On Villette: Snowe and Fire, Femininity and Feminism

Charlotte Bronte was born on this day in 1816. Today we take a look at Villette, her late undersung masterpiece.


Lucy Snowe, the heroine of Villette, is often seen as a woman of oppositions: of passion and emotional distance, what Kate Lawson, in her preface to the Broadview  edition, calls a “bewildering combination of fire and ice.” She seems to be a cipher, resisting self-definition, impossible to interpret.

One way that she does open herself to be “known” or interpreted is through the contrast or opposition, not between different sides of herself, but between herself and others. The book is full of people who, though they’re entirely different from each other, are held up as foils for Lucy. There’s Ginevra Fanshawe, the coquettish, crude, spoiled and dishonest young woman who enjoys making Lucy the confidante of her attempts to gain money and attention. There’s Paulina de Bassompierre, the innocent, beautiful heiress who finds love with the handsome young doctor who is the first recipient of Lucy’s secret romantic affections.

Towards Ginevra is directed all Lucy’s sarcasm and judgment. Though Lucy is kind to her in many ways—she shares her helpings of meals with the selfish Ginevra, for example, and even does sewing for her, with no recompense—she reproves Ginevra frequently and tongue-lashes her for all of her many failings. Through this relationship, Lucy draws a sharp contrast between herself—honest, hard-working, Puritan, never begging for trinkets or loans from others, but living on what she rightfully possesses—and Ginevra, who accepts gifts from men in love with her and shamelessly begs for money from rich acquaintances.

With Paulina, or little Polly, Lucy draws a different contrast: between her lot in life, riddled with disappointment and loneliness, and the lot of certain happy people who blossom in the sunlight and somehow manage to live a life that is almost entirely unshaded. Paulina’s character is also different from Lucy’s. At the time Bronte was writing and, I’m afraid, even now, Paulina might come across well for the comparison. Where Lucy is frigidly aloof, Paulina is demurely shy. Where Lucy frequently denies having any feelings whatsoever, Paulina loves deeply and desires nothing more than to take care of the men in her life, to see to their every need, to subjugate her feelings to theirs. This is true both when Polly’s a child, doting first on her father and then on the young Graham Bretton, and when she’s a young woman, who falls in love with the grown Graham but desperately wants her father’s blessing before she can marry him. Who doesn’t prefer genuine sweetness to prickly self-reliance?

Lucy too admires Paulina; she even encourages her in a set of values that seem contrary to all feminist, and in particular, all of Charlotte Bronte’s own thought. Don’t love until your love is sought—that would be unwomanly! Do not correspond with a man independently—that would be dishonoring your father! Yet Lucy loves unsought twice: she loves Graham, though she schools herself not to expect anything from him; and she loves the irascible French teacher Monsieur Paul even when she believes he loves and plans to marry his young god-daughter (another foil, but I’ll get to that another time). She exchanges letters with Graham herself, and refuses to allow M. Paul to discourage her in the correspondence, though he tries.

So why does she encourage Paulina in this set of old-fashioned values? This grating denial of any possibility for a woman to feel independent passion or desire without somehow humiliating herself?

For one thing, Lucy wouldn’t suffer from such strictures even if she followed them. With no family, male or otherwise, to call her own, she has no need to ask for permission before falling in love, or corresponding with a man. Though M. Paul stands in as a brother figure sometimes, both by chiding her for her relationship with Graham (and numerous other perceived oversteppings of boundaries) and explicitly by asking for sisterly affection, Lucy never acknowledges or admits any authority he could have over her. She is a free agent—whether she wants to be or not. So as she advocates a certain role for Paulina, she already knows she will never have to fulfill it.

But Lucy also often speaks of Paulina as if she’s from another species. “The love, born of beauty was not mine; I had nothing in common with it: I could not dare to meddle with it” (i.e. the love between Graham and Paulina). The separation between them is, in Lucy’s mind, so vast that they live in different worlds. Paulina is too weak to live the life Lucy has—Lucy often speaks of shielding her wealthier, happier friends from knowledge of her own situation, fearing that even hearing about it might be too much for them to handle—but Paulina has many virtues, and the book casts a kind eye on her weakness as long as it is not moral weakness (like Ginevra’s).

In a way, encouraging Paulina to fulfill these stereotypes is simply Lucy’s way of making Paulina more what she is. What is she? She’s the perfect accessory to the story of a man’s, Graham’s, life. Lucy’s conclusion to Paulina’s story is this:

“Bright, too, was the destiny of his sweet wife. She kept her husband’s love, she aided in his progress—of his happiness she was the corner stone.”

As admirable as Paulina is, her story ends having been completely subjugated to Graham’s. This is much the same danger that Jane Eyre recognizes when she almost agrees to become the missionary companion of her stern, exacting cousin, St. John: “I was tempted to cease struggling with him—to rush down the torrent of his will into the gulf of his existence, and there lose my own.” This is a fate perfectly in tune with what Paulina wants out of her life. Like an affectionate lapdog (Lucy, in fact, compares her to a pretty little cocker spaniel at one point), she wishes to serve a master, and to be rewarded with love.

But that is not what Jane Eyre wants—and it is not what Lucy Snowe wants.

In contrast, Lucy’s ending, though it involves romantic fulfillment with M. Paul, also cuts her off completely from him. While he goes off on a colonial/capitalist mission to increase the worth of a plantation in the West Indies, Lucy herself becomes a small business owner. M. Paul sets up a school for her—but she runs it, and pays the rent. Separated from him, but laboring to support herself independently, she has what she calls the “three happiest years of my life.”

Jane Eyre, of course, is a frankly feminist text with similar themes; in it, Jane refuses to give up her job and the pittance it pays even when engaged to Rochester the first time, and then refuses to marry him until she can do so on terms of true equality, after inheriting money from a distant relative. But though Villette has those unsettling moments in which Lucy seems to encourage an ideal of chaste femininity that sets womanhood back, Lucy’s happy ending shows what her true ideals are. She does receive a small inheritance, but it’s an inheritance from someone she worked for, and the bulk of her money and her small success comes from her own labor at the school.

And what Villette says of femininity is quite complicated compared to Jane Eyre, in which the beautiful women are generally detestable (from Blanche Ingram to Georgina Reed) and the most perfect happiness is to live in harmony and equality with a beloved. Paulina escapes the severe judgment that Lucy levels on Ginevra because she is good; her beauty is, if anything, a positive sign of her character. But Lucy, always rebellious against anyone who tries to exert a moral influence or authority over her, desires and achieves a level of self-determination that Paulina, and I’d argue even Jane, would never dare dream of.

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