Villette – Charlotte Bronte

3 January 2010
Chapters 1-10
About one-fifth of the way through, and Lucy Snowe is… well, what is she? She won’t tell us, so we don’t know. We’re getting one of those Bronte first-person narrators, and in 95% of this novel so far she’s telling us about other people, not herself. Ok, maybe there are a few pages spent on Lucy’s own (literal) journey from Blighty to Belgium – but even those are either brief reports of what happens to her or descriptions of the people she meets. There’s one moment on the trip where Bronte highlights for us exactly what she’s doing: she has Lucy oblige the reader by not going into the boring details of her first impressions of places. In other words, if we want an inkling of any of her interior life, we‘re going to be disappointed: so far, this has been a 90-odd page disappearing act.

Something else: most of the ten chapter titles so far are the names of places or people other than Lucy herself. And we see the disappearing act right from the start. At Bretton, her little relative Paulina doesn’t notice her, and is only reconciled to a stay at the place when someone other than Lucy comes along: young Graham. As far as I can work out he’s around the same age as Lucy, but he doesn’t notice her either. From, approximately, Chapter 1 we understand that Lucy is to be an observer of how other people interact with one another. To quote from how the dashing English doctor regards her in Chapter 10, she is accorded the same amount of notice as ‘unobtrusive articles of furniture… and carpets of no striking pattern’. And when the doctor notices her observing him and speaks to her, she resorts to simply – nothing. She pretends he hasn’t said a word, so neither does she. Blimey, she’s not merely turning her back on the rules of romantic fiction, she‘s tearing them into shreds. And, to any objective spectator, it looks bonkers.

So. Lucy Snowe goes through life imitating wallpaper…. But at the same time we know there’s more to her than she’s letting on. Examples: when she runs out of options she gets on a coach to London, alone, and sails to a fictionalised Belgium, alone; there, having found herself outside the girls’ school in Villette mentioned by a girl fellow-traveller she’s met, she goes in and makes it clear she’s not leaving; as a nursery nurse she impresses the boss and is given the chance to prove herself as a teacher – which she does, very capably, from lesson one.

And we do get a couple of brief glimpses of somebody lurking behind the mask… although, come to think of it, I’m not sure how revealing they really are. First, there’s a cataclysmic loss in her life, one that leaves her without any family. She tells us neither how it happens, who exactly dies, nor how she feels about it. Before this, without telling us, she lets us know that she’s never really been bothered about her family anyway. She does a very characteristic thing: after she‘s been away for months ‘it will be conjectured that I was… glad to return to the bosom of my kindred. Well! The amiable conjecture does no harm….’ She allows us to imagine – without letting us believe any of it – that for eight years she lives the kind of untroubled halcyon existence any woman would live under such circumstances. That’s our Lucy. Then comes ‘a wreck of some sort’, she must ‘somehow have fallen overboard’. Just don‘t ask her how, because she’s not telling.

The other fleeting glimpse is in the context of the weirdly gothic portents surrounding Miss Marchmont’s death. ‘Three times in my life events had taught me that these strange accents in the storm… denote a coming state in the atmosphere unpropitious to life.’ Blimey. We seem to be getting two separate personas. The one Lucy presents to the world – and, most of the time, to the reader – lacks any of the basic requirements of a romantic heroine in the middle of the 19th Century: if we are to believe her – and what else can we do? – she’s lacking in any desire to relate to other people, Snowe through and through. If we believe her. But then we get those hints of an inner life that entirely belies this carapace. In 1853, has Bronte created the first unreliable narrator in fiction?

Something else militates against the invisible woman act: she has her own very strong opinions, particularly with regard to proper conduct in general and religious belief in particular. She makes it absolutely clear that Madame Beck’s Jesuitical approach – tricking the girls, including her own daughters, into right behaviour rather than by spelling out the correct moral choices – simply won’t do. Our narrator is very quick to judge others, as we‘ve seen, for example in the way the beneficiary of Miss Marchmont’s will falls sadly short in the good works department. And when she becomes the confidante of the girl she met on the boat she’s happy to tell her exactly how far short she is falling in every moral respect regarding her treatment of the young man who seems to love her. The girl, inevitably, considers her a crashing bore,

What I’m not sure about yet is the extent to which Bronte is on Lucy Snowe’s side – and therefore how much she wants us to be. Is this daughter of the parsonage holding Lucy up as a model of the good Protestant in this lying, manipulative Catholic country? Or, well, not? Lucy complains about Madame’s ‘shoes of silence’ and the endless spying she does – while all the time she presents a persona to the outside world that hides absolutely everything about herself. It’s after all this that we get the furniture and carpets remark, expressed not without a kind of inverted pride. Exactly what game is she playing?

4 January
Chapters 11-15
In some editions this is the end of Volume 1. Lucy’s just fallen into a far more fully described abyss – her word for it – than the one caused by the unspecified family catastrophe of Chapter 4. She’s had a long, dark autumn of the soul; she’s even – gasp! – been to a Catholic church and spoken to the priest in the confession box. But that’s not the abyss she tumbles into: she appears to regard Catholicism as Victorian missionaries regarded the pantheism of what they would have called heathen savages. All she needed was someone to talk to… which is exactly what she’s not getting in the long vacation. It seems that this self-contained, solitude-seeking young woman needs human contact more than we might have expected.

Or maybe we’re not so surprised. Enough has happened in these five chapters for us to realise that beneath the surface of Lucy Snowe there are no arctic wastes after all. Teasingly, there’s an oblique reference to the iciness of young ladies in a different context: ’Votre chair est de neige, votre sang de glace? Moi, je veux que tout cela s’allume….’ This is M. Paul, trying to goad the young pupils into showing a bit of passion in the school play he‘s directing, but it turns out to have a different significance with regard to Lucy. She’s having nothing to do with the play, obviously – until one of his leads pulls out and he needs a quick replacement. For the second time at the school Lucy is persuaded to scrape herself off the wall (the first was when she had to choose whether to teach a class, or face long years of being no more than a nursery nurse) and – she’s brilliant.

It’s not the fact that she’s brilliant that is Lucy Snowe-ish; it’s her response afterwards. Having discovered a natural bent for method acting a century before Stanislavski, she turns her back on it and vows she’ll never, ever do it again: ‘this new-found faculty might gift me with a world of delight, but it would not do for a mere looker-on at life.’ Aargh! Why the hell not? And, surely, that’s how Bronte wants us to react. Her chosen path leads to a complete dead end: it’s in the very next chapter that she finds herself alone – because, although this isn’t spelt out, she hasn’t given a thought to what she’ll do when everyone else leaves on holiday. Moron. It’s no surprise that the end chapter 15 has her pitching ‘headlong into an abyss’ – or that, at the beginning of the next chapter, she will remember nothing about ‘where my soul went’ while it was down there.

So, a rich interior life indeed in a character who, even at this point in the novel, seeks to reveal absolutely nothing of herself to anybody. She still goes for the colourless dresses, insists on how plain and uninteresting she is.

It’s an act, but at the moment I’m not sure how much of it is conscious – how much, as I implied before, she’s as devious as the scheming women around her. As the narrator, she’s constantly wrong-footing us, perhaps making it clear that she’s not telling us the whole story but, in so doing, avoiding telling us anything helpful. In these five chapters we begin to find ourselves in the realms of romantic fiction. And just because Lucy pretends all that has nothing to do with her, well, we have to take her version of herself with a truckload of salt.

One evening she’s invisibly haunting the bit of garden that is more or less her own at that time of day. Something is thrown: a casket containing a billet-doux. Dashing Dr John, well, dashes to retrieve it – because he wants to save one of the girl pupils from scandal. Madame Beck is as intrigued as Lucy is – that’s the kind of story we’re in now – and even goes as far as searching through Lucy’s desk to see if she has anything to do with it. (There’s an extraordinary scene in which Lucy observes her at it – but withdraws, not letting on. She’s as calculating as Madame: catching her red-handed would lead to embarrassment and, probably, her own dismissal.) Later, as a part of this plot-thread, the doctor is about to tell Lucy who is the girl involved in the billets-doux – but a sneeze on the landing tells them both that Madame has been listening, so we’ll have to find out later.

It turns out, eventually, to be Ginevre Fanshawe, the girl Lucy first met on the boat and who comes to represent a romantic type in this part of the novel. We see this spelt out in a set piece scene in which she and Lucy stand side-by-side before a full-length mirror. They are precise opposites and – if we are to believe her – Lucy would hate to be Ginevre as much as Ginevre would hate to be Lucy. I’m not saying that’s not true, but… you don’t have to be an ignorant little ninny to be a romantic heroine, and maybe this whole scene is a smokescreen. Later it turns out that the man she’s stringing along, one she’s taken to referring to as Isidore, is in fact Dr John. So he’s another romantic type, perhaps, the capable, brilliantly well set-up young man in love with a coquette…. It looks like it, but I’m reluctant to take anything at face value in this devious place Bronte has taken us to.

And then there’s M. Paul. Everything about him is problematic: his looks, his temper. In the rom-com universe he’s the comic relief, everything that, say, Dr John isn’t. Fine. But he’s the one who can see through Lucy’s armour-plating to the real person beneath: he’s certain she will succeed in the play, for instance, and when it comes to the examinations he knows she’ll be perfectly capable of conducting the English exam as well as he conducts all the others. They’re obviously made for one another.

One last thing in this novel published only six years after Wuthering Heights: the gothic. It’s there in Lucy’s descriptions of the terrifying thoughts she has during the many dark nights she spends alone – as it was there in the Banshee wails that presaged the death of the old woman in a much earlier chapter. And it’s there in the legend of the ghostly nun who allegedly haunts this former convent. Lucy doesn’t believe a word of it, obviously – but the sister of Emily does not introduce such an idea unless she’s going to do something with it later. Whatever world it is that we’re in, with its nightmarish visions and irrationally un-Protestant superstitions, we’re definitely not in Kansas any more.

5 January
Chapter 16 – first few pages
And then we are. In Kansas, I mean: Lucy wakes from her fever to a room full of furniture and objects that are completely familiar from her past. Is it magic? Is she in the throes of some fantasy? Has she been spirited away by some genie – she even uses the word in describing the maid who gives her some soothing potion – in other words, are we in a truly gothic novel? (She even uses the word ‘wuther’ for good measure.)

Don’t be ridiculous. As we guess almost from the start of the chapter, Lucy – who knows the outcome, even if we don’t – is playing one of her tricks on us. To be charitable, one might say that she, or Bronte, is allowing us an inside view of waking from a fever. Or… she’s satirising the kind of sensation novel then becoming popular, with all its gothic accoutrements. In fact Lucy – or Bronte – is wedded to the rational, and there is always an explanation. The Banshee wail early on is only the wind; the twisting, threatening streets that help to bring on her collapse only seem so in her fevered mind.

But – and this is the weirdness of this particular narrative universe – she always feeds the truth to us drip by drip, and indulges the fantasy before puncturing it. For, reader, in one of those coincidences that fill this novel, she’s been rescued hundreds of miles from home by one of the tiny handful of people she knows. It’s Graham, and the familiar objects are his mother’s. How silly to imagine there could be any other explanation – and how corny of Bronte to pull such a fast one. Plausibility? Not important when there’s a narrative coup to be pulled out of the hat.

One other thing. She sees the portrait of Graham at the age he was when she knew him, and describes how closely she used to examine it in those days. ‘Any romantic little schoolgirl might have loved it’ – and then she spends nearly a page trying to convince us that she doesn’t fall into that category, oh no. We’re learning to believe almost nothing of what this woman tells us of herself – because it’s absolutely clear from the description that the invisible little 14-year-old was in love with him.

10 January
Chapters 16 (cont) to 22…
…i.e roughly the first half of Volume 2. Chapter 16 carries on as it started: if we thought she’d finished with all the credibility-stretching twists and surprises, we were wrong – because, reader, it turns out that Graham is really Dr John. Lucy didn’t realise straight away when she first saw him – he was the helpful gent who showed her the way to an inn when she first arrived in the town, as well as the doctor everyone in the school prefers to their old one – but, nutter that she is, she simply filed the information away and didn’t mention it. (When was it I decided this woman was a consummately unreliable narrator? And what word did people use before the word ’tricksy’ was invented?)

So, phew, I didn’t see that one coming…. But I’m being a bit more on my guard now. For instance, in Chapter 22 Lucy has just seen the ghostly nun, and the vision is described in all its gothic weirdness. You wait, it will turn out to be the cleaner, and she’d only covered her face in a gauze to avoid the dust. Or it’s bloody Ginevre Fanshawe come to spy on her. It definitely isn’t a ghost.

Other things in these chapters aren’t so easy to second-guess. It’s clear, as I’ve said, that Lucy is not nearly as free of Dr John Graham as she likes to pretend. It isn’t clear how much she herself knows this: she refers at one point in (I think) Chapter 22 to looking back on these times after years have passed, when she can be more dispassionate. (That isn’t quite the word she uses.) Her method could be justified – as I think I’ve argued myself – by suggesting that she often aims to reveal things to us as they became revealed to her in the distant past time she’s describing. But she isn’t consistent: she knows about the true identity of Dr John months before we do, just as she knows about the rational explanations for bizarre events before we do. But she likes her little games.

So anyway. These are the chapters in which Bronte really goes to town on the Eligibility Dance. If it were a Jane Austen novel we’d be able to guess the outcome more easily: Lucy would get Dr John, Ginevre would get the jumped-up little puppy she’s been stringing along… and M. Paul would get – who? Maybe nobody. But Bronte is offering us a weird twist on romantic fiction, and I don’t know what’s going on. Except Lucy is obsessed with Dr John, he is/isn’t obsessed with Ginevre, M Paul is obsessed with Lucy, (the bad temper he tries to hide behind only serving to prove how helpless he is), Ginevre is just playing silly games.

Ginevre and Dr John. In these chapters Lucy/Bronte bring that affair to an end. Except a door’s been left open. The scales (allegedly) fall from his eyes when he takes Lucy and his mother to the theatre as part of Lucy’s recovery from her near-breakdown. Ginevre is there, with the jumped-up puppy and a friend of hers. She plays a dangerous game, provoking Dr John: she turns to the friend and appears to be mocking not only him but also his mother. Dr J is furious and, if we are to believe him, it is now over. Finished. Bu..ut… we know this narrator – as in , we know nothing’s ever simple. And a few chapters later he’s changed his tune: Ginevere would have to declare her eternal, unreserved love (etc. etc.) for her ever to have a chance with him again. In other words, it isn’t over at all.

And, once Lucy’s two-week holiday with the Brettons is over, there’s M Paul. He’s odd, he’s unattractive in hundreds of little ways – and he appears to be absolutely fascinated by Lucy. In Volume 1, he was hugely impressed by her performance – and, on the quiet, by her teaching as well. In Volume 2 he seems to have her moral welfare at heart: he accosts her – there’s no other word for it – when he sees her looking at a Rubens nude in the art gallery, and takes her to a more suitable room in which she can contemplate moralising pictures about the proper duties of women. Later, when he finds out a letter has arrived for her from the Doctor – the same doctor who was seen with her at the theatre – he is apoplectic with rage, reduces her and her whole class to tears when he brings it to her and, basically, behaves like a besotted idiot. Well.

This letter gets a chapter to itself. It’s a letter from one friend to another… except Lucy behaves towards it as though a perusal of its contents will transform her existence. She goes on about how she is perfectly aware that he could never be her lover, that the impossibility of such an outcome has always prevented her from even having even the microscopic germ of the very idea… and carries on behaving like the besotted schoolgirl she’s been since the beginning of Volume 2. Unreliable, Lucy? I couldn’t possibly comment. But she takes the letter up to the highest attic, the one M Paul had locked her in to rehearse her part, and would have stayed there for hours if she hadn’t been disturbed by that pesky nun apparition. And when she can’t find the letter afterwards – Dr John has (ahem) mischievously pocketed it to test her reaction – she is beside herself. Having judged her reaction satisfactory, he subsequently sends more letters – and she has to write two replies to each one: one from the heart and one that she can actually send. Oh dear.

16 January
Chapters 23-27
I.e. the second half of Volume 2. How should we behave? What should women – and men – be like in their dealings with one another? These questions aren’t asked openly, but this section of the novel answers them anyway. Ok, they’ve been dealt with earlier as well, but here Lucy, or Bronte, seems to have created a parade of types and behaviours for us to judge. And it really is about judging: Volume 2 ends with Lucy having given the incorrigible Ginevre a ‘moral drubbing’ for her crapness, and everything the flighty young woman has done during this chapter is designed so that we applaud Lucy’s treatment of her. Blimey, Bronte really is the daughter of the parsonage.

These are the chapters in which Lucy moves seamlessly into a higher social level but, this being the novel it is, there has to be some misery first. The thin-blooded consolations of Dr John’s letters come to an end when he forgets to carry on writing. For seven long weeks Lucy appears to have simply disappeared from the Brettons’ consciousness, and she isn’t happy about it. But then he’s suddenly at her door wanting her to get ready for the theatre. So that’s all right. (What do we think about this behaviour? Well?) At the theatre they see the actress Vashti, who appears to be some kind of almost diabolical force of nature. Lucy is astounded by this extraordinary take on womanhood, and is surprised that Dr John appears not to be as astounded as she is. But Vashti is just the next in the parade, and before we know it –

– there’s a fire, and more behaviour for us to have a look at. These Continentals don’t seem to have heard of Women and children first – it really is as crude as that – and a girl gets knocked down by a brute of a man…. Anyway, who could this girl, who is English, possibly be? It isn’t anyone from the school, but Bronte never introduces us to anybody new, so… it must be little Paulina from the Bretton days. And you’ll never guess: she’s a cousin of Ginevre, as we discover when they get back to the hotel where her father, now miraculously transformed into an aristocrat, is renting a suite of rooms. Ah well, you don’t expect plausibility in the sort of moral fable we seem to be getting now…. And it gives Bronte the chance to let us compare and contrast the cousins. Basically, Paulina gets everything right while Ginevre… but you know the score by now. I have to say they strike me as merely differently dull.

I suppose Bronte has to get Lucy out of the school – Madame Beck specifically gives her permission when she realises what exalted circles she’s penetrated – so that we can explore and judge a new set of attitudes. And, of course, someone new has joined the Eligibility Dance. There’s one evening, in Chapter 27 I think, when Lucy and Dr John practically become a judging panel as they observe the cousins. Ok, it’s not as simple as that: it’s made very complicated indeed by Lucy’s growing resentment that Dr John does not seem to recognise that she’s in the Dance at all. To him she’s a mouse, or at best a conduit between him and the more interesting women.

I don’t know whether we’re supposed to see the irony of Lucy resenting him seeing only the persona she presented for months when their adult paths first crossed. She didn’t even reply when he first spoke to her. There definitely is an irony, however, about the way Lucy bridles at Dr John’s treatment of her when the previous chapter was dedicated to ‘a Burial’: on the pretext of hiding her cache of letters from prying eyes she buries them. What makes the burial more than pragmatic is the ritual she brings to it: she buys a special bottle, finds a special place, even finds some mortar to make sure nobody’s going to resurrect them, no sirree Ma’am. (And I’ve changed my mind: Bronte wants us to see the inconsistent and eccentric behaviour of this woman far more clearly that Lucy can herself.)

But anyway – to the subject of the behaviour of men. Throughout the novel Graham/Dr John has been the model of charm and affability, whereas the only other man in Lucy’s world, M Paul, is crusty, opinionated, Jesuitical – and doesn’t even try to hide his bad temper. And yet, and yet…. Absolutely every criticism that he makes of Lucy, though usually wrong-headed, is offered in a spirit of caring for her eternal soul. He genuinely seems to think that she’s somehow making a fool of herself with Dr John, so he hisses outrageously critical things at her – then apologises. In fact, it’s the apology he makes near the end of Volume 2, the one accompanied by the first real smile Lucy’s ever seen on his face, that makes him seem the more fully rounded of the two men. Dr John never thinks about Lucy – she calculates at one point that he hasn’t spoken to her for three solid months – and seems entirely unable to see the true merits of Paulina. Which, in this universe, is tantamount to a gross dereliction of moral duty. And that’s not all. As they sit talking about Paulina, and about the Bretton days, Lucy is screaming inside – and she’s forthright in telling him that she has no intention of being a go-between.

And finally, I think: class. Bronte is careful to make Lucy classless – or, at least, comfortable in any class, any stratum of society – and she makes her case an easy one to sympathise with by having her discuss it with the uber-snobbish Ginevre. The empty-headed one is nonplussed by the way Lucy isn’t embarrassed to have been a nursery nurse, is no less comfortable with Ginevre’s own aristocratic relatives than with the servants at school. I can’t think of anything much to say about that – except it’s one of those times when we can be sure Bronte is in absolute agreement with Lucy. Merit, moral uprightness, consideration of others… that’s what counts. Why should we defer to the capitalist – which really is the word she uses – more than to the man who works for his living? Phew.

31 January
Chapters 28-35
I’ve had to give it a rest for a while: the cloistered existence of Lucy and the other inmates was all becoming too claustrophobic. These chapters are about a very particular version of the Dance that’s taking place between Lucy and M Paul. They’re becoming close, but in a problematic way, like impacted wisdom teeth. As Volume 3 begins Lucy, being Lucy, wants to be left alone. Hah. M Paul seems to see this as a personal affront, so he challenges her mercilessly: in the evening as he reads to the girls, at her desk where he keeps leaving her improving books and checking that there’s nothing unsuitable there – basically, wherever she is.

Lucy’s response is to close down all normal channels, as usual. She’s embroidering him a watch-guard for his birthday – underneath all the armour, she likes him – and he sees her doing it. So now she feels she has to play a ridiculous game: the more he challenges her about who it’s for – we assume he persists in believing it’s for Dr John – the more she won’t tell him. This is nearly conventional coquetry – why should she tell him? But next day, she sees he is mortified that she puts no posy on the pyramid of flowers he’s received for his birthday, and she does a Cordelia: nothing. He’s wounded, and it makes him imperious… and all day she lets him believe she thinks nothing of him. And then she relents. It leads to a typical question-and-answer interrogation (there’s the vestige of the weird pupil/teacher relationship in Bronte’s The Professor): Was it really for him? Always for him? Every bit of it for him? Not just a little bit of it for him? And so on. It’s a love scene as imagined by Hieronymus Bosch.

This takes two chapters – and only then do we get a chapter called M. Paul. First we get a five-page insight into his legendary (yawn) bad temper. It turns out to be all front: when Lucy breaks his glasses, he gives her one of those smiles that seem to press all her buttons. Later, after we’ve seen what a mentor he’s become for her, he wants to bring her out of herself by getting her to give a kind of presentation to the parents. In explaining to herself and/or the reader (it’s never entirely clear with this narrator) why this will be impossible, Lucy composes a 300-word clarification – in a long, single sentence. It’s not she herself who prevents it, it’s the ‘dark Baal with carven lips and blank eyeballs’ (and the rest) that rules over her. Psychology as gothic hyperbole. What else would you expect?

Next chapter: she falls asleep outside – so someone puts a shawl around her. Aww. And as if to confirm that there can be no other man in her life, she contemplates the ceremonially buried letters in their ‘sepulchre’ beneath the tree, and how, no, there couldn’t (could there?) be any chance. He’s forgotten all about her. Hasn’t he? Bloody hell, woman. Meanwhile the bloke who doesn’t keep disappearing from her life appears by her side again as she whispers goodbye to her dream. (Christ.) He isn’t blandly likeable like Dr John: for every good point there’s something troubling, and in this chapter it’s his habit of spying, often with a telescope, on all the comings and goings in the garden. Notably… is she superstitious? Has she ever seen –? Her confession about seeing the nun sends him into raptures of delight: so has he! She and he are the same, she even has some of his expressions (etc.)…. Then, in a passage of pure gothic weirdness, the tree they’re next to undergoes a preternatural convulsion and – the nun whisks past them, sharpish. Whatever next?

There’s more gothic to come, but not just yet. First we get a brief interlude: Paulina and Dr John have finally discovered one another, and Bronte takes a chapter to: a) establish that they are each behaving with unimpeachable correctness; b) theirs appear to be lives, unlike that of somebody we know (who isn’t saying a thing, obviously), which aren’t beset by disappointments; and c) it establishes the limited possibilities open to a girl-woman like Paulina, moving from a father/daughter relationship that strikes a modern reader as ghastly to a marriage that seems no less bounded by conventional expectations, in which she will always be the junior partner. As I said, Lucy doesn’t say a word about any feelings she might retain for the man whose deeply interred letters she has only recently been contemplating.

Time for some more gothic. Mme Beck sends Lucy on a ridiculous errand, and now we’re in a David Lynch movie: huge mansion like a stage set – and equally prone to instantaneous shifts of perspective; meaningful portrait; malignant crone bedecked in rich clothes and jewellery. And that’s just the start, because it isn’t only Lucy Snowe who likes to wrong-foot us. Bronte joins in with an electric storm that traps Lucy there, so she has to listen to a story told be the apparently resident priest, about… M. Paul. All this is his work: he selflessly pays for it all, in memory of a lover who wasn’t allowed to marry him, refused to marry the chosen suitor, became – have you guessed yet? – a nun. And died. Not David Lynch, then. Scooby-Doo, all laid on for Lucy’s benefit. (By Mme Beck, warning her off: this man is never going to marry you, my dear.)

After this the Dance carries on, even more intensely. There are more incidents, more smiles. The strangest incident is when M Paul gets independent professors in to test Lucy – and Bronte shows us the demon governing her that we’ve only been told about before. Tongue-tied doesn’t begin to describe it – and then she writes about he given topic: Justice. Her portrait of this worthy abstraction is bitter almost to the point of madness: offered (literally) carte blanche to describe it, she offers only bleakness. She doesn’t say it’s a response to the arbitrary way in which some lives seem charmed in stark contrast to her own. But she wouldn’t, would she?

And suddenly there’s another cloud approaching: M. Paul might be leaving the school for a while. When he looks for her, clearly in order to explain, she hides. (She knows this is peculiar but, well, we know our Lucy by now. She’s a moron.) When he does find her she coquettishly – I can’t think of another word for it – pretends she doesn’t know about his doomed love and his selfless charity work. And then she relents. Christ. Her reward for her esteem of this man, whose idiosyncrasies, I guess, are now supposed to seem explicable and forgivable, is to be offered his hand in – wait for it – brotherhood. (The chapter is called Fraternity.) Could she be the loving sister he never had? It isn’t absolutely clear – when is it ever? – what she thinks of this, but she seems almost relieved to have their conversation interrupted.

I can see why I gave up for a while. We never, ever, get the feeling we’re on safe ground. If we think for a moment that we are, it lurches away and an abyss opens up.

13 February
Chapter 36 to the end
There’s a line in a Clash song (Should I stay or should I go?): ‘it’s always tease tease tease.’ You bet. The biggest tease of the lot – Lucy’s refusal at the end of the novel to confirm the fate of M Paul in terrible storms – isn’t really a tease at all, just a shockingly bleak replay of a trope we first got in the earliest chapters. Then, after her return home from Bretton, she allowed the reader to imagine idyllic years of family life, if we wanted to. Now, after tempests have strewn wrecks all over the Atlantic and ‘the deeps had gorged their fill’, she halts the inevitable trajectory of the narrative. ‘Here, pause: pause at once.’ Let ‘sunny imaginations… picture union and a happy succeeding life.’

I used to think I loved this, the penultimate paragraph of the novel. I first read it 30 years ago, and it’s the thing I’ve always remembered about it. It’s become a kind of archetype for me of the way authors can offer choices to readers – a model taken up in the 20th Century by John Fowles in The French Lieutenant’s Woman and in the 21st by Ian McEwan in Atonement. Except Bronte isn’t offering choice at all: as with the dry pretence of her halcyon family life, what we’ve got now is dust and ashes. She confirms it in the final paragraph, in which the later fortunes of the three conspirators against M Paul’s love for her are unambiguously confirmed, if perfunctorily, in terms of long-lived prosperity. Theirs, note, not hers. So it goes.

This brief (two-and-a-half line) ‘Farewell’ is the third of the happy-ever-afters we get in the final chapters. The first, in a chapter mischievously called Sunshine, deals with Graham/Dr John and Paulina. There’s the most cursory of crises: will her over-protective father – who admits to thinking of the 18-year-old as a little girl – give her up? Answer, quite quickly: yes. (On the way to this resolution there’s a lot of talk of how one of these alpha males will have to give up the ‘one precious thing’ he has so that the other alpha male can have it. Bronte, whilst using the language of romantic fiction, is making another of her sly references to the real position of women in this patriarchal society.) In a few short paragraphs Bronte gives us the marriage, their mutually supportive and mutually nurturing lives and, eventually, the growing into adulthood of their Graham-like son. It’s like the end of a typical Victorian novel – except, in my edition, there are still 60 pages to go.

The good fortune of this golden couple is set in the context of one of Lucy’s meditations on – on what? Justice, perhaps, or fairness: some people are plain lucky. There’s ‘no excessive suffering… and no tempestuous blackness overcasts their journey.’ They are – and this is in the context of several chapters of theological argument going on between Lucy and M Paul – ‘Nature’s elect’. Ah. She doesn’t say a word – she doesn’t have to – but she knows somebody who isn’t. If she doesn’t want us to think about those people who aren’t in the happy band of the elect, why mention the slings and arrows the Brettons don’t have to suffer?

The other happy ever after is Ginevre’s. Bronte lets Lucy be as dry as she wants about her: the scandalous elopement, the thoughtless reliance on other people to sort things out (her uncle, Paulina’s dad), the drama-queen commentary, via letters that sound like Victorian versions of Christmas round robins, of all the mundane vicissitudes of a very ordinary family life. Ginevre has always been a kind of comic relief, a distorted mirror held up to the women in the novel who live their lives, well, properly. (The man she marries is the young puppy: the billet doux was from him and, rationalist that she is, Lucy is vindicated: the nun was him in disguise. The universe of this novel will accommodate plenty of prodigies, but not ghostly nuns.) And how does this self-centred little fool get on in the great distribution of happiness and well-being? She ‘got on… suffering as little as any human being I have ever known.’ Go figure.

So that’s it for the Dance: everybody wins, whether they deserve to or not. Except the man who has given himself up selflessly for others all his life and the woman he conquered all obstacles to cherish: religion, prejudice and his own wrong-headed faith, fanned by (spit) a papist conspiracy, in a romantic dream of lost love. Again, go figure.

But I suppose I’d better get on to the working through of the last stages of the Lucy/M Paul plot, with all its longueurs. We’re shown, at the nocturnal fete Lucy stumbles upon, how Mme Beck, the priest and the crone all need M Paul, have conspired to get him safely out of Villette to look after their interests abroad. This comes after their failure to either stop the growing affection he and Lucy feel for one another or for a desperate effort on the priest’s part to convert her to Catholicism. Instead, after The Apple of Discord, a chapter devoted almost entirely to theology, they each recognise that their common religious ground – and a lot of other common ground between them – far outweighs any differences. (I suppose this is Bronte helping sceptical Victorian readers over a major stumbling-block. A century and a half later it seems merely quaint.)

However. The conspirators really have succeeded in persuading M Paul to manage the family affairs abroad, and he’s going to leave. He doesn’t tell Lucy: she finds out along with everyone else. And then he doesn’t make any special effort to see her before his highly imminent departure. This is the just the beginning of the long and tedious tease we have to get through before, finally, he tells her they will be married when he returns. (One thing I find endlessly irritating – and yes, I know this is one of the great masterpieces of 19th Century literature – is the way Bronte shoehorns characters into impossibly far-fetched patterns of behaviour in order to help the narrative tension along.) Like Graham/Dr John half a novel ago, M Paul simply absents himself from her life, and she starts to go quietly mad, until…

…having been administered a ‘draught’ of some kind, she goes for a night-time wander to the park. Outrageous coincidences are allowable phenomena in this universe, and it’s the night of the big city fete. All the important people in her life pass before her life like dream visions. First come Paulina and John/Graham; then the crone, accompanied by Mme Beck and the priest (and others); they are joined by – wait for it – M Paul, who was supposed to be on board ship by now, and he’s arm-in-arm with the young woman who has been his ward all her life and who now, obviously, he is about to marry. It’s enough to make a young woman rush off home in a self-induced state of near-hysteria, and it’s no surprise that on a night of marvels like this someone in white should wave a handkerchief from a passing carriage and a bolster dressed up like a nun should be lying in your bed. Is this the same David Lynch movie as before? Or a different one?

Time for explanations. Hanky: Ginevre, eloping. Nun: a joke by Ginevre and the puppy. M Paul still on dry land? You’ll have to wait. And wait, while we get the details of the Ginevre plot thread, and Bronte/Lucy can pour disapproval on her. M Paul has postponed the date of his departure for a couple of weeks – and he doesn’t come to the school, doesn’t attempt to see Lucy. The days pass…. Will he even say goodbye to her before he leaves? Are we nearly there yet?

He’s got her a school. In the penultimate chapter that five-word summary takes eight gratification-deferring pages. And sorting out her inexplicable supposition that he is about to marry a girl he’d always treated as a daughter – as he has to explain – takes another five. Christ. But, finally, it’s love. And in the final chapter Lucy prospers, not missing him to a debilitating degree (sensible, y’see) but anticipating his return with, well, a kind of level-headed earnestness. She’ll need all of that when he decides to spend the rest of her life with the fishes.

So that’s that then. I’m left with the question of whether this incredibly ambitious novel actually succeeds. And is it as far ahead of its time – decades and decades – as I sometimes thought while reading it? Hmm. I’ll get back to you.

I’ve been thinking about it. Whatever else she does, Bronte does things with this narrator that are never less than interesting and sometimes take us into places I can’t remember ever going to before. For a start, her self-effacement isn’t a moronic bad habit, it’s a chronic psychological dysfunction. The ‘Baal’ metaphor we get when M Paul makes the mistake of trying to show her off is only one in a series of images during the novel in which Lucy/Bronte attempts to describe the terrifying things that lurk deep in her psyche – but it’s the first in which she really goes for an explanation of why she always – always – keeps her gob shut. It’s a kind of social agoraphobia: the outside world holds no terrors for her, but only if she’s allowed to do that thing we’ve been seeing since Chapter 1: vanish.

Ok. But we’ve had to wait until we’re three-quarters of the way through the novel before she offers this insight, and this narrative tic is one I have more difficulty with. The tease. I’ve already suggested at least one possible motive that both Lucy and Bronte might have for using it: we, as readers, have to find things out in the same piecemeal way as Lucy herself. Ok, again. Except, as (again) I’ve made clear before, she often takes far longer to bring us the devoutly wished-for resolution than Lucy herself has to wait. This happens with the waking-up sequence at the beginning of Volume 2, when the furniture from Bretton is magically all around her somewhere (she assumes) in or near Villette. At this point, she already knows that Dr John is really Graham. She eventually gets round to telling us she recognised him some time before – so she also has to explain why she hasn’t mentioned it to us. I can’t remember the explanation, but I can remember being unconvinced, and I think I know why.

It’s to do with the entity I’ve been referring to as Lucy/Bronte: she doesn’t exist. We have a mid-19th Century author with particular objectives in mind, and we have a character she’s created. Sometimes the character wants the same thing as the author, and everything’s fine. But sometimes the author needs to pull the narrative in a particular direction, and this can cause difficulties. She has to make rational characters – Lucy herself, but also M Paul and Graham/Dr John – behave in ways that, basically, break all the rules of civilised behaviour. Like, having nursed Lucy back to health and written letters for weeks, Dr John simply stops, for nearly two months, making any contact with her. And his mother – often cited as a paragon of right behaviour – doesn’t ever seem to wonder how she’s getting on after the extremely grave crisis she obviously went through. Bronte needs them all to lose touch – I suppose she wants to make a point about the social invisibility of unmarried 20-something women – and we can take it or leave it.

The final crisis on the rocky road to love between Lucy and M Paul is an example of the other thing Bronte is forced into: she has to convince us that if Lucy were to see M Paul with a new woman, thus having all her hopes shattered, she would simply wrap her cloak of invisibility more firmly around herself, say nothing, and endure two weeks of torture. Maybe – maybe – we can just about buy this one. But for the final resolution of the misunderstanding to work, we also have to believe in M Paul’s entire disappearance for weeks. She – Bronte – is forced to make him say that he didn’t dare speak to Lucy in case he blurted out his secret plans for her. Yeh, sure.

The last time I read a novel with a narrator as unreliable as this one – or maybe I should say, with a narrative in which we’re so often wrong-footed – I was troubled in exactly the same way. In Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier we have to swallow not only a series of twists that are Byzantine in their intricacy, but also a narrator forced into narrative corners by the imperatives of the author’s objectives. In both novels the author wants to undermine our certainties: whenever we think we know what’s going on, he/she gives us another little narrative coup to remind us – what? – that we don’t know anything. Fine, we all like to be entertained. But to believe it – or to suspend disbelief throughout – we’re forced to swallow some fairly indigestible stuff.

I should shut up about it. Unreliable narratives are wayward creatures, and sometimes we can’t help noticing how hard it is to keep them under control. What’s really worth focusing on is the success of Lucy as a character who evolves before our eyes. In the early chapters she resolutely refuses to offer us anything of her inner self – but that inner self has as real an existence as anybody else’s, and when she spends too long pretending otherwise it punches her in the face. That’s the crisis at the end of Volume 1 – provoked, specifically, by the lack of any human contact during the first autumn vacation. It’s only after this that Lucy, bit by bit, lets us have a look inside. The next crisis is to do with Dr John. Ok, she isn’t ready to call her love for him by its real name, but the business with the portrait she sees, the letters he sends – the first one gets a whole chapter to itself, as does the final ‘Burial’ of all the ones he’s ever sent – and her not-quite permanent refusal to help in the inevitable coming-together of him and Pauline… all these spell it out. Nearly.

It’s only in her relationship with M Paul that we get the truth. When she tells us about the demon that forces her to eschew any form of self-display it’s in the context of his attempt to bring her out. When she tells us of the tortures she endures after the night-time fete it’s to do with her love for M Paul. And… and now I get it. This is why we get her desperate cry – which isn’t a cry, because she won’t allow it of herself: ‘Here, pause: pause at once.’ We’ve had her tortured, boulder-strewn path to fulfilment, witnessed her emotional growth, finally seen her open herself up. And now, according to her own lights, she has no choice but to close down. And having been vaguely annoyed when I finished reading, now all I can feel is pity.


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