Villette was the only one I hadn’t read yet among Charlotte Bronte’s novels. I’m glad I’ve done it because it really completes my vision of her work. I quite liked it, more than Shirley and the Professor, but less than Jane Eyre. It is a complex, fascinating novel.
As Dr Sally Minogue, Canterbury Christ Church University College, states in her introduction to my edition of Villete (Wordsworth Classics, 1993) , it is really two novels. One encountered on first reading (false starts, ambiguous endings, double names and identities, gothic excitements and Dickensian coincidences, some romance and undoubted pain) and the other one recognizable only at a second reading.
Kate Millet in her Sexual Politics considered this novel even  too subversive to be popular.



Lucy Snowe, a young Englishwoman of the educated class, narrates the story of her life—in a particularly partisan and sometimes unreliable manner. She is left destitute after the death of her mysterious family and, after briefly being a nurse-companion, takes herself off on a blind, daring trip to the Continent. She goes to the kingdom of Labassecour (perhaps modeled on Belgium) and, through a series of very fortunate occurrences, manages to land herself a job and a place to live on her first night in the town of Villette. She becomes a nursery governess to the three daughters of the proprietress of a large school for girls. During her time as the bonne d'enfants, she impresses her employer, Madame Beck, with her modesty and excellent English. She is elevated to the position of English teacher, though she has no qualifications for it and has a poor command of the French language spoken in Villette. Lucy, however, comes to excel at teaching and to love it.

Dr. John Graham Bretton, a friend of Lucy’s in her childhood, also happens to be working in Villette. Their paths cross, but he does not recognize her. During this time Lucy and a student at Madame Beck's, Ginevra Fanshawe, become friends, and Lucy learns of Ginevra's secret suitors. One of them is Dr. John, for whom Lucy has also formed an attachment. Ginevra is fickle and selfish, and Lucy cannot understand how Ginevra could prefer another (the Count De Hamal) to her adored Dr. John. Meanwhile, the imperious and difficult M. Paul, a professor of literature, is paying Lucy attention, but chiefly to admonish her and instruct her about what he considers proper conduct for a young lady.

Two more friends from Lucy's childhood, Paulina Home and her father, now live in Villette. Mr. Home has inherited a title and a fortune, and he and his daughter live in fine style. Paulina (Polly), who is younger than both Dr. John and Lucy, stayed with the Brettons when a young child and formed an interestingly adult attachment to Dr. John. Dr. John, who was enamored of Polly's flighty cousin Ginevra, now transfers his affections to the seventeen-year-old.

During this time Lucy is visited by a spectral nun, said to the be the shade of a sister buried alive in the garden when Madame Beck's school was a convent. Lucy learns that M. Paul, with whom she has had several battles but has formed a friendship, was engaged to be married twenty years ago to a woman named Justine Marie. Because of debts and the unforeseen death of M. Paul's father, the two were unable to marry, and she died very young in a convent. M. Paul supports Justine's family in a house with a priest named Pere Silas. Lucy also learns that M. Paul lives quietly in two rooms at a nearby boys' college, keeping no servants.

Lucy and M. Paul become very good friends, and he calls her his sister. At one moment, however, Lucy thinks that perhaps M. Paul feels more strongly for her. He tries to convert her to Catholicism, but Lucy is a truly faithful believer in the Protestant faith of her upbringing, and becoming a Catholic for her is not possible. Though the two finally come to some agreement on the relative worth of their faiths, it is clear that Lucy's Protestantism will keep her from ever being M. Paul's wife. Pere Silas and Madame Beck counsel M. Paul that marriage to Lucy is an impossibility, and M. Paul decides he must go to Guadalupe to take care of some business interests of Madame Malravens.

Dr. John and Polly fall in love. They exchange letters, hoping to become engaged. M. de Bassompierre is against letting his daughter go, but he eventually relents. The couple marry and are happy, having many healthy children. Ginevra, formerly loved by Dr. John, is now jealous and dislikes her cousin Polly.

M. Paul and Lucy fall in love, but she is not a Catholic, and the decision has already been made for him to leave. Before he goes he is very mysterious and does not see Lucy until the night before his departure. He has procured a house for her to set up a new school so that she may be independent and wait for him to return from Guadalupe. They exchange pledges of love, and M. Paul leaves.

Ginevra has been seeing the Count De Hamal secretly. He has been visiting her at the school dressed as the spectral nun. On the night Ginevra elopes with the Count, it is revealed to Lucy that the ghostly visitation was nothing other than Count De Hamal in disguise. Lucy is relieved that she has never seen a ghost.

Lucy leaves the school and prospers at her own school while she waits for M. Paul's return. She receives an unexpected legacy from an old friend, with which she turns her day school into a boarding school. The ending of the novel is ambiguous, but it is implied that M. Paul dies in a shipwreck on his way home. Lucy lives out her life alone, at least comforted by the memory of love.


Lucy Snowe is a great enigma. One of the most complex and undefinable female characters of my many literary reads. Like in Jane Eyre, one of her main features is solitude, loneliness. But this is easy to recognize.

"I kept up well till I had partaken of some refreshment, warmed myself by the fire, and was fairly shut into my own room; but as I sat down by the bed and rested my head and arms on the pillow, a terrible oppression overcame me. All at once my position rose on me like a ghost. Anomalous, desolate, almost blank of hope, it stood. What was I doing here alone in great London? What should I do on the morrow? What prospects had I in life? What friends had I on earth? Where did I come? Whither should I go? What should I do?"

More difficult is to draw a definite portrayal of her . She is shadowy, so not easy to be perceived distinctively. So shadowy that her rname is only revealed in chapter 11. She herself as a narrator doesn’t easily find a way to tell us about what she really likes, thinks, wants. Who is she actually? It seems she doesn't mind to be seen as M. Paul Emanuel sees her, but she also likes being discreet as a shadow in Dr Bretton’s eyes .

“What contradictory attributes of character we sometimes find ascribed to us, according to the eye with which we are viewed! Madame Beck esteemed me learned and blue; Miss Fanshawe, caustic, ironic and cynical; Mr Home, a model teacher, the essence of the sedate and discreet: somewhat conventional perhaps, too strict, limited and scrupulous, but still the pink and pattern of governees- correctness; whilst another person, Professor Paul Emanuel, to wit, never lost an opportunityof intimating his opinion that mine was rather a fiery and rash nature – adventurous, indocile, and audacious. I smiled at them all. If any one knew me it was little Paulina Mary.”

She’s even rather unreliable as a narrator. She disguises feelings, facts and hides people’s real identities . She only unveils the truth when she decides it is time in the story. But she is painfully honest to herself and to the others as a character in the same story.
Surely she’s strong – willed, independent and passionate.Though, somewhere on line , I’ve read a review which considered her cold and unsentimental - hence her surname , Snowe. Instead , I think she is capable of conceiling and dominate her feelings which, anyway, are there deeply rooted inside her. I can’t see her as detached,  if not apparently. She’s capable of great sufference , on the contrary, and can be very sympathetic with those she likes and loves. She can also dislike and despise, but never hate.

She dearly love John Graham Bretton and is loyal, grateful and affectionate to awkward , brooding M. Emanuel. She likes Mrs Bretton, her god-mother, and M. Home,  Paulina’s father. She needs to be loved and appreciated, she longs for it, but she seems not to care, she seems to prefer to remain in the shadow.

Lucy's interior battle , most of the time, is between wanting to remain in shadow and wanting to be lit up in brilliance. Before Mme Beck's fete, the girls of the pensionat at which she is an English maitresse assemble to be coiffed, dressed and arrayed. Lucy is swept up in their activities and reflects:
"In beholding this diaphanous and snowy mass, I well remember feeling myself to be a mere shadowy spot on a field of light; the courage was not in me to put on a transparent white dress: something thin I must wear - the weather and rooms being too hot to give substantial fabrics sufferance, so I had sought through a dozen shops till I lit upon a crape-like material of purple-gray - the colour, in short, of dun mist, lying on a moor in bloom. My tailleuse had kindly made it as well as she could: because, as she judiciously observed, it was 'si triste - si peu voyant', care in the fashion was the more imperative: it was well she took this view of the matter, for I had no flower, no jewel to relieve it: and, what was more, I had no natural rose of complexion.We become oblivious of these deficiencies in the uniform routine of daily drudgery, but they will force upon us their unwelcome blank on those bright occasions when beauty should shine.
However, in this same gown of shadow, I felt at home and at ease; an advantage I should not have enjoyed in anything more brilliant or striking.

Shadows will haunt Lucy throughtout this story. She is comfortable in her "gown of shadow" , comfortable so long as it is of her own choice. She refuses to become Paulina's , Miss de Bassompiere’s,  companion maid.

“I was no bright lady's shadow - not Miss de Bassompierre's. Overcast enough it was my nature often to be; of a subdued habit I was: but the dimness and depression must both be voluntary - such as kept me docile at my desk, in the midst of my now well-accustomed pupils in Madame Beck's first classe; or alone, at my own bedside, in her dormitory, or in the alley and seat which were called mine, in her garden: my qualifications were not convertible, nor adaptable; they could not be made the foil of any gem, the adjunct of any beauty, the appendage of any greatness in Christendom”

However,  a shadowy nature imposed is repugnant to her . When Graham, the golden idol of her heart, calls her an "inoffensive shadow," she remarks:

I smiled; but I also hushed a groan. Oh! - I just wished he would let me alone - cease allusion to me. These epithets - these attributes I put from me. His 'quiet Lucy Snowe,' his 'inoffensive shadow,' I gave him back; not with scorn, but with extreme weariness: theirs was the coldness and the pressure of lead: let him whelm me with no such weight.

When she is forced to come out of shadow wearing a less misty colour, a horrifyingly pink dress. Upon going to a concert with Graham and his mother, she ‘s almost terrified:

"I thought I should not: I thought no human force should avail to put me into it. A pink dress! I knew it not. It knew not me. I had not proved it.

Without any force at all, I found myself led and influenced by another's will, unconsulted, unpersuaded, quietly over-ruled. In short, the pink dress went on, softened by some drapery of black lace. I was pronounced to be en grande ténue, and requested to look in the glass. I did so with some fear and trembling; with more fear and trembling, I turned away. Seven o'clock struck; Dr. Bretton was come; my godmother and I went down. She was clad in brown velvet; as I walked in her shadow, how I envied her those folds of grave, dark majesty!"

As I wrote in another of my posts for the All About The Brontes Challenge, Gothic Brontes,  gothic elements are recurrent in the three sister's novels from Jane Eyre to Wuthering Heights, from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to Villette (though I didn't mention Villette because I hadn't read it yet).

For example, on the night of Miss Marchmont's death, Lucy takes a storm as a portent of that event. Lucy philosophizes that the unsettled weather, coupled with news of catastrophic events in distant places, often predicts calamity at home. This Shakespearean or classical view of weather borders on ideas of the supernatural, implying that the weather and planet-wide events either predict or affect individual human activities. Storms and weather reflect the action of the book in many instances: Lucy's collapse in the Basse-Ville is in a terrible rainstorm, the coldness of the snowstorm outside enters Lucy's heart when she first beholds the growing closeness between Polly and Dr. John, and so on.
In Chapter XII, instead , an allusion to an old ghost story prefaces a gaze at the moon, a violent storm, and an important meeting between Dr. John and Lucy. The ghostly visitations of a nun  (though in the end we know their cause) in the attic and garden are meant to show Lucy's own inner fears as well as her ability to face down, bravely, what could send others into hysteria. While Brontë never crosses into the truly preternatural or magical realm (by never asserting that anything supernatural is true), it is clear that Lucy believes that these events are pertinent to the course of human affairs. These supernatural references often serve as metaphors for something unsaid but tacitly acknowledged, like Lucy's buried life or Miss Marchmont's fury at God.


There are so many things more  I might have said about this read but I think my posting is already too long . Such a complex, fascinating novel deserves a second and even a third reading in time as well as other reflections and thoughts.

I want to conlude my analysis sharing with you a quote from the interesting introduction to my edition.
Dr Minogue says:
“Villette will continue to disturb and subvert., not only through its revolutionary examination of female identity, but in its representation of the shifting nature of human identity, its hiddenness, the final unknowableness of one human being to another. That it is able at the same time to make the reader feel the deepest sympathy both for those who float easily on life’s surface and for those who struggle bravely with life’s painis C. Bronte’s consummate achievement.”


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The Editrix said...

Excellent review!! You succeeded where I utterly failed. :-) Makes me want to re-read Villette. . . I think it is definitely a book that would require a second or third reading to even scratch the surface of its many layers.

BBC, PLEASE make a miniseries adaptation of Villette!!!


Marie said...

I fully agree with Elise et your review. Villette is my favourite book by Charlotte Brontë (Oh yes, I prefer Villette to Jane Eyre), as it is powerful, complex, full of that particular humour of Charlotte Brontë, and so many other things!
Moreover, as I am French, I loved reading French written by the end of Charlotte Brontë: it make me feel a little dizzy, think: she wrote in MY tongue!!
OOh well, such a great book!
@Elise: I join you crying to the BBC!

ElleJay said...

Hi Maria,
Sorry I have not been on your blog for a while as I have been so busy. I just wanted to add to your blog about Villette that the BBC did a wonderful radio drama of it. Joseph Fiennes is one of the voices along with a very early showing of Keira Knightley. I think it is available on Audible as a download.
Love your blogs. Especially RA. LJ xXx

Maria Grazia said...

@The Editrix @Marie
I too join your crying to the BBC!!! I'd love a Villette adaptation!
Hi! I'm so glad you've found some time to stop by and comment. I'll try to look for the radio drama you mention,thank you. And, yes, you can find some are RA blogs on Fly High, especially on Fridays. Take care. Hugs.

lunarossa said...

What a wonderful review, MG! I love Villette, I did it in depth during my first year at Uni, whilst I was struggling with Lazarillo de Tormes and Rainer Maria Rilke and it was so refreshing t hide inbetween Bronte's pages! Didn;t know about the BBC radio drama and with Joseph Fiennes too! I learn something new every day here in your blog, MG, thanks! Cuai. A.

Mo said...

You do inspire one to read these books

Maria Grazia said...

@lunarossa @Mo
Thanks for commenting, girls! Is England warmer and drier than Italy these days? Summer has come and we need raincots and umbrellas!
It's quite cold, too! Incrdible.
Villette is a great book and deserve all the attention it gets.

Alexa Adams said...

Maria - I am so pleased you enjoyed Villette, as it is the book that most inspired me to seriously study literature. While it's dizzying depths of depression do not hold the same fascination for me that they once did, I continue to think it is the book that best displays the poetic qualities of Bronte's work. I think it is also her best, but most people would only agree that it is her most difficult novel. This was a beautiful summary and review - no easy feat.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post Maria Grazia!

I read Villette four or so years ago.

I had difficulty finding the Dickensian coincidences she used believable mainly the fact that she, Dr. John, and Polly all happen to be in Brussels at the same time and that Dr. John didn't recognize her. No matter how much of a shadow poor Lucy was he should have at least found her familiar or thought she looked a little like someone he knew.

While I empathized with Lucy Snowe there were times I'd wish she'd make more of an effort in trying to be cheerful. I remember one quote very well, perhaps because I agree with it, Dr. John Bretton said , "You must cultivate happiness" and Lucy's passionate answer was something like "Happiness isn't like a potato that you can grow"

But it's interesting to see her development and the banter between her and the professor. It's such a shame that when she finally overcomes the failings of her temperament a tragedy occurs and to know that more than likely she will sink into her old melancholy habits.

Maria Grazia said...

@Alexa Adams
Yes, I liked the complexity of this work, though I couldn't anyway sympathize with its characters. It was a really interesting study reading but not a very involving one. I mean, emotionally involving.
Thanks for your contribution, Alexa. Hugs.

Hi, Katherine! It seems I'm the last one, among all of you, to read this beautiful novel but I am also sure this is a novel difficult to appreciate for a young person. I think I would have hated it if I had had to read it as a teenageror! I agree with you that all those happy coincindences are rather unbelievable, Dickensian or not. But it was nice to have all of them reunited as adults after a long time: Lucy, Polly and Graham.
Thanks for dropping by and commenting. MG

JaneGS said...

You have given me reason to read Villete, which I have been putting off for some time now. It sounds like a psychological study, and I actually like the ambiguity and shifting sands of unreliable narrators. Sounds like a good October read. Great review--well done.

Maria Grazia said...

Thanks, Jane! I hope you'll enjoy your October read. Autumn may be the perfect season for this melancholic novel. Perfect choice. Big hug.MG

The Editrix said...

ElleJay, WOW, thanks for letting us know about that audio adaptation! I will definitely look into it!

Traxy said...

Aww, shucks, now I know the ending. :( My own fault, I did see the spoiler warning! I’m only on chapter 29 (Monsieur’s Fête) at the moment, and I’ve been wondering if Lucy’s ever going to end up with someone, and if so, with whom. I expected Dr. John and Pauline to end up together – that seemed obvious! There’s a very strong attraction between them.

Monsieur Paul I love as a character. Every time he makes an appearance I get all giddy because I think he’s hilarious, and there’s obviously more to him than being a scornful, angry “little man”. The problem with listening to an audio book is that it doesn’t have the footnotes that the book has (I’ve got the same one as you :)), which explains what all the French bits mean, so a lot of it passes way over my head. Ah well, next time, when I’m not under a time constraint to finish it, I’ll read it with my eyes and not my ears! It’s good to have audio books though. Shame I didn’t think of it sooner – been thinking it’s such a waste of time to drive to/from work, because I can’t do anything while I’m driving. If I were on a train or bus instead, I could be reading or writing. So audio books are great: now the commuting time to/from work is actually useful, even if I’m driving!

Great review and as always a wonderfully insightful analysis! :)

Mel u said...

Wonderful review-I think the scenes set in the school are the best written parts of all her work-

Connoisseuress said...

I do like intellectual and meaningful appraisals, as yours is!
I've only ever read Villette once, last year I think it was. I must say my impression of it is gloomy. I saw Lucy Snowe as the girl who could never really have what she wanted, and that made a big impression on me. The kind of person who woudl never set the world aflame - whether she wasn't to or not was not clear either - who passed by like a living shadow, who had the great capacity to love but was never given opportunity to exercise it, who loved where she should not have, as so many of us do. I found it utterly complex and probing to read. I think these characteristics are intrinsic in females to some degree. Not all of these, but they are scattered sparsely?
What I found riveting was that Lucy Snowe, for all she has not, is too strong to be pitied. I could never patronise her like that. She couldn't even have her little foreign man, despite the relationship they cultivate in the end. It is tragic, she seems to invite tragedy, but not lose herself in it. Am I making sense?
Though my favourite character of Bronte's is Caroline Helstone (I was to pet her, like a soft, adorable, unobtrusive kitten guarding the fireside) I identify best with Lucy Snowe.

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

What a thoughtful review, thank for for linking me to it :)

I remember being annoyed with Lucy for not telling me who Doctor John was for a long time. But I like how hard she is to pin down and how complex she is.

One thing I didn't like was the whole business with the phantom nun. Other gothic elements I enjoyed, but not that one.