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Charlotte Bronte Villette (1853)

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					Charlotte Bronte: Villette (1853) 'Why is Villette disagreeable? Because the writer's mind contains nothing but hunger, rebellion, rage' -Matthew Arnold, the English 'liberal' critic of the c19. This novel is quite easy to read. Unless you understand French, you should ignore the moments of French dialogue: though any edition of the novel will translate them, they do not say anything that the English does not make clear. Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) wrote this novel partly to record her experience in 1842 when she had gone to work in Brussels, and had fallen in love with M. [i.e. Monsieur - English Mr] Heger, an incident which she tried to describe in her first novel, The Professor, written before Jane Eyre (1847) but not accepted for publication till after he death. Villette appeared in 3 vols in 1853. What follows is a brief summary of the plot, which is written as though it was the autobiography of Lucy Snowe (LS). As an autobiography, you should note how LS describes herself, especially in chapters 1-4, and how she observes other people, often denying her own feelings about them, and striving for detachment - surveillance, even. Look for images of coldness. Vol 1 is chs 1-15: volume 1: 1-3: Lucy Snowe as a child, aged 14. Introduces also the child Polly - who reappears aged 18 in ch. 23 - and her father, and the boy Graham Bretton, the son of the narrator's godmother, Mrs Bretton. 4. Lucy Snowe as lady's maid and companion to Miss Marchmont. Look at the account of Miss Marchmont's love-affair, and compare with LS's. Note, too, the importance of the storm in her account. 5 - 7: LS goes to London, and from then on sails down the river Thames and across the North Sea to the European continent, to Belgium, and to the town of Brussels (the Villette of the title). Introduces Ginevra Fanshawe also on the journey. She will turn out to be a cousin of Polly. 8. Madame Beck - who runs a girl's school in Brussels: very Catholic, and a study in repression and survelliance (a word and a concept you should note throughout the novel). She takes on LS as a teacher of English. 9. Ginevra, one of the pupils, talks about the males who are in love with her - Colonel Alfred de Hamal (with whom she elopes in ch. 40) and Isidore - who turns out to be Dr John, who was met briefly in ch. 7, and who is actually the Graham Bretton of the earlier part of the novel - and now aged 26. 10: Dr John comes to look after students at the school. Though later we realise that LS recognises him she does not say so. It is also evident that she begins to love him. 11-13: Intrigues in the school. Ginevra and Isidore. Love letters. A mysterious nun: the school is on the site of an old nunnery. 14. The Fete: LS must act a male role in the play that is put on by the literature teacher, M. Paul Emanuel. The cross-dressing in this scene needs to be noted.

15: A crucial chapter and the end of the first volume of the novel: I discuss it in my book on Confession. Left alone in the summer holidays in the school, LS becomes depressed and walks into a Catholic church to confess, although, as a Protestant, she considers confession worthless. Introduces the Catholic priest, Père Silas, (Père means Father). He would, like many others, turn LS into a Catholic. volume 2: From chapters 16-21, there is an interlude, where LS revives from her illness and learns that she has been taken in by the doctor's family - i.e. by Mrs Bretton, who has moved from England to Brussels at some stage in the past to a home called La Terrasse. Recognition by LS of her relation to Dr John (who may give his name to The Yellow Wallpaper). LS and he quarrel over the worthless Ginevra Fanshawe (18). Note, too, the discussion about sexuality and women in relation to the picture of the Cleopatra (ch. 19). LS goes back to the school for the next term, revived. ch, 22: she receives, back at the school, five quasi-love letters from Dr John. (Are they love-letters? You need to consider this. It will change your perception of both people, Dr John and LS.) Note the first appearance of the nun here. ch. 23. Vashti; an account of a theatrical performance (and note the sense of feminine sexuality), at which there is a fire, and in the rescue, it turns out that he is helping Polly and her father M. de Bassompierre, who is actually, despite his name, Scottish (Mr Home). [The name home is ironic, for it is what LS never has: note. from chapter 1, that she is an orphan. Note how many homes are shown in the novel.] ch. 24: Introduces the father. 25: The daughter. It becomes evident to LS that Dr John will fall in love with her. 26. LS buries the love letters she had received. Again, there is a sight of the nun, and this is something that needs asking about: what is its significance. It seems like a 'Gothic" detail, uncanny, as Freud would say. 27. Dr John gets the chance to compare the two cousins: Ginevra, whom he used to be in love with, and Polly. Volume 3: This part concentrates on the love between Dr John and Polly. They declare their love for each other in chapter 32, and talk to the father in chapter 37. Their story really concludes in ch. 37, with their happiness. The discussion of patriarchal power should be noted in ch. 37. At the same time LS is falling in love with M. Paul Emanuel. They go through a series of incidents of quarreling before it becomes evident to Mme. Back that her cousin, with whom she is in love, is in danger of marrying a Protestant. 28, 29, 30 - On M. Paul. 31: Another sight of the mysterious nun - really Hamal visiting Ginevra. This chapter is the most crucial for the LS / M. Paul relationship. The garden setting should be noted. 33. LS and M. Paul. 34. Mme Beck tries to stop the relationship by poisoning LS's mind against M. Paul. The chapter-title means 'ill will.' Note the evil Mme Walravens, whose daughter, Justine Marie, M Paul has loved. Re-meeting with Père Silas. (Note how many remeetings there are in this novel: it is something to discuss: also LS's ambivalence about recognising people.) 35, 36. Sequel to the last.

38. This chapter begins by making it clear that LS will not have a happy end like Polly. The title anticipates the storm of the last chapter. In this chapter, Mme Beck tries to drug LS with opium - the effect is to send her more stimulated than she should be, into Brussels at carnival time, where she sees all the characters of the novel in carnival spirit. Last sight of Dr John. This chapter is crucial to any understanding of the novel. 39. Conclusion of the carnival scene: back at the school, the nun's costume tells LS that Ginevra has eloped with her worthless suitor. The two of them have mocked the traditions of the girls' school and its sanctity and surveillance. The man dresed as the nun is another bit of cross-dressing you should notice. (An essay on the nun would be interesting.) 40. Ginvera's letter to LS. Note how the end of the chapter describes Ginevra as bourgeois. 41-42: Conclusion: leading to the sense that when M. Paul returns from the West Indies (to retrieve the Walravens' fortune) after 3 years, he will marry LS: the last page suggests that he drowns on his way back, leaving LS desolate, and writing the novel as an old woman. If you run out of time, I suggest that you read the first volume, and the section 16-21. You can pick up the later events from chapter 38 onwards. This novel has been much written on. The most complete analysis is by Heather Glen, Charlotte Brontë: The Imagination in History (Oxford, 2002) pp. 197-284. A complete bibliography appears in the Oxford edition, ed. Tim Dolin, 2000. Good critics on the novel include: Gilbert and Gubar: The Madwoman in the Attic Pauline Nestor Sally Shuttleworth (on surveillance) John Maynard Nina Auerbach Terry Eagleton Judith Lowder Newton Suggestions for study: How many forms does Villette find to discuss feminine sexuality? (Note the danger of hypochondria, and LS's desire to be cold - 'a cold name she must have', Brontë wrote about her heroine). How does she save herself from madness? How many forms of surveillance can you find in the novel? What critique does the novel offer of Dr John? Is he 'just' the kind of man that girls aged 14 to 23 fall in love with, but not later? How many times does LS fall in love? Is she in love with two people at the same time? Why is it so important that the two other women are cousins - both relate also to Dr John. Is there anything lesbian in the relation with Ginevra? Can you make a study of the jealousy of M. Paul? (He is aged about 40 in the novel.)


				
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