Currer Bell wrote the sacred feminine classic Jane Eyre; Charlotte Brontë authored the apocryphal Villette. The latter text receives little attention even today, and yet Brontë’s third and final novel was her best. Signature books become brands too difficult to remove like blood stains on a shag carpet. Pride and Prejudice pales in comparison to Mansfield Park. Likewise, Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man humanizes Joyce, something Ulysses failed to do, making his seminal work an exercise in what we might call an elitist, intellectual masturbation.
What separates Villette from the other book fans know well comes from a place where Brontë’s expedition traverses the darkest shadows away from the slightest sliver of light. A strong narrator emerges, one who toys with sentence patterns to create a transformative work — a distinction Jane Eyre cannot claim. The familiar markers of marginalization and suffocation of desire still lurk. Villette takes the reader beyond the nexus into waters no one wants to chart.
Lucy Snowe: the presciently named character enters the imaginary Kingdom of Labasscecour in a town called Villette. She enters the town with nothing more than her name. Described by Brontë as a woman with “no attractive accomplishments — no beauty”, she enters the city as the stereotypical outsider. Between the cracks of her character lies an astonishing courage to venture into a town where she knows no one, and where no one knows who she is.
Ginerva Fanshawe behaves as Snowe’s alter ego. Beautiful, whimsical, and blunt, Ginerva pulls few punches. Her coquettish manners are part of Snowe’s denied self. Ginerva’s social status permits her to act out with little more than self-righteous scoffs. Revealed in Ginerva is a template for how to behave in a repressed society. Even though Lucy never acts out in public, she reveals a person of flashless abandon. Where no one knows who you are, there is no reputation to lose.
Lucy comes to Villette to teach at an all-girls school. But a novel focusing on another governess-like trial would appear all-too familiar here. Lucy does not work under the thumb of a handsome Mr. Rochester. Instead, Dr. John Graham Bretton — a later plot twist reveals Lucy’s affectation for “Dr. John” — comes by the school to see the woman-of-the-month, Ginerva. The good doctor does not think much of Ginerva’s wanton ways. Needless to say, Brontë paints this self-righteous primo uomo as male chauvinism’s prototype. Dr. John turns his sights to Lucy, and she meets her overmatched fate.
What Dr. John — Graham to us before the twist — lacks in wit and charm, he makes up in empathy. Lucy remarks on Graham’s thoughts of her, thoughts that were not “entirely those of a frozen indifference”, and compares him to a “goodly mansion”, where he “kept one little place under the skylights where Lucy might have entertainment, if she chose to call.” She describes her room from Graham’s point of view as a “tabernacle for a host”, which signifies her as a religious thing to be consumed. Throughout the novel, Lucy reviles the Catholic Church, stating without reticence that “God is not in Rome.”
Graham never acknowledges Lucy’s affection for him in the way that she wishes. A Platonic friendship emerges, a sort of consolation prize. When the Roman Catholic God closes one door, He opens another door to yet another male chauvinist. This time, Monsieur Paul Emanuel and Lucy fall in love with each other. Societal forces, mainly of the religious variety, attempt to pry the two love birds apart. Pere Silas, the insidious priest, arranges for Paul to be sent to the West Indies to run a plantation that had been running fine and does not require a new overseer. Again with the West Indies? Another madwoman in the attic? From the plot’s design, nothing appears too different between Villette and the other novel everyone knows.
The differences, however, are both subtle and distinct. The novel’s unstable narrator rambles self-consciously, or what the Moderns would call stream-of-consciousness, giving rise to the novel’s experimental nature. Connections to previous literary forms disappear, but with grace. Lucy speaks of a “time gone by” and feels unreliable. How much of what is revealed is what she wished had happened versus what actually happened?
Additionally, Lucy’s ambitions are restrained in the context of the time the novel was written. She wants things that go beyond erotic love; she arrives at a place in the novel where to have someone simply “listen and console” her would be impossible. Men were incapable of openly expressing their feelings; the world revolved around them. What Lucy wants she knows does not exist. Her unquiet impulses hide themselves in religious language. The language of love still belonged to men, and it contained too much logic to understand that the heart can be unreasonable.
Lucy’s intellect and strength eclipses Jane’s. She pre-dates Roland Barthes, often exposing language’s limitations when describing or expressing a thought. Brontë reveals through Lucy love’s failed definition. Supernatural references made throughout Villette demonstrate the extraordinary absence of real sentiment. Emotion is revealed through most righteous and vile actions, and words diminish the merits and condemnations of them. She, after all, finds herself “led and influenced by another’s will, unconsulted, unpersuaded, quietly over-ruled.”
Like children, it’s unfair to compare the two books. But like children, it’s impossible not to. Villette is the quiet, genius child left alone in the room, nurturing itself. It requires little validation; whereas its bigger sister needs to remain relevant in a time when damsels in distress don’t make it into the feminist literary canon. Although ignored, Villette requires its own attention from others beyond those who worship at the Brontë Sisters’ altar.