Villette is an 1853 novel written by English author Charlotte Brontë. After an unspecified family disaster, the protagonist Lucy Snowe travels from her native England to the fictional French-speaking city of Villette to teach at a girls’ school, where she is drawn into adventure and romance.
Villette begins with its famously passive protagonist, Lucy Snowe, age 14, staying at the home of her godmother Mrs. Bretton in “the clean and ancient town of Bretton”, in England. Also in residence are Mrs. Bretton’s son, John Graham Bretton (whom the family calls Graham), and a young visitor, Paulina Home (who is called Polly). Polly is a peculiar little girl who soon develops a deep devotion to Graham, who showers her with attention. But Polly’s visit is cut short when her father arrives to take her away.
For reasons that are not stated, Lucy leaves Mrs. Bretton’s home a few weeks after Polly’s departure. Some years pass, during which an unspecified family tragedy leaves Lucy without family, home, or means. After some initial hesitation, she is hired as a caregiver by Miss Marchmont, a rheumatic crippled woman. Lucy is soon accustomed to her work and has begun to feel content with her quiet lifestyle.
During an evening of dramatic weather changes, Miss Marchmont regains all her energy and feels young again. She shares with Lucy her sad love story of 30 years previously, and concludes that she should treat Lucy better and be a better person. She believes that death will reunite her with her dead lover. The next morning, Lucy finds Miss Marchmont dead.
Lucy then leaves the English countryside and goes to London. At the age of 23, she boards a ship for Labassecour despite knowing very little French. She travels to the city of Villette, where she finds employment as a bonne (nanny) at Mme. Beck’s boarding school for girls. (This school is seen as being based upon the Hégers’ Brussels pensionnat). After a time, she is hired to teach English at the school, in addition to having to mind Mme. Beck’s three children. She thrives despite Mme. Beck’s constant surveillance of the staff and students.
“Dr. John,” a handsome English doctor, frequently visits the school because of his love for the coquette Ginevra Fanshawe. In one of Villette’s famous plot twists, “Dr. John” is later revealed to be John Graham Bretton, a fact that Lucy has known but has deliberately concealed from the reader. After Dr. John (i.e., Graham) discovers Ginevra’s unworthiness, he turns his attention to Lucy, and they become close friends. She values this friendship highly despite her usual emotional reserve.
We meet Polly (Paulina Home) again at this point; her father has inherited the title “de Bassompierre” and is now a Count. Thus her name is now Paulina Home de Bassompierre. Polly and Graham soon discover that they knew each other in the past and renew their friendship. They fall in love and eventually marry.
Lucy becomes progressively closer to a colleague, the irascible, autocratic, and male chauvinist professor, M. Paul Emanuel, a relative of Mme. Beck. Lucy and Paul eventually fall in love.
However, a group of conspiring antagonists, including Mme. Beck, the priest Père Silas, and the relatives of M. Paul’s long-dead fiancée, work to keep the two apart. They finally succeed in forcing M. Paul’s departure for the West Indies to oversee a plantation there. He nonetheless declares his love for Lucy before his departure and arranges for her to live independently as the headmistress of her own day school, which she later expands into a pensionnat (boarding school).
During the course of the novel, Lucy has three encounters with the figure of a nun — which may be the ghost of a nun who was buried alive on the school’s grounds as punishment for breaking her vow of chastity. In a highly symbolic scene near the end of the novel, she discovers the “nun’s” habit in her bed and destroys it. She later finds out that it was a disguise worn by Ginevra’s amour, Alfred de Hamal. The episodes with the nun no doubt contributed substantially to the novel’s reputation as a gothic novel.
Villette’s final pages are ambiguous. Although Lucy says that she wants to leave the reader free to imagine a happy ending, she hints strongly that M. Paul’s ship was destroyed by a storm during his return journey from the West Indies. She says that, “M. Emanuel was away three years. Reader, they were the three happiest years of my life.” This passage suggests that he was drowned by the “destroying angel of tempest.”
Brontë described the ambiguity of the ending as a “little puzzle” (quoted in Chapter XII of Gaskell’s Life).
Villette is noted not so much for its plot as for its acute tracing of Lucy’s psychology. The novel, in a gothic setting simultaneously explores themes of isolation, doubling, displacement, and subversion and each of their impacts upon the protagonist’s psyche.
Villette is sometimes celebrated as an exploration of gender roles and repression. In The Madwoman in the Attic, critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have argued that the character of Lucy Snowe is based in part on William Wordsworth’s Lucy poems. Gilbert and Gubar emphasise the idea of feminine re-writing. Some critics have explored the issues of Lucy’s psychological state in terms of what they call “patriarchal constructs” which form her cultural context.
Villette also explores isolation and cross-cultural conflict in Lucy’s attempts to master the French language, as well as conflicts between her English Protestantism and Catholicism. Her denunciation of Catholicism is unsparing: e.g. “God is not with Rome.”
Charlotte Brontë (21 April 1816 – 31 March 1855) was an English novelist and poet, the eldest of the three Brontë sisters who survived into adulthood and whose novels have become classics of English literature.
She enlisted in school at Roe Head in January 1831, aged 14 years. She left the year after to teach her sisters, Emily and Anne, at home, returning in 1835 as a governess. In 1839 she undertook the role as governess for the Sidgwick family, but left after a few months to return to Haworth where the sisters opened a school, but failed to attract any students. Instead they turned to writing and they each first published in 1846 under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Her first novel The Professor was rejected by publishers, her second novel Jane Eyre was published in 1847, although it was not initially well received; one critic described it as a “pre-eminently an anti-Christian composition”. The sisters admitted to their Bell pseudonyms in 1848, and by the following year were celebrated in London literary circles.
Brontë experienced the early deaths of all her siblings. She became pregnant shortly after her marriage in June 1854 but died on 31 March 1855 of tuberculosis or possibly typhus.