| (28 Mar 2017)|
|Charlotte Bronte’s last novel about a governess who goes abroad to Brussels to become an English teacher at a small girls’ school was published in 1853, nearly 10 years after the author’s own return from a similar occupation. Narrated in the first person, Lucy Snowe’s descriptions of people, associations, and events can be dispassionate initially, but later turn increasingly internal with incisive depth into Lucy’s assessment of herself in situations and relationships. Lucy continually exercises silent self-denial on behalf of those she loves. The emotional and psychological strain of love earned, yet denied, rises in crescendo, along with the cynicism of the disappointed romantic. The final chapters evolve into a wild ride of inner emotion, imaginative depictions, swirling doubts of Lucy’s own self as well as others around her, and her future. The separation of author, narrator and reader is very thin at times, moving away from the simple account to more abstract expression of her inner turmoil toward the end of the novel. |
Some of Lucy’s judgement and assertions are quite advanced for the mid-1900’s, suiting attitudes that would become commonplace a century later. When Lucy is put on the spot to extemporize an elocution on “Human Justice,” she is inarticulate, having known little justice of her own. For Lucy Snowe, there is recompense in gaining independence, but that is small beer to true justice. The begrudging endurance of a male dominated, strict social order is a constant subtheme.
As once stated in a personal poem to my family, “It is the lesson of Job not to measure our sin by our suffering. Instead, just begin.” Lucy does have her setbacks and suffering, but like Job, she stays faithful to her beliefs. Yet, with each downturn, she manages to recover and move on with success, albeit with greater personal and emotional cost.
There are many passages bordering on the poetic: “The month was July, the morning fine, the glass-door stood ajar, through it played a fresh breeze, and plants, growing at the lintel, waved, bent, looked in, seeming to whisper tidings.” Charlotte never met a comma she did not like. Frequent references in Bronte’s text to lesser known details from Greek Mythology, Biblical Scripture, Shakespeare, and European literature would have required a refined (if not rigorous) education on the part of the mid-Nineteenth Century reader. Footnoting such references as well as numerous French phrases, means a good reference list, as I had in the back of my edition, is absolutely essential to today’s reader.
Charlotte’s early life experience caring for her five motherless siblings trained her to become a governess before becoming a teacher. While Bronte’s Jane Eyre was subtitled, “An Autobiography,” Villette reflects more the author’s own background teaching English in Brussels, and her deep attachment to the married professor Constantin Heger. Like Lucy, she also desired to establish a small school but at home in Haworth, England. Unlike Lucy Snowe’s achievement of independence, Charlotte was never able to fulfill that dream.