caretaker for a cranky old woman. The old lady stiffed Lucy in the end, so Lucy fled to Villette, in the fictional country of Labassecour (based on Brussels, Belgium). She initially finds work as a nanny to Mme. Beck. Beck eventually presses her into service as an English teacher. Beck likes to spy on her employees. Lucy knows full well, but doesn’t object. Her place at Mme. Beck’s school is comfortable enough. She succeeds with her students and Beck can find no fault with her. Mme. Beck’s cousin, M. Emmanuel, finds plenty of faults with Lucy. They spar regularly.
Villette is a meandering tale. The book is filled with Lucy’s observations of the people living around her. Ginevra Fanshawe, one of her students, is a flighty girl who loves to manipulate her suitors into giving her gifts. Paulina Home is an old acquaintance and is almost the complete opposite of Ginevra. Both are courted by Dr. Graham Bretton before Graham and Paulina find real love and Ginevra runs off with a French comte. Meanwhile, everyone—except M. Emmanuel—overlook Lucy. They ask her advice all the time about their relationships, callously ignoring her own unattached status and lack of prospects. Lucy manages to soldier on, for the most part. But M. Emmanuel keeps finding ways to get under her skin. They find they have many things in common, but Emmanuel seems to be trying to improve her by teaching her mathematics or commenting on her dress. At one point, he chillingly says, “You want so much checking, regulating, and keeping down” (Chapter XXXI).
The relationship between M. Emmanuel and Lucy is somewhat akin to the relationship between Mr Rochester and Jane in Jane Eyre. Emmanuel teases and prods and goads Lucy and she seems to enjoy it (for the most part) and provokes him to get more of his incandescent reactions. Emmanuel is harsher than Rochester, and takes the game a lot farther than the master of Thornfield does. The game is much more unsettling here, and I have to wonder what happened between Charlotte and M. Héger before she had to return to England. It’s impossible not to read autobiography into the relationships in Brontë’s novels.
It took me a very long time to get through Villette. Unless you’re prepared to watch your main character sit on the sidelines (and suffer through an unhappy ending) and narrate the activities of the cast, you’re going to get board. You’re going to want to yell at Lucy to stop putting up with Mme. Beck and Ginevra’s behavior. You’re going to want to take Lucy aside and tell her that she’s better than M. Emmanuel’s emotional games. She’s a singularly frustrating character. As I read Villette, I got some of the same feeling that I got reading Agnes Grey: a Brontë is working through her feelings and troubled life in fiction.