Rather than review a classic that has been spoken about time and again, I thought I’d share with you a response paper I wrote for my class in Victorian Literature a few weeks ago – let me know if you’d like to see more pieces like this on the blog!
In Villette (1853), Charlotte Brontë reinforces middle-class ideology while going beyond the traditional boundaries of female identity in the Victorian era through the concept of dignity. This is done first and foremost through the figure of Lucy Snowe. Lucy is not a reliable narrator—her claim late in the novel “to penetrate to the real truth” (527) evokes nothing so much as surprise, punctuated as it is by hundreds of pages replete with examples of Lucy withholding information from and deceiving the reader. I would argue this behaviour is owed to an innate sense of dignity that often spurns Lucy into motion—as when she leaves England for want of opportunity—but as often halts her when action is required most. As I will make clear, this innate sense also shapes both Lucy Snowe’s value judgements and her ambitions.
In Victorian England, dignity hoists up middle class identity, at least where men are concerned. But dignity is not for women: the closest they come to is dignified submission. A quick comparison between Lucy Snowe and David Copperfield’s Agnes should suffice to prove the point – Agnes, written by a man, embodies the very ideal of the Victorian woman, suffering in dignity through unimaginable hardships, incapable of giving up her warm support to the important men in her life, existing primarily to sustain them. Lucy wants nothing to do with this kind of life. She finds it distasteful in its nascent stages at the opening of the novel, when she sees little Paulina dote first on her father and then on Graham: “One would have thought the child had no mind or life of her own, but must necessarily live, move, and have her being in another…” (26). Even in love with M. Paul Emanuel, Lucy Snowe does not for a moment accept this role, more tasteless to her than anything else. Lucy’s words in the closing chapter of the novel are a final rebuttal to that mode of existence: “M. Emanuel was away three years. Reader, they were the three happiest years of my life” (556). The man with whom she has come to a mutual understanding is far away; yet rather than fall apart, as the young Polly does while away from her father, Miss Snowe makes a triumph of her independence.
Lucy doesn’t find quite as insufferable the fawning over men of means for all the material comforts their wives gain, though the reader might be excused for thinking otherwise. This is shown in the character of Ginevra Fanshawe, whose vanity is secondary only to her want of a husband who can support her ambitions to the highest lifestyle attainable. Harsh as Lucy is to Ginevra, she shows admiration for Miss Fanshawe, owed to the latter’s middle-class sensibilities: “Ginevra ever stuck to the substantial; I always thought there was a good trading element in her composition, much as she scorned the ‘bourgeoise’” (539). This “trading element” of the middle-class identity is much more commonly ascribed to men than to women; Lucy Snowe shows a marked preference to the traits attributed to male members of the middle class rather than female ones. As much may be shown in her appraisal of Dr. John, a “man of luck—a man of success,” whom she admires for “the eye to see his opportunity, the heart to prompt to well-timed action, the nerve to consummate a perfect work” (360); in other words, the traits of a shining exemplar of the middle class.
As for acceptable positions for destitute middle-class women, Lucy shows scorn for a good few of them, despite the far better pay they might offer: “I could teach; I could give lessons; but to be either a private governess or a companion was unnatural to me” (337). It is not a sense of dignity alone that pours forth later in the paragraph: “Rather than be a companion, I would have made shirts, and starved. I was no bright lady’s shadow”. This is pride, pure and unbridled, and the prickling of it at the very offer by the Count de Bassompierre to be Paulina’s companion is evident. It is also hypocrisy; Lucy Snowe seems to have thoroughly forgotten her willingness to serve as governess to Madame Beck when desperate and faced with the prospect of starvation. In this, she is little different from David Copperfield who goes to great lengths to distance himself from what he perceives as the most shameful secret in his life: the time spent in a factory as a child (91-92)
Even Lucy’s dreams are defined by a middle-class drive to be, in effect, a small business owner, as M. Paul Emanuel reminds her in their final conversation: “I had talked once … of trying to be independent and keeping a little school of my own: had I dropped the idea? Indeed, I had not: I was doing my best to save what would enable me to put it in practice” (546-547). Though that goal is ultimately achieved by the help of M. Emanuel, is not the pursuit of it proof enough of Lucy’s affiliation and endorsement of a middle-class identity largely recognized as belonging to men? A middle-class identity, further, that has an antecedent in the face of another woman—Madame Beck, a successful proprietor in her own right, and the only character in the book who “sees Lucy and respects her for what she is” (Berglund, 200). Even though Lucy sees the Madame as her rival, it is difficult for the reader not to note how Lucy has shaped her goal to keep a school so closely on the blueprint provided her by Madame Beck.
Victorian literature by and large reflects middle-class sensibilities—in this, Villette is no different. Where it is remarkable is in Brontë’s placing at its centre a female protagonist who approaches her circumstances not as society has taught her that a woman might—through quiet surrender—but through those values most commonly applied to the male members of the middle class: intelligence, hard work, diligence, dignity. Through both Lucy Snowe and a figure like Madame Beck, Villette offers a glimmer of emancipatory hope from overwhelming patriarchal structures of power.
Berglund, Birgitta. “In Defence of Madame Beck.” Brontë Studies, vol. 30, no. 3, 2005, pp. 185–211., https://doi.org/10.1179/147489305×63109.
Brontë Charlotte. Villette. 1853. Signet Classics, 2014. Print.
Jordan, John O. “The Social Sub-Text of ‘David Copperfield.’” Dickens Studies Annual, vol. 14, Penn State University Press, 1985, pp. 61–92, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44371526.