Saturday, May 6, 2023

Review: Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Well-mannered and bright woman from an impoverished aristocratic family undergoes character development and is rewarded for it by a prosperous marriage. Sound familiar? It’s the plot for novels ranging from Jane Austen to Jane Eyre, and it is, in my reading at least, completely, amusingly, subverted in Charlotte Brontë's 1853 novel Villette. Maybe other girls have marriage as their reward; Villette is about the aristocracy learning to become bourgeois, about a young woman learning how to run a business.

Our impoverished aristocratic heroine is one Lucy Snowe, a highborn girl who we first meet spending a few months with her rich godmother, Mrs Bretton. In her early adulthood, Lucy loses her family and her fortune. The circumstances of this sudden loss of wealth are never clearly explained. Lucy is an unreliable narrator; she keeps the identity of a character secret for several chapters, until it is most dramatic to reveal she had known all along (information asymmetry is after all highly exploitable for profit) and she often mocks the reader for making assumptions or wanting to know particular details or her innermost longings. All we know of Lucy’s impoverishment is that it somehow involves a shipwreck. Perhaps she could turn to her wealthy godmother for support? No: it is the early 1800s, the aristocracy faces financial precarity in a world upset by capitalism, subject to the whims of unpredictable market bubbles. Mrs Bretton's property, “which had been chiefly invested in some joint-stock undertaking, had melted, it was said, to a fraction of its original amount.”

With no family relations to support her, Lucy becomes a caregiver for a wealthy elderly woman. The woman soon dies, and Lucy falls into despair as she tries to identify how she will be able to support herself. Like many propertyless individuals of the nineteenth century who struggled to find employment, Lucy sets out to a foreign land: a fictional continental European country called Labassecour. Though in the same dire straits as the working class, Lucy retains the tastes and obliviousness as to the financial values of things of the aristocracy. A wiser Lucy, later in the novel, will remark upon awareness of the material worth of objects as a bourgeois characteristic: “Ginevra ever stuck to the substantial; I always thought there was a good trading element in her composition, much as she scorned the ‘bourgeoise.’” But for now, our hapless heroine spends far too much money — “three times that afternoon I had given crowns where I should have given shillings” — and loses every one of her paltry possessions on the journey, finding herself purely by Providence in the drawing room of a Madame Beck, a well-off mistress of a private school for girls.

In this tense scene, Lucy is faced with the “perils of darkness and the street” if she is not able to secure employment with Madame Beck. In desperation, she pleads, successfully:

Be assured, madame, that by instantly securing my services, your interests will be served and not injured: you will find me one who will wish to give, in her labour, a full equivalent for her wages.

Thrust into this new life, Lucy is very aware of class differences, nationality differences, and wealth differences. Madame Beck, dressed in impeccable French tailoring, “looked well, though a little bourgeoise; as bourgeoise, indeed, she was." The educational institution features girls from both the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, and Lucy finds that it is the lower class that possesses more admirable virtues:

At the desks of Madame Beck’s establishment the young countess and the young bourgeoise sat side by side. Nor could you always by outward indications decide which was noble and which plebeian; except that, indeed, the latter had often franker and more courteous manners, while the former bore away the bell for a delicately-balanced combination of insolence and deceit. In the former there was often quick French blood mixed with the marsh-phlegm: I regret to say that the effect of this vivacious fluid chiefly appeared in the oilier glibness with which flattery and fiction ran from the tongue, and in a manner lighter and livelier, but quite heartless and insincere.

Lucy adjusts to her new life as a waged worker and as an immigrant — but not easily. She struggles with loneliness and depression. Eventually, she becomes so distraught that she swoons in a church yard, and is nursed to health by her godmother and her son, Dr. John Graham Brretton, after a surprise reunion. Lucy falls in love with Dr. John, however her affections are not returned. Dr. John is instead besotted with Lucy’s companion and student, Ginevra.

Let’s pause for a moment here and examine the trope of marriage as a reward for well-behaved young women. There are three single, aristocratic women in this novel (all British, incidentally): Ginevra, Paulina, and our heroine, Lucy. Ginevra, poor but gently born, is beautiful, unstudious, unreligious, materialistic and toys with men's affections. Paulina, a countess, is highly accomplished, sweet, chaste, witty, and thoughtful towards her loving if overly controlling father. Lucy falls somewhere in between the two: pious, gracious, restrained, poor at mathematics and lowbrow in her artistic tastes.

Following the conventional marriage tropes of the era, we would expect some embarrassing scandal of an elopement resulting in abject poverty or misery for Ginevra. Instead — having burned bridges with Dr. John for taking too much advantage of his heart and purse — we get an embarrassing scandal of an elopement resulting in Ginevra becoming a countess, living relatively comfortably, and (through a little of her own cunning) “suffering as little as any human being I have ever known.” For Paulina we would expect a happy, fruitful, and prosperous marriage. And it certainly is happy and fruitful — but her prize husband is Dr. John, who has little wealth and works for his living, and who is scorned repeatedly as “bourgeois”. Moreover, although Lucy expresses happiness that her friend marries the man they both love, there is also a sense of loss. Paulina drops suddenly out of the narrative, rarely to be seen again, and in her happy marriage, she seems to become fully subsumed within her husband:

Graham Bretton and Paulina de Bassompierre were married, and such an agent did Dr. Bretton prove. He did not with time degenerate; his faults decayed, his virtues ripened; he rose in intellectual refinement, he won in moral profit: all dregs filtered away, the clear wine settled bright and tranquil. 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. 

And what of Lucy? Bottling up her emotions, she manages to get over Dr. John, and grows fond of Monsieur Paul, a teacher at Madame Beck’s school. M. Paul encourages Lucy in reading, arithmetic and various other self-improvement projects (going so far as to lock her in an attic so she would study her lines — is it a Charlotte Brontë novel without a woman locked in an attic?). When Lucy expresses an interest in running her own school — she wishes to be independent, not working for wages — M. Paul uses his wealth to make this dream come true. 

And here we discover the true reward: emancipation from poverty and familial control comes not through a fortunate marriage (which leaves one subsumed within one’s husband) but through financial independence via capital investment. M. Paul is immediately whisked away on business travel for three years. Lucy reacts thusly:

Reader, they were the three happiest years of my life. Do you scout the paradox? Listen. I commenced my school; I worked—I worked hard. I deemed myself the steward of his property, and determined, God willing, to render a good account. Pupils came—burghers at first—a higher class ere long.

Lucy finds happiness not through marriage, but from growing her business. After some time, yet another windfall of capital comes her way. A distant relative dies, and on his deathbed, bequeaths her a large sum, out of guilt for not having supported her more earlier:

How far his conscience had been sinned against, I never inquired. I asked no questions, but took the cash and made it useful.
Our heroine, who once spent crowns where she should have spent shillings on useless consumption like carriage rides, has learned the bourgeois art of making money with money.

The ending of the novel is ambiguous, but, mirrors the mysterious circumstances surrounding the loss of Lucy’s hereditary wealth: it is implied M. Paul dies in a shipwreck. While Lucy is presumably emotionally devastated by this loss, there is the suggestion that she otherwise continues to be successful in her enterprise. Although Lucy refuses to inform the reader as to her own welfare, the final line in the novel notes that the other independent school proprietress, Madame Beck, “prospered all the days of her life.”

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