Friday, October 24, 2014

"Hunger, rebellion, and rage": Charlotte Bronte's Villette

Jane Eyre (1847) was Charlotte Brontë's first published novel, and it made her famous. But as I wrote in "I scorn your idea of love": Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, I found its central love story to be troubling (and suspect that I may have waited too long to read it for the first time). Still, despite what I viewed as its flaws, Jane Eyre made me curious to read more of Charlotte's work.

And so I next turned to her final novel, Villette (1853). Based on Charlotte's experiences during her two years spent at a boarding school in Belgium, Villette tells the story of the ill-fated loves of its quiet heroine, Lucy Snowe. Despite her name, Lucy is only outwardly cool; inwardly she is warmly passionate. But the constraints which forbid her to express her feelings openly, as men in her society are allowed to, lead to desperate unhappiness—which must, like her love, remain concealed.

Like Jane Eyre, Villette has readily identifiable autobiographical sources. Dr. John Graham Bretton, the handsome and sympathetic English physician whose precious letters Lucy ultimately buries as she must bury her feelings for him, was based on her publisher George Smith. [1]

George Smith. Image: Brontë Parsonage Museum

When Smith wrote Charlotte of his engagement to Elizabeth Blakeway, Charlotte's breviloquent response was "In great happiness, as in great grief—words of sympathy should be few. Accept my meed of congratulation—and believe me Sincerely yours, C. Brontë." [2] This brief note, with its comparison of happiness to "great grief," and offering a "meed" of congratulation (a meed is something won or earned, not freely bestowed), speaks volumes about Charlotte's dismay at this news. Perhaps it is coincidence, but only a few weeks after learning of Smith's engagement Charlotte accepted the marriage proposal of Arthur Nicholls, a man whom she had once described as "highly uninteresting, narrow, and unattractive." [3]

M. Paul Emmanuel, the schoolmaster with whom Lucy's initially antagonistic relationship slowly develops into mutual affection, was based on Constantin Heger. Heger was a teacher at the boarding school that Charlotte attended; he was also the husband of its owner, Claire Heger (portrayed in the novel as the imperious and suspicious Madame Beck).

Constantin Heger

After two years at the Pensionnat Heger, as Elizabeth Gaskell wrote in The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), Charlotte found that she had to leave the school because she was "no longer regarded with the former kindliness of feeling by Madame Héger..." [4] Gaskell was not being fully honest about the reasons for Charlotte's abrupt departure from Brussels in January 1844. The true reason became public only in 1913, when four letters written by Charlotte to M. Heger after she left Brussels were donated by Heger's son Paul to the British Library.

Three of the letters had been torn into pieces by M. Heger, but the pieces were retrieved by Mme. Heger and sewn back together with paper strips. On reading the letters, it's clear why M. Heger thought they were incriminating, and why the mistrustful Mme. Heger went to such lengths to discover, reconstruct and preserve them. They must have amply confirmed her suspicions of an emotional attachment between Charlotte and her husband.

From the evidence of the letters, though, that emotional attachment was one-sided. Charlotte's letters, written mainly in French, are painful reading: they are hurt, apologetic, pleading, and ultimately abject confessions of her feelings.

From the letter of 24 July 1844:
Ah Monsieur! I once wrote you a letter which was hardly rational, because sadness was wringing my heart, but I shall do so no more—I will try to stop being egotistical and though I look on your letters as one of the greatest joys I know, I shall wait patiently to receive them until it pleases and suits you to send them.
...I have not asked you to write to me soon because I don’t want to seem importunate—but you are too good to forget that I wish it all the same—yes—I wish for it very much—that is enough—after all, do as you please, Monsieur—if in fact I received a letter and thought that you had written out of pity for me—that would hurt me very much.
...once more goodbye, Monsieur—it hurts to say goodbye even in a letter—Oh it is certain that I shall see you again one day—it really has to be—for as soon as I have earned enough money to go to Brussels I shall go—and I shall see you again if it is only for a moment. [5]
This is clearly not the first letter in the sequence. Charlotte apologizes for an earlier letter which was "peu raisonnable" (translated by editor Margaret Smith as "hardly rational"), suggesting that it was likely written out of anguish at the lack of a reply from Heger to still earlier letters.

From the letter of 24 October 1844; Charlotte still has not received a reply to her two previous letters:
I am not going to write a long letter...I am afraid of boring you. I would just like to ask you whether you heard from me at the beginning of May and then in the month of August? For all those six months I have been expecting a letter from you, Monsieur—six months of waiting—That is a very long time indeed! Nevertheless I am not complaining and I shall be richly recompensed for a little sadness—if you are now willing to write a letter...
However short the letter may be I shall be satisfied with it— [6]
From the letter of 8 January 1845; Heger has still not replied to Charlotte's previous letters:
Day and night I find neither rest nor peace—if I sleep I have tormenting dreams in which I see you always severe, always saturnine and angry with me—
Forgive me then Monsieur if I take the step of writing to you again—How can I bear my life unless I make an effort to alleviate its sufferings?
I know that you will lose patience with me when you read this letter—You will say that I am over-excited—that I have black thoughts etc. So be it Monsieur—I do not seek to justify myself, I submit to all kinds of reproaches—all I know—is that I cannot—that I will not resign myself to the total loss of my master’s friendship—I would rather undergo the greatest bodily pains than have my heart constantly lacerated by searing regrets. If my master withdraws his friendship from me entirely, I shall be absolutely without hope—if he gives me a little friendship—a very little—I shall be content—happy, I would have a motive for living—for working.
...I don't want to re-read this letter—I am sending it as I have written it—Nevertheless I am as it were dimly aware that there are some cold and rational people who would say on reading it—"she is raving"—My sole revenge is to wish these people—a single day of the torments that I have suffered for eight months—then we should see whether they wouldn't be raving too. [7]
Tellingly, "my master" is how Jane Eyre refers to Rochester. [8]

Charlotte wrote to Heger again in May 1845, a letter in which she evidently promised to write him not more than once every six months (this letter does not survive). Heger seems to have written back, at last ("your last letter has sustained me—has nourished me for six months"), but it was not enough for Charlotte.

From the letter dated 18 November 1845:
I will tell you candidly that during this time of waiting I have tried to forget you, for the memory of a person one believes one is never to see again, and whom one nevertheless greatly respects, torments the mind exceedingly and when one has suffered this kind of anxiety for one or two years, one is ready to do anything to regain peace of mind. I have done everything, I have sought occupations, I have absolutely forbidden myself the pleasure of speaking about you—even to Emily, but I have not been able to overcome either my regrets or my impatience—and that is truly humiliating—not to know how to get the mastery over one’s own thoughts, to be the slave of a regret, a memory, the slave of a dominant and fixed idea which has become a tyrant over one’s mind. Why cannot I have for you exactly as much friendship as you have for me—neither more nor less? Then I would be so tranquil, so free—I could keep silence for ten years without effort.
...Writing to an old pupil cannot be a very interesting occupation for you—I know that—but for me it is life itself. Your last letter has sustained me—has nourished me for six months—now I need another and you will give it me—not because you have any friendship for me—you cannot have much—but because you have a compassionate soul and because you would not condemn anyone to undergo long suffering in order to spare yourself a few moments of tedium. To forbid me to write to you, to refuse to reply to me—that will be to tear from me the only joy I have on earth—to deprive me of my last remaining privilege—a privilege which I will never consent to renounce voluntarily. Believe me, my master, in writing to me you do a good deed—so long as I think you are fairly pleased with me, so long as I still have the hope of hearing from you, I can be tranquil and not too sad, but when a dreary and prolonged silence seems to warn me that my master is becoming estranged from me—when day after day I await a letter and day after day disappointment flings me down again into overwhelming misery, when the sweet delight of seeing your writing and reading your counsel flees from me like an empty vision—then I am in a fever—I lose my appetite and my sleep—I pine away. May I write to you again next May? I would have liked to wait a full year—but it is impossible—it is too long— [9]
This was apparently the last letter she wrote to Heger. In all likelihood Charlotte had already begun writing The Professor, her first attempt at rendering her love for her teacher into fictional form.

Separation from the beloved is a trope that recurs again and again in Charlotte's novels. In The Professor (published posthumously in 1857) a young teacher at a girls' boarding school in Belgium, Frances Henri, is dismissed by its jealous owner, Mlle Reuter, because of the developing affection between Frances and another teacher, William Crimsworth, with whom Mlle Reuter is also in love. In Jane Eyre, Jane and Rochester fall in love, but she flees his house when she discovers that he is already married. In Shirley (1849), mill owner Robert Moore deliberately distances himself from Caroline Helstone to prevent himself from falling in love with her; she sits by her window every day hoping to catch a glimpse of him going by (shades of Charlotte hoping daily for a letter from M. Heger). And in Villette, M. Paul is sent by his family to oversee their West Indian plantations for three years; the possessive Madame Beck attempts to prevent M. Paul and Lucy from even having a chance to say goodbye to one another.

Villette does not contain the same sort of highly dramatic action as Jane Eyre: there is no demonic laughter echoing through the halls at night, no flights across the storm-swept moor, no return to the charred ruin of a once-magnificent estate. The landscape of the novel is an interior one, as we slowly come to know Lucy's perceptions, thoughts and feelings. Charlotte reported that her publisher was "a little disheartened by the tranquillity" of the novel. [10] The poet and critic Matthew Arnold, though hostile to Villette and its author, was more perceptive when he wrote that under its muted and melancholy surface it "contained nothing but hunger, rebellion, and rage." [11]

Villette's complex characters and richness of (seemingly minor, but tellingly detailed) incident made it feel more emotionally true than its famous predecessor. And I discovered that I'm not the only one who thinks so; so did Brontë's contemporary George Eliot ("Villette! Villette! It is a still more wonderful book than Jane Eyre.") So also do some modern critics such as Lucy Hughes-Hallett, who writes that Villette is "at once an intensely erotic love story, a fierce attack on the conventions that doomed so many 19th-century women to submission and frustration, and a beautiful and inventive piece of poetic fiction" (in "Why Villette is better than Jane Eyre"). Joining their company is Claire Fallon, who praises its heroine's "perceptiveness and ability to embrace ambiguity" (in "This Charlotte Brontë Novel Is Way Better Than 'Jane Eyre'). As Hughes-Hallett asserts, "Charlotte Brontë wrote not one but two masterpieces," and the greater of them is Villette.


1. Sidney Lee, "Memoir of George Smith," preface to the Dictionary of National Biography (Suppl. 1), Oxford University Press, 1901, p. xxii.
2. Margaret Smith, ed. Selected Letters of Charlotte Bronte, Oxford University Press, 2007. Letter 152. To George Smith, 10 December 1853, p. 227 (see
3. Selected letters of Charlotte Bronte, Letter 44. To Ellen Nussey, 10 July 1846, p. 77 (see
4. Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Smith, Elder & Co., 1857, Chapter XII
5. Selected Letters of Charlotte Bronte. Letter 28. To Constantin Heger, 24 July [1844], pp. 51-52 (see
6. Selected Letters of Charlotte Bronte. Letter 30. To Constantin Heger, 24 October 1844, p. 55 (see
7. Selected Letters of Charlotte Bronte. Letter 31. To Constantin Heger, 8 January 1845, p. 58 (see
8. Reinforcing the Heger-Rochester connection is a poem Charlotte wrote about her love for Heger in 1845. Quoting it in part:
His coming was my hope each day
His parting was my pain!
The chance that did his steps delay
Was ice in every vein

I gave entire affection now
I gave devotion sure
And strong took root and fast did grow
One mighty feeling more

The truest love that ever heart
Felt at its kindled core
Through my veins with quickened start
A tide of life did pour

[A] halo played about the brows
Of life as seen by me
bliss within me rose
And anxious ecstacy

I dreamed it would be nameless bliss
As I loved—loved to be
And to this object did I press
As blind as eagerly.
Most of the verses from this poem, with diction slightly revised and gender reversed ("Her coming was my hope each day") became the song that Rochester sings to Jane in Chapter 24 of Jane Eyre.
9. Selected Letters of Charlotte Bronte. Letter 36. To Constantin Heger, 18 November 1845, pp. 67-68 (see
10. Margaret Smith, ed. The Letters of Charlotte Bronte, vol. 3: 1852-1855. To George Smith, 20 November 1852, p. 83 (see
11. Quoted in Miriam Allott, ed. The Brontes: The Critical Heritage. Routledge, 1974, p. 201 (see

1 comment :

  1. More juicy details of Charlotte--love it! I really want to read Villette now :)