Sunday, January 08, 2012

Villette

Sunday being a day of rest, I'm posting what I've written thus far about Charlotte Brontë's Villette:

Villette (1853)

More Penguin Introductions, this time by Tony Tanner, who specializes in psychologically-informed criticism, but is reliably boring, and fails to avoid such critical clichés of the time as “appropriately” and “serves to”.

I’m sorry to keep coming back to this thing about CB explicitly turning her back on the Angrian inspiration. That was a statement of intent, but the inspiration was evidently too powerful, because Villette returns to it. It is a book full of Angrian tricks.

Everyone remembers the final page, in which CB (in deference to her father, apparently) does not quite say what she so direly hints at – and, of course, reminds us that all is fiction.

But the performance in the open pages is equally “worked”. Lucy Snowe, girl, is the observing narrator; but as page follows page and the story of little Paulina and young Graham proceeeds, we become ever more uneasily aware of something missing that we expect to find. It is the complete absence of any account of Lucy’s background, parents, family or even age. (Graham is sixteen, Paulina is six – we will eventually infer that Lucy in these opening chapters is 14 or 15.) With the beginning of Chapter 4, Lucy returns “home”. This, then is surely the expected, if delayed, account of “I was born in __shire, my parents were poor but genteel,” etc. No – instead all we are given is a trickily evasive metaphorical account of generalized disaster, clad in maritime terms. The storm and the wreck appear, and the storm reappears later in the same chapter, when Miss Marchmont tells the story of Frank; all this foreshadows the storm, wrecks, and non-return of the lover in the novel’s Finis. So this active, tragic but occluded material supplies both the book-ends for the novel proper: Lucy is offered as a character without no known past or future. Rather as the indifferent Graham sees her, in fact; as society generally will see her. It’s striking, impressive, and rather artificial.

We are often told that it is a great and all too prevalent sin to read the Brontës’ novels as autobiographical documents, but I think it is quite right to read Villette in this way, and that’s one way to make sense of its artificial, pointedly un-naturalistic structure. I am not referring so much to Charlotte’s memories of her two stays in Brussels, I am referring to the much more recent catastrophe of losing her three lifelong companions in short succession. The occluded and secretive Lucy Snowe makes sense as a mouthpiece, to express it as crudely as possible, for giving vent to Charlotte’s sense of alienation, her resignation to having no clear future, and her consequently extremely critical and judgemental view of the life around her. Such story as Villette possesses is, I won’t say of secondary importance, but it is “worked” in a somewhat offhand manner (very Angrian, this) in pursuit of other more personally pressing goals. Do you think, reader, that this place Villette is truly a solidly wrought fictional scena possessing a sober truth in sharp contrast to those unreal heather moors and cities off the coast of Africa? Well, I do not. This Villette with its spectral nuns, its bejewelled hunchbacks, its fanatic priest, and its undisclosed Graham Bretton the first person that Lucy meets? Or what do you make of Madame Beck, a wonderfully elaborated image of surveillance and respectable selfishness who is constantly built up as if to play a part in some plot, yet is never really given any plotting to do? The naturalistic novel does not seem the best model for this disorientating waywardness.

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