Villette by Charlotte Brontë (1853): A Late 19th-Century Analysis
Presented here is a detailed analysis of Villette by Charlotte Brontë, the 1853 novel that, Jane Eyre notwithstanding, is considered her true masterpiece.
The following is excerpted from Life and Works of the Sisters Brontë (1899) by Mary A. Ward (sometimes writing as Mrs. Humphrey Ward), a 19th-century British novelist and literary critic.
Ward wrote deeply and sensitively about the works of the Brontë sisters; her direct language and insights still greatly inform the contemporary reader.
Villette by Charlotte Brontë—an Introduction
During the year which followed the publication of Shirley, Charlotte Brontë seems to have been content to rest from literary labour—save for the touching and remarkable Preface that she contributed in the autumn of the year to the reprint of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey—which had been happily rescued from Mr. Newby and were safe in Mr. Smith’s hands.
We hear nothing of any new projects. After the great success of Shirley and Jane Eyre, indeed, she turned back to think of the still unprinted manuscript of The Professor, and to plans of how work already done might be turned to account, now that the public knew her and the way was smoothed.
Towards the end of 1850, or in the first days of 1851, she wrote a fresh preface to The Professor, and suggested to her publishers that they should at last venture upon its publication.
They did not apparently refuse; but they advised her against the project; and as Mr. Nicholls says in a note which he added to his wife’s Preface, on the publication of The Professor after her death, she then made use of the materials in a subsequent work—Villette.
There is an interesting and, for the most part, unpublished letter to Mr. George Smith, still in existence, which throws light upon this disappointment of hers—a disappointment which to us is pure gain, since it produced Villette. In spite of her gaiety of tone, it is evident that she is sensitive in the matter, and a little wounded—
“Mr. Williams will have told you [she writes to Mr. Smith] that I have yielded with ignoble facility in the matter of The Professor. Still it may be proper to make some attempt towards dignifying that act of submission by averring that it was done ‘under protest.’
The Professor has now had the honour of being rejected nine times by the ‘Trade.’ (Three rejections go to your own share; you may affirm that you accepted it this last time, but that cannot be admitted; if it were only for the sake of symmetry and effect, I must regard this martyrized MS. as repulsed or at any rate withdrawn for the ninth time!)
Few—I flatter myself—have earned an equal distinction, and of course my feelings towards it can only be paralleled by those of a doting parent towards an idiot child.
Its merits—I plainly perceive—will never be owned by anybody but Mr. Williams and me; very particular and unique must be our penetration, and I think highly of us both accordingly. You may allege that merit is not visible to the naked eye. Granted; but the smaller the commodity—the more inestimable its value.
You kindly propose to take The Professor into custody. Ah—no! His modest merit shrinks at the thought of going alone and unbefriended to a spirited publisher.
Perhaps with slips of him you might light an occasional cigar—or you might remember to lose him some day—and a Cornhill functionary would gather him up and consign him to the repositories of waste paper, and thus he would prematurely find his way to the ‘butterman’ and trunkmakers.
No—I have put him by and locked him up—not indeed in my desk, where I could not tolerate the monotony of his demure quaker countenance, but in a cupboard by himself.”
In the same letter, she goes on to say—the passage has been already quoted by Mrs. Gaskell—that she must accept no tempting invitations to London, till she has ‘written a book.’ She deserves no treat, having done no work.
Early in 1851 then, having locked up The Professor as finally done with and set aside, Miss Brontë fell back once more on the material of the earlier book, holding herself free to use it again in a different and a better way.
With all the quickened and enriched faculty which these five years of labour and of fame had brought her, she returned to the scenes of her Brussels experience, and drew Villette from them as she had once drawn The Professor.
By the summer she had probably written the earlier chapters, and early in June she at last allowed herself the change and amusement of a visit to Mr. George Smith and his mother, who were then living in Gloucester Place.
Real-life incidents woven into Villette
This visit contributed much to the growing book. In the first place the character of Graham Bretton—“Dr. John”—owed many characteristic features and details to Miss Brontë’s impressions, now renewed and completed, of her kind host and publisher, Mr. George Smith.
Mrs. Smith, Mr. George Smith’s mother, was even more closely drawn—sometimes to words and phrases which are still remembered—in the Mrs. Bretton of the book.
And further, two incidents at least of this London visit may be recognised in Villette; one connected with Thackeray’s second lecture on “The English Humourists,” to which Miss Brontë was taken by her hosts—the other a night at the theatre, when she saw Rachel act for the first time.
As to the lecture, after it was over, the great man himself came down from the platform, and making his way to the small, shy lady sitting beside Mrs. Smith, eagerly asked her “how she had liked it.” How many women would have felt the charm, the honour even, of the tribute implied! But the “very austere little person,” as Thackeray afterwards described Charlotte, thus approached, was more repelled than pleased …
With regard to the acting of the great, the “possessed” Rachel, it made as deep an impression on Charlotte Brontë, as it produced much about the same time on Matthew Arnold.
“On Saturday (she writes) I went to see Rachel; a wonderful sight—terrible as if the earth had cracked deep at your feet, and revealed a glimpse of hell. I shall never forget it. She made me shudder to the marrow of my bones; in her some fiend has certainly taken up an incarnate home. She is not a woman; she is a snake; she is the—!”
“Rachel’s acting transfixed me with wonder, enchained me with interest, and thrilled me with horror … it is scarcely human nature that she shows you; it is something wilder and worse; the feelings and fury of a fiend.”
One has only to turn from these letters to the picture of the “great actress” in Villette, who holds the theatre breathless on the night when Dr. John and his mother take Lucy Snowe to the play, to see that the passage in the book, with all its marvelous though unequal power, its mingling of high poetry with extravagance and occasional falsity of note, is a mere amplification of the letters.
It shows how profoundly the fiery dæmonic element in Miss Brontë had answered to the like gift in Rachel; and it bears testimony once more to the close affinity between her genius and those more passionate and stormy influences let loose in French culture by the romantic movement.
Rachel acted the classical masterpieces; but she acted them as a romantic of the generation of “Hernani”: and it was as a romantic that she laid a fiery hand on Charlotte Brontë.
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See also: Villette—a Portrait of a Woman in Shadow
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A lonely and dejected Charlotte
After the various visits and excitements of the summer Charlotte tried to make progress with the new story, during the loneliness of the autumn at Haworth. But Haworth in those days seems to have been a poisoned place. A kind of low fever—influenza—feverish cold—were the constant plagues of the parsonage and its inmates.
The poor story-teller struggled in vain against illness and melancholy. She writes to Mrs. Gaskell of “deep dejection of spirits,” and to Mr. Williams that it is no use grumbling over hindered powers or retarded work, “for no words can make a change.”
It is a matter between Currer Bell “and his position, his faculties, and his fate.” Was it during these months of physical weakness—haunted, too, by the longing for her sisters and the memory of their deaths—that she wrote the wonderful chapters describing Lucy Snowe’s delirium of fever and misery during her lonely holidays at the pensionnat?
The imagination is at least the fruit of the experience; for the poet weaves with all that comes to his hand. But there are degrees of delicacy and nobility in the weaving. Edmond de Goncourt noted, as an artist—for the public—every detail of his brother’s death, and his own sensations. Charlotte conceived the sacred things of kinship more finely.
Those veiled and agonized passages of Shirley are all that she will tell the world of woes that are not wholly her own. But of her personal suffering, physical and mental, she is mistress, and she has turned it to poignant and lasting profit in the misery of Lucy Snowe.
A misery, of which the true measure lies not in the story of Lucy’s fevered solitude in the Rue Fossette, of her wild flight through Brussels, her confession to Père Silas, her fainting in the stormy street, but rather in the profound and touching passage which describes how Lucy, rescued by the Brettons, comforted by their friendship and at rest, yet dares not let herself claim too much from that friendship, lest, like all other claims she has ever made, it should only land her in sick disappointment and rebuff at last.
“Do not let me think of them too often, too much, too fondly,” I implored: “Let me be content with a temperate draught of the living stream: let me not run athirst, and apply passionately to its welcome waters: let me not imagine in them a sweeter taste than earth’s fountains know. Oh! would to God I may be enabled to feel enough sustained by an occasional, amicable intercourse, rare, brief, unengrossing and tranquil: quite tranquil!
Still repeating this word, I turned to my pillow; and still repeating it, I steeped that pillow with tears.”
Words so desolately, bitterly true were never penned till the spirit that conceived them had itself drunk to the lees the cup of lonely pain.
But the spring of the following year brought renewing of life and faculty. Charlotte wrote diligently, refusing to visit or be visited, till again, in June, resolution and strength gave way. Her father, too, was ill; and in July she wrote despondently to Mr. Williams as to the progress of the book.
In September, though quite unfit for concentrated effort, she was stern with herself, would not let her friend, Ellen Nussey, come—vowed, cost what it might, “to finish.” In vain. She was forced to give herself the pleasure of her friend’s company “for one reviving week.” Then she resolutely sent the kind Ellen Nussey away, and resumed her writing.
Always the same pathetic “craving for support and companionship,” as she herself described it!—and always the same steadfast will, forcing both the soul to patience, and the body to its work. No dear comrades now beside her!—with whom to share the ardors or the glooms of composition.
She writes once to Mr. Williams of her depression “and almost despair, because there is no one to read a line, or of whom to ask a counsel. Jane Eyre was not written under such circumstances, nor were two-thirds of Shirley.”
During her worst time of weakness, as she confessed to Mrs. Gaskell, “I sat in my chair day after day, the saddest memories my only company. It was a time I shall never forget. But God sent it, and it must have been for the best.”—Language that might have come from one of the pious old maids of Shirley.
How strangely its gentle Puritan note mates with the exuberant, audacious power the speaker was at that moment throwing into Villette! But both are equally characteristic, equally true.
And it is perhaps in the union of this self-governing English piety, submissive, practical, a little stern, with her astonishing range and daring as an artist, that one of Charlotte Brontë’s chief spells over the English mind may be said to lie.
One more patient effort, however, in this autumn of 1852, and the book at last was done. She sent the later portion of it, trembling, to her publishers.
Mr. Smith had already given her warm praise for the first half of the story; and though both he and Mr. Williams made some natural and inevitable criticisms when the whole was in their hands, yet she had good reason to feel that substantially Cornhill was satisfied, and she herself could rest, and take pleasure—and for the writer there is none greater—in the thing done, the task fulfilled. In January 1853 she was in London correcting proofs, and on the 24th of that month the book appeared.
Villette received with “one burst of acclamation”
“Villette,” says Mrs. Gaskell, “was received with one burst of acclamation.” There was no question then among “the judicious,” and there can be still less question now, that it is the writer’s masterpiece. It has never been so widely read as Jane Eyre; and probably the majority of English readers prefer Shirley.
The narrowness of the stage on which the action passes, the foreign setting, the very fullness of poetry, of visualising force, that runs through it, like a fiery stream bathing and kindling all it touches down to the smallest detail, are repellent or tiring to the mind that has no energy of its own responsive to the energy of the writer.
But not seldom the qualities which give a book immortality are the qualities that for a time guard it from the crowd—till its bloom of fame has grown to a safe maturity, beyond injury or doubt.
“I think it much quieter than Shirley,” said Charlotte, writing to Mrs. Gaskell just before the book’s appearance. “It will not be considered pretentious,” she says, in the letter that announces the completion of the manuscript. Strange!—as though it were her chief hope that the public would receive it as the more modest offering of a tamed muse.
Did she really understand so little of what she had done? For of all criticisms that can be applied to it, none has so little relation to Villette as a criticism that goes by negatives. It is the most assertive, the most challenging of books.
From beginning to end it seems to be written in flame; one can only return to the metaphor, for there is no other that renders the main, the predominant impression. The story is, as it were, upborne by something lambent and rushing.
Masterfully written detail and characterizations
Whether it be the childhood of Paulina, or the first arrival of the desolate Lucy in Villette, or those anguished weeks of fever and nightmare which culminated in the confession to the Père Silas, or the yearning for Dr. John’s letters, or the growth, so natural, so true, of the love between Lucy and Paul Emanuel on the very ruins and ashes of Lucy’s first passion, or the inimitable scene, where Lucy, led by the “spirit in her feet,” spirit of longing, spirit of passion, flits ghost-like through the festival-city, or the last pages of dear domestic sweetness, under the shadow of parting—there is nothing in the book but shares in this all-pervading quality of swiftness, fusion, vital warmth.
And the detail is as a rule much more assured and masterly than in the two earlier books. Here and there are still a few absurdities that recall the drawing-room scenes of Jane Eyre—a few unfortunate or irrelevant digressions like the chapter Cleopatra—little failures in eye and tact that scores of inferior writers could have avoided without an effort.
But they are very few; they spoil no pleasure. And as a rule the book has not only imagination and romance, it has knowledge of life, and accuracy of social vision, in addition to all the native shrewdness, the incisive force of the early chapters of Jane Eyre.
Overview of the chief characters
Of all the characters, Dr. John no doubt is the least tangible, the least alive. Here the writer was drawing enough from reality to spoil the freedom of imagination that worked so happily in the creation of Paulina, and not enough to give to her work that astonishing and complex truth which marks the portrait of Paul Emanuel.
Dr. John occasionally reminds us of the Moores; and it is not just that he should do so; there is inconsistency and contradiction in the portrait—not much, perhaps, but enough to deprive it of the ‘passionate perfection,’ the vivid rightness that belong to all the rest.
Yet the whole picture of his second love—the subduing of the strong successful man to modesty and tremor by the sudden rise of true passion, by the gentle, all-conquering approach of the innocent and delicate Paulina—is most subtly felt, and rendered with the strokes, light and sweet and laughing, that belong to the subject.
As to Paul Emanuel, we need not repeat all that Mr. Swinburne has said; but we need not try to question, either, his place among the immortals:
“Magnificent-minded, grand-hearted, dear faulty little man!” It may be true as Mr. Leslie Stephen contends, that—in spite of his relation to the veritable M. Héger—there are in him elements of femininity, that he is not all male. But he is none the less man and living, for that; the same may be said of many of his real brethren.
And what variety, what invention, what truth, have been lavished upon him! and what a triumph to have evolved from such materials,—a schoolroom, a garden, a professor, a few lessons, conversations, walks,—so rich and sparkling a whole!
Madame Beck and Ginevra Fanshawe are in their way equally admirable. They are conceived in the tone of satire; they represent the same sharp and mordant instinct that found so much play in Shirley. But the mingled finesse and power with which they are developed is far superior to anything in Shirley; the curates are rude, rough work beside them.
And Lucy Snowe? Well—Lucy Snowe is Jane Eyre again, the friendless girl, fighting the world as best she may, her only weapon a strong and chainless will, her constant hindrances, the passionate nature that makes her the slave of sympathy, of the first kind look or word, and the wild poetic imagination that forbids her all reconciliation with her own lot, the lot of the unbeautiful and obscure.
But though she is Jane Eyre over again there are differences, and all, it seems to me, to Lucy’s advantage. She is far more intelligible—truer to life and feeling. Morbid she is often; but Lucy Snows so placed, and so gifted, must have been morbid.
There are some touches that displease, indeed, because it is impossible to believe in them. Lucy Snowe could never have broken down, never have appealed for mercy, never have cried “My heart will break!” before her treacherous rival, Madame Beck, in Paul Emanuel’s presence.
A reader, by virtue of the very force of the effect produced upon him by the whole creation, has a right to protest “incredible!”
No woman, least of all Lucy Snowe, could have so understood her own cause, could have so fought her own battle. But in the main nothing can be more true or masterly than the whole study of Lucy’s hungering nature, with its alternate discords and harmonies, its bitter-sweetness, its infinite possibilities for good and evil, dependent simply on whether the heart is left starved or satisfied, whether love is given or withheld.
She enters the book pale and small and self-repressed, trained in a hard school, to stern and humble ways, like Jane Eyre—like Charlotte Brontë herself. But Charlotte has given to her more of her own rich inner life, more of her own poetry and fiery distinction, than to Jane Eyre.
She is weak, but except perhaps in that one failure before Madame Beck, she is always touching, human, never to be despised. She is in love with loving when she first appears; and she loves Dr. John because he is kind and strong, and the only man she has yet seen familiarly.
What can be more natural?—or more exquisitely observed than the inevitable shipwreck of this first romance, and the inevitable anguish, so little known or understood by any one about her, that it brings with it? It passes away, like a warm day in winter, not the true spring, only its herald.
And then slowly, almost unconsciously, there grows up the real affinity, the love “venturing diffidently into life after long acquaintance, furnace-tried by pain, stamped by constancy.” The whole experience is life itself, as a woman’s heart can feel and make it.
Harriet Martineau’s criticism
Harriet Martineau’s criticism of Villette—and it is one which hurt the writer sorely—shows a singular, yet not surprising blindness. Even more sharply than in her Daily News review, she expresses it in a private letter to Miss Brontë:—
“I do not like the love,”—she says—“either the kind or the degree of it,” —and she maintains that “its prevalence in the book, and effect on the action of it,” go some way to explain and even to justify the charge of ‘coarseness’ which had been brought against the writer’s treatment of love in Jane Eyre.
The remark is curious, as pointing to the gulf between Miss Martineau’s type of culture—which alike in its strength and its weakness is that of English provincial Puritanism—and that more European and cosmopolitan type, to which, for all her strong English and Yorkshire qualities, and for all her inferiority to her critic in positive knowledge, Charlotte Brontë, as an artist, really belonged.
The truth is, of course, that it is precisely in and through her treatment of passion—mainly, no doubt, as it affects the woman’s heart and life—that she has earned and still maintains her fame. And that brings us to the larger question with which Charlotte Brontë’s triumph as an artist is very closely connected.
What may be said to be the main secret, the central cause not only of her success, but, generally, of the success of women in fiction, during the present century? In other fields of art they are still either relatively amateurs, or their performance, however good, awakens a kindly surprise. Their position is hardly assured; they are still on sufferance.
Whereas in fiction the great names of the past, within their own sphere, are the equals of all the world, accepted, discussed, analyzed, by the masculine critic, with precisely the same keenness and under the same canons as he applies to Thackeray or Stevenson, to Balzac or Loti.
The reason perhaps lies first in the fact that, whereas in all other arts they are comparatively novices and strangers, having still to find out the best way in which to appropriate traditions and methods not created by women, in the art of speech, elegant, fitting, familiar speech, women are and have long been at home.
They have practiced it for generations, they have contributed largely to its development. The arts of society and of letter-writing pass naturally into the art of the novel.
Literary predecessors and contemporaries
Madame de Sévigné and Madame du Deffand are the precursors of George Sand; they lay her foundations, and make her work possible. In the case of poetry, one might imagine, a similar process is going on, but it is not so far advanced. In proportion, however, as women’s life and culture widen, as the points of contact between them and the manifold world multiply and develop, will Parnassus open before them.
At present those delicate and noble women who have entered there look a little strange to us. Mrs. Browning, George Eliot, Emily Brontë, Marcelline Desbordes-Valmore—it is as though they had wrested something that did not belong to them, by a kind of splendid violence.
As a rule, so far, women have been poets in and through the novel-Cowper-like poets of the common life like Miss Austen, or Mrs. Gaskell, or Mrs. Oliphant; Lucretian or Virgilian observers of the many-colored web like George Eliot, or, in some phases, George Sand; romantic or lyrical artists like George Sand again, or like Charlotte and Emily Brontë. Here no one questions their citizenship; no one is astonished by the place they hold; they are here among the recognized “masters of those who know.”
Why? For, after all, women’s range of material, even in the novel, is necessarily limited. There are a hundred subjects and experiences from which their mere sex debars them. Which is all very true, but not to the point.
Love, as a woman understands it
For the one subject which they have eternally at command, which is interesting to all the world, and whereof large tracts are naturally and wholly their own, is the subject of love—love of many kinds indeed, but pre-eminently the love between man and woman. And being already free of the art and tradition of words, their position in the novel is a strong one, and their future probably very great.
But it is love as the woman understands it. And here again is their second strength. Their peculiar vision, their omissions quite as much as their assertions, make them welcome. Balzac, Flaubert, Anatole France, Paul Bourget, dissect a complex reality, half physical, half moral; they are students, psychologists, men of science first, poets afterwards.
They veil their eyes before no contributory fact, they carry scientific curiosity and veracity to the work; they must see all and they must tell all. A kind of honor seems to be involved in it—at least for the Frenchman, as also for the modern Italian and Spaniard.
On the other hand, English novels by men—with the great exceptions of Richardson in the last century, and George Meredith in this, from Fielding and Scott onwards, are not, as a rule, studies of love. They are rather studies of manners, politics, adventure.
Is it the development of the Hebraist and Puritan element in the English mind—so real, for all its attendant hypocrisies—that has debarred the modern Englishman from the foreign treatment of love, so that, with his realistic masculine instinct, he has largely turned to other things? But, after all, love still rules “the camp, the court, the grove!”
There is as much innocent, unhappy, guilty, entrancing love in the world as there ever was. And treated as the poets treat it, as George Meredith has treated it in Richard Feverel, or in Emilia in England, or with that fine and subtle romance which Henry James threw into Roderick Hudson, it can still, even in its most tragic forms, give us joy—as no Flaubert, no Zola, will ever give us joy.
The modern mind craves for knowledge, and the modern novel reflects the craving—which after all it can never satisfy. But the craving for feeling is at least as strong, and above all for that feeling which expresses the heart’s defiance of the facts which crush it, which dives, as Renan says, into the innermost recesses of man, and brings up, or seems to bring up, the secrets of the infinite.
Tenderness, faith, treason, loneliness, parting, yearning, the fusion of heart with heart and soul with soul, the ineffable illumination that love can give to common things and humble lives,—these, after all, are the perennially interesting things in life; and here the women-novelists are at no disadvantage.
Their knowledge is of the centre; it is adequate, and it is their own. Broadly speaking, they have thrown themselves on feeling, on Poetry. And by so doing they have won the welcome of all the world, men and women, realists and idealists alike. For She—“warm Recluse”—has her hiding-place deep in the common heart, where “fresh and green—she lives of us unseen;” and whoever can evoke her, has never yet lost his reward.
It is as poets then, in the larger sense, and as poets of passion, properly so-called—that is, of exalted and transfiguring feeling—that writers like George Meredith, and George Sand, and Charlotte Brontë affect the world, and live in its memory. Never was Charlotte Brontë better served by this great gift of poetic vision than in Villette—never indeed so well. The style of the book throughout has felt the kindling and transforming influence.
There are few or no cold lapses, no raw fillings in. What was extravagance and effort in Shirley has become here a true “grand style,” an exaltation, a poetic ambition which justifies itself. One illustration is enough.
The famous scene of the midnight fête
Let us take it from the famous scene of the midnight fête, when Lucy, racked with jealousy and longing, escapes from the pensionnat by night, hungering for the silence and the fountains of the park, and wanders into the festal streets, knowing nothing of what is happening there.
“Hush! the clock strikes. Ghostly deep as is the stillness of this house, it is only eleven. While my ear follows to silence the hum of the last stroke, I catch faintly from the built-out capital, a sound like bells, or like a band—a sound where sweetness, where victory, where mourning blend. Oh, to approach this music nearer, to listen to it alone by the rushy basin! Let me go—oh, let me go! What hinders, what does not aid freedom?
Quiet Rue Fossette! I find on this pavement that wanderer-wooing summer night of which I mused; I see its moon over me; I feel its dew in the air. But here I cannot stay; I am still too near old haunts: so close under the dungeon, I can hear the prisoners moan. This solemn peace is not what I seek, it is not what I can bear: to me the face of that sky bears the aspect of a world’s death. The park also will be calm—I know, a mortal serenity prevails everywhere—yet let me seek the park.
Villette is one blaze, one broad illumination; the whole world seems abroad; moonlight and heaven are banished: the town, by her own flambeaux, beholds her own splendor—gay dresses, grand equipages, fine horses and gallant riders throng the bright streets. I see even scores of masks. It is a strange scene, stranger than dreams.
That festal night would have been safe for a very child. Half the peasantry had come in from the outlying environs of Villette, and the decent burghers were all abroad and around, dressed in their best. My straw hat passed amidst cap and jacket, short petticoat, and long calico mantle, without, perhaps, attracting a glance; I only took the precaution to bind down the broad leaf gipsy-wise, with a supplementary ribbon—and then I felt safe as if masked.
Safe I passed down the avenues—safe I mixed with the crowd where it was deepest. To be still was not in my power, nor quietly to observe. I drank the elastic night air—the swell of sound, the dubious light, now flashing, now fading.”
Then follow the two or three little scenes, so brilliant, and yet so flickering and dream-like, of which Lucy—closely concerned in them all—is the ghostly and unseen spectator; the sight of the Brettons in their carriage; the pursuit of the music swelling through the park, like “a sea breaking into song with all its waves”; the Bretton group beside the band; the figures and the talk that surround Madame Beck, and then, climax of the whole, the entry of M. Paul, under the eyes of Lucy—Lucy who watches him from a few yards distance—secret, ardent, unknown.
The story grows fast with every page—magical and romantic, as the park itself with its lights and masks and song; one seems to be watching the incidents in a sparkling play, set in a passionate music; yet all, as it were, through a shining mist, wavering and phantasmal.
But at last it is over, and Lucy, the specter, the spy, must go home with the rest.
“I turned from the group of trees and the ‘merrie companie’ in its shade. Midnight was long past; the concert was over, the crowds were thinning. I followed the ebb. Leaving the radiant park and well-lit Haute-Ville … I sought the dim lower quarter.
Dim I should not say, for the beauty of moonlight—forgotten in the park—here once more flowed in upon perception. High she rode, and calm and stainlessly she shone. The music and the mirth of the fête, the fire and bright hues of those lamps had outdone and outshone her for an hour, but now, again, her glory and her silence triumphed.
The rival lamps were dying: she held her course like a white fate. Drum, trumpet, bugle, had uttered their clangour, and were forgotten; with pencil-ray she wrote on heaven and on earth records for archives everlasting.”
This surely is romance, is poetry. It is not what has been called the lactea ubertas of George Sand. It does not flow so much as flash. It is more animated than Jeanne; more human and plastic than Lélia. Consuelo comes nearest to it; but even the latter is cold beside it.
And then, turn from such a rush of passionate feeling and description to the scenes of character and incident, to the play of satiric invention in the portraits of Madame Beck, the Belgian schoolgirls, Ginevra Fanshawe, M. Paul. What a vivid, homely, poignant truth in it all!—like the sharp and pleasant scent of bruised herbs.
The writer’s fresh inventive sense
No novel, moreover, that escapes obscurity and ugliness was ever freer from stereotyped forms and phrases. The writer’s fresh inventive sense is perpetually brushing them away as with a kind of impatience. The phrases come out new minted, shining; each a venture, and, as a rule, a happy one; yet with no effect of labour or research; rather of a careless freedom and wealth.
Once again we may notice the influence of French books, of the French romantic tradition, which had evidently flowed in full tide through the teaching of that Brussels class-room, whence literally Villette took its being.
Villette itself, in portions that are clearly autobiographical, bears curious testimony to the French reading, which stirred and liberated Charlotte’s genius, as Hofmann’s tales gave spur and impetus to Emily. It was a fortunate chance that thus brought to bear upon her at a critical moment a force so strong and kindred, a force starting from a Celt like herself, from the Breton Chateaubriand.
She owes to it much of her distinction, her European note. French men of letters have always instinctively admired and understood her. They divine that there are certain things in the books of their Romantics that she might very well have written—the description, for instance, of Chateaubriand’s youth, of his strange sister, of his father and mother, and the old Château of Combourg, in the Mémoires d’Outre Tombe.
Those pages have precisely her mixture of broad imagination with sharpness of detail; they breathe her yearning and her restlessness. And no doubt, like Atala and René, they have a final mellowness and mastery, to which the English writer hardly attained.
But to what might she not have attained had she lived, had she gone on working? Alas! the delicate heart and life had been too deeply wounded; and in the quiet marriage which followed immediately on Villette the effort to be simply, personally happy proved too much for one who had known so well how to suffer.
The sickness and loneliness through which Villette was written had no power, apparently, to harm the book. Above the encroachments of personal weakness she was able for a time to carry her gift, like a torch above a swelling stream, unhurt.
In the writing of Shirley it was the spectacle of her sisters’ anguish that had distracted and unnerved her. Above her own physical and moral pain, the triumph of Villette is complete and extraordinary. But it is clear that she felt a deep exhaustion afterwards.
The fragment of Emma, indeed, seems to show that she might at some later time have resumed the old task. But for the moment there was clear disinclination for an effort of which she had too sharply measured the cost.
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Jane Eyre — a late 19th-century analysis
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Charlotte’s letter to her publisher
In another unpublished letter to Mr. Smith, written in 1854, two months before her own marriage, and shortly after Mr. Smith’s, she says—
April 25, 1854.
To George Smith, Esq.
My dear Sir—Thank you for your congratulations and good wishes; if these last are realised but in part—I shall be very thankful. It gave me also sincere pleasure to be assured of your own happiness, though of that I never doubted.
I have faith also in its permanent character, provided Mrs. George Smith is, what it pleases me to fancy her to be. You never told me any particulars about her—though I should have liked them much—but did not like to ask questions, knowing how much your mind and time would be engaged. What I have to say is soon told.
The step in contemplation is no hasty one; on the gentleman’s side at least, it has been meditated for many years, and I hope that in at last acceding to it, I am acting right; it is what I earnestly wish to do. My future husband is a clergyman. He was for eight years my father’s curate. He left because the idea of this marriage was not entertained as he wished.
His departure was regarded by the parish as a calamity, for he had devoted himself to his duties with no ordinary diligence. Various circumstances have led my father to consent to his return, nor can I deny that my own feelings have been much impressed and changed by the nature and strength of the qualities brought out in the course of his long attachment.
I fear I must accuse myself of having formerly done him less than justice. However, he is to come back now. He has foregone many chances of preferment to return to the obscure village of Haworth. I believe I do right in marrying him. I mean to try to make him a good wife. There has been heavy anxiety, but I begin to hope all will end for the best.
My expectations, however, are very subdued—very different, I dare say, to what yours were before you were married. Care and Fear stand so close to Hope, I sometimes scarcely can see her for the shadow they cast. And yet I am thankful too, and the doubtful future must be left with Providence.
On one feature in the marriage I can dwell with unmingled satisfaction, with a certainty of being right. It takes nothing from the attention I owe to my Father; I am not to leave him—my future husband consents to come here—thus Papa secures by the step a devoted and reliable assistant in his old age. There can, of course, be no reason for withholding the intelligence from your Mother and sisters; remember me kindly to them whenever you write.
I hardly know in what form of greeting to include your wife’s name, as I have never seen her—say to her whatever may seem to you most appropriate and most expressive of good will. I sometimes wonder how Mr. Williams is, and hope he is well. In the course of the year that is gone Cornhill and London have receded a long way from me; the links of communication have waxed very frail and few. It must be so in this world. All things considered, I don’t wish it otherwise.
Like her sisters, taken from life in its prime
Sad and gentle words!—written under a grey sky. They imply a quiet, perhaps a final renunciation, above all a deep need of rest. And little more than a year from the date of that letter she had passed through marriage, through the first hope of motherhood—through death.
Alas!—To stand in the bare room where she died, looking out on the church where she and her sister lie, is to be flooded at once with passionate regrets, and with a tender and inextinguishable reverence. She, too, like Emily, was “taken from life in its prime. She died in a time of promise.”
But how much had the steady eager will wrung already from the fragile body! And she has her reward. For she is of those who are not forgotten, “exceeded by the height of happier men”; whose griefs, rather, by the alchemy of poetry, have become the joys of those who follow after; whose quick delights and clear perceptions are not lost in the general store, but remain visibly marked and preserved to us, in forms that have the time-resisting power, through long years, to reawaken similar delights and perceptions in minds attune and sensitive.
This it is to live as an artist; and of no less than this is Charlotte Brontë now assured.
More about Villette by Charlotte Brontë
- Reader discussion on Goodreads
- Why Villette is Better than Jane Eyre
- Villette on Project Gutenberg
- Listen to Villette on Librivox