Charlotte Bronte’s Villette (1853) is a piece of gothic literature told through the perspective of the story’s shy female protagonist, Lucy Snowe. It was written six years after Jane Eyre, but the two are often compared due to the fact that they are considered Charlotte Bronte’s finest work. Upon its publication, Villette was very well received.  According to George Eliot,

Villette is a still more wonderful book than Jane Eyre. There is something almost preternatural in its power.

Villette is the last novel written by Charlotte Bronte, however her The Professor was published posthumously. The Professor was the first novel she wrote, but after it was rejected by multiple publishers, she later reworked the material and used it as the foundation of Villette.  Both of these novels apparently drew upon Charlotte’s real life experience as a teacher at a pensionnat, or boarding school, in Brussels in 1843.  Apparently, her time there was lonely and unhappy: not only was she separated from her sisters and family, but she fell in love with M. Heger, a married man who could not openly return her affection. After a year, in 1844, she returned to the family rectory.

Charlotte Brontë

Plot Summary

The novel opens with the narrator and protagonist, Lucy Snowe, living at her godmother’s home in Bretton, England at the age of 14. Also in attendance are Mrs. Bretton’s son (and Lucy’s cousin) John Graham Bretton, and Paulina “Polly” Home, who is a young guest of the family. Despite Polly’s adoration of Graham, her father cuts her time short and takes her away from the Bretton home. Years later, Lucy receives news that there has been a family emergency which has left her without kin, money, or a home. She immediately searches for a job and is hired by Miss Marchmont, an elderly crippled woman, to be a caretaker. Although Lucy initially hesitated to accept the job, she eventually finds herself happy and at peace with the position. One night (marked significant by the narrator because of its odd weather), Miss Marchmont suddenly seems more healthy and energetic. She tells Lucy the sad story of her past romance and promises to be kinder to Lucy in the future. Unfortunately, in the morning, Lucy discovers that Miss Marchmont had died. Lucy leaves Marchmont’s home for London, where she boards a ship for Labassecour (Belgium) despite knowing very little French. After reaching Belgium, she travels to the city of Villette where she is hired to be a “bonne,” or “nanny,” at Mme. Beck’s boarding school for girls. During her time at Beck’s school, Lucy thrives despite Beck’s suspicious nature and penchant for extreme surveillance of her employees.  Lucy is eventually promoted to teach English at the boarding school. Throughout her time at the school, Lucy believes that she sees the figure of a nun stalking her, which may belong to the ghost of a nun who was supposedly buried alive on the school grounds as punishment for breaking her vow of chastity. She later discovers that the nun’s habit was worn by Alfred de Hamal, a lover of one of the girls at the school in order to sneak onto the grounds, and it was his form, therefore, that she saw. Among the various people Lucy meets at Beck’s boarding school, there is Dr. John, a handsome English doctor who visits the school both for medical visits as well as to court the coquette Ginerva Fanshawe. Lucy does not let the reader know until later that Dr. John is actually John Graham Bretton. After it is discovered that Ginerva is not only a coquette, but that she has another lover, Alfred de Hamal, John ceases his courtship to her and instead indulges in his friendship with Lucy. Polly also returns, and it is revealed that her father has become a count and has therefore earned the title, de Bassompierre. Polly and Graham fall in love and marry. Meanwhile, Lucy also (albeit slowly) falls in love with M. Paul Emanuel, a relative of Madame Beck’s and a chauvinistic, self-serious professor at the school. Others at the school, including Beck and Pere Silas, as well as members of Emanuel’s dead fiance’s family try to keep the two apart. They even convince Emanuel to travel to the West Indies to oversee a plantation. Despite all of their conniving, Emanuel declares his love for Lucy and sets her up to be the headmistress of her own day school before he leaves, which had been a major dream of hers. Unfortunately, it is not completely clear whether or not Emanuel ever returns from his voyage. Lucy states that she’d like to give the reader a happy ending, however, she also notes that Emanuel was drowned by the “destroying angel of tempest. ” It would therefore appear that he died in a storm while on sea.

Notes & Quotes

  • Of course, the repeated appearances of the nun, as well as the nun’s backstory (that she was buried alive in the walls as a punishment for her sexual transgressions), are very gothic. There are two nun moments in particular, however, that I’d like to look at closer. First, is the moment when Lucy finds the nun’s habit in her bed:

My head reeled, for by the faint night-lamp, I saw stretched on my bed the old phantom—the NUN.

A cry at this moment might have ruined me. Be the spectacle what it might, I could afford neither consternation, scream, nor swoon. Besides, I was not overcome. Tempered by late incidents, my nerves disdained hysteria. Warm from illuminations, and music, and thronging thousands, thoroughly lashed up by a new scourge, I defied spectra. In a moment, without exclamation, I had rushed on the haunted couch; nothing leaped out, or sprung, or stirred; all the movement was mine, so was all the life, the reality, the substance, the force; as my instinct felt. I tore her up—the incubus! I held her on high—the goblin! I shook her loose—the mystery! And down she fell—down all around me—down in shreds and fragments—and I trode upon her.

Here again—behold the branchless tree, the unstabled Rosinante; the film of cloud, the flicker of moonshine. The long nun proved a long bolster dressed in a long black stole, and artfully invested with a white veil. The garments in very truth, strange as it may seem, were genuine nun’s garments, and by some hand they had been disposed with a view to illusion. Whence came these vestments? Who contrived this artifice? These questions still remained. To the head-bandage was pinned a slip of paper: it bore in pencil these mocking words—

“The nun of the attic bequeaths to Lucy Snowe her wardrobe. She will be seen in the Rue Fossette no more.”

And what and who was she that had haunted me? She, I had actually seen three times. Not a woman of my acquaintance had the stature of that ghost. She was not of a female height. Not to any man I knew could the machination, for a moment, be attributed. (519-20)

I believe that the appearance of the nun’s clothes on Lucy’s bed is doubly frightening for the insinuation it poses. Does Lucy risk becoming the unchaste and punished nun?

Of course, the nun’s garbs are only there because Ginerva probably wanted to play a prank on the prudish Lucy, and the clothing was no longer needed for Alfred to wear while sneaking into the school. The nun is attached to the two moments of cross-dressing in this novel. The first is the fact that Alfred wears the nun’s habit in order to sneak into the girls’ school. The second is when Lucy is locked in the attic by Emanuel in order to learn her male role for the school play right before she is to be “dressed like a man” as her costume.

The attic was no pleasant place: I believe he did not know how unpleasant it was, or he never would have locked me in with so little ceremony. In this summer weather, it was hot as Africa; as in winter, it was always cold as Greenland. Boxes and lumber filled it; old dresses draped its unstained wall—cobwebs its unswept ceiling. Well was it known to be tenanted by rats, by black beetles, and by cockroaches—nay, rumour affirmed that the ghostly Nun of the garden had once been seen here. A partial darkness obscured one end, across which, as for deeper mystery, an old russet curtain was drawn, by way of screen to a sombre band of winter cloaks, pendent each from its pin, like a malefactor from his gibbet. From amongst these cloaks, and behind that curtain, the Nun was said to issue. I did not believe this, nor was I troubled by apprehension thereof; but I saw a very dark and large rat, with a long tail, come gliding out from that squalid alcove; and, moreover, my eye fell on many a black-beetle, dotting the floor. These objects discomposed me more, perhaps, than it would be wise to say, as also did the dust, lumber, and stifling heat of the place. The last inconvenience would soon have become intolerable, had I not found means to open and prop up the skylight, thus admitting some freshness. Underneath this aperture I pushed a large empty chest, and having mounted upon it a smaller box, and wiped from both the dust, I gathered my dress (my best, the reader must remember, and therefore a legitimate object of care) fastidiously around me, ascended this species of extempore throne, and being seated, commenced the acquisition of my task; while I learned, not forgetting to keep a sharp look-out on the black-beetles and cockroaches, of which, more even, I believe, than of the rats, I sat in mortal dread. (148-9)

This moment also reminds me of the red room of Jane Eyre.

  • Lucy’s role as the narrator adds to the realism of the novel. She is able to choose what to tell us and when to tell us the information needed to follow the story. For example, she withholds Dr. John’s true identity as her cousin Graham until it suits her. Also, the ending of the novel is fairly confusing. It is most likely the case that Emanuel dies on sea, however, Lucy is careful to not make that a certainty. Lucy is also aware of the desires of her readers, and wishes that she could’ve given us a happy ending, but that sort of conclusion is proven to be ultimately impossible.

The wind shifts to the west. Peace, peace, Banshee—”keening” at every window! It will rise—it will swell—it shrieks out long: wander as I may through the house this night, I cannot lull the blast. The advancing hours make it strong: by midnight, all sleepless watchers hear and fear a wild south-west storm. That storm roared frenzied, for seven days. It did not cease till the Atlantic was strewn with wrecks: it did not lull till the deeps had gorged their full of sustenance. Not till the destroying angel of tempest had achieved his perfect work, would he fold the wings whose waft was thunder—the tremor of whose plumes was storm.

Peace, be still! Oh! a thousand weepers, praying in agony on waiting shores, listened for that voice, but it was not uttered—not uttered till; when the hush came, some could not feel it: till, when the sun returned, his light was night to some!

Here pause: pause at once. There is enough said. Trouble no quiet, kind heart; leave sunny imaginations hope. Let it be theirs to conceive the delight of joy born again fresh out of great terror, the rapture of rescue from peril, the wondrous reprieve from dread, the fruition of return. Let them picture union and a happy succeeding life.

Madame Beck prospered all the days of her life; so did Père Silas;
Madame Walravens fulfilled her ninetieth year before she died. Farewell. (546)

Not only is this conclusion depressing, but it is very sudden. Strangely, by withholding certainties and passion in her conclusion, Brontë incorporates emotion into the text. It feels like Lucy is struggling to finish the story, but is unable to come to terms with what has most likely happened to her lover. It also adds to the horrific nature of deaths by sea, in that loved ones at home are unable to truly mourn their loss because of the inherent uncertainty.

Villette (1853) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.