Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Charlotte Brontë once more

Belshazzar's Feast, painting by John Martin (1820)

[Image source:'s_Feast_(Martin_painting) In the foreground are the sacred vessels of the temple, defiled by Belshazzar and his women.]

Lines Addressed to 'The Tower of All Nations'

Oh, thou great, thou mighty tower!
    Rising up so solemnly
O'er all this splendid, glorious city:
    This city of the sea ;

Thou seem'st, as silently I gaze,
   Like a pillar of the sky:
So lofty is thy structure grey ;
  So massive and so high!

The dome of Heaven is o'er thee hung
   With its maze of silver stars ;
The earth is round about thee spread
   With its eternal bars.

And such a charming doggerel
   As this was never wrote,
Not even by the mighty
   And high Sir Walter Scott!

(Charlotte Brontë, aged about 14)

A mezzotint (dating from about 1830) of John Martin's gigantic painting hung in Haworth parsonage. The young Brontës were duly impressed by the tremendous tower of Babel that looms in the background, and it became their model for the most imposing building in their imaginary world, the Tower of All Nations in Verdopolis.

[This information comes from Heather Glen's own essay (on Shirley and Villette)  in The Cambridge Companion to the Brontës (2002), a collection she also edited.  Stevie Davies, editing the poems in 1976, named a different (though equally spectacular) John Martin painting - also with a gigantic tower in the distance - , The Fall of Babylon.]

Mezzotint (1831) from John Martin's painting The Fall of Babylon (1818)

[Image source: ]


"Villette is a still more wonderful book than Jane Eyre. There is something almost preternatural in its power." (George Eliot in 1853)

If we can interpret  "preternatural", the second sentence seems to be a recognition, from the point of view of a future woman novelist who would herself be constantly pushing the boundaries of the possible, that she could neither have conceived beforehand the existence of such a book as Villette nor conceive now how such a book was written.


Some days elapsed, and it appeared she was not likely to take much of a fancy to anybody in the house. She was not exactly naughty or wilful: she was far from disobedient; but an object less conducive to comfort—to tranquillity even—than she presented, it was scarcely possible to have before one's eyes. She moped: no grown person could have performed that uncheering business better; no furrowed face of adult exile, longing for Europe at Europe's antipodes, ever bore more legibly the signs of home sickness than did her infant visage. She seemed growing old and unearthly. I, Lucy Snowe, plead guiltless of that curse, an overheated and discursive imagination; but whenever, opening a room-door, I found her seated in a corner alone, her head in her pigmy hand, that room seemed to me not inhabited, but haunted.
And again, when of moonlight nights, on waking, I beheld her figure, white and conspicuous in its night-dress, kneeling upright in bed, and praying like some Catholic or Methodist enthusiast—some precocious fanatic or untimely saint—I scarcely know what thoughts I had; but they ran risk of being hardly more rational and healthy than that child's mind must have been.
I seldom caught a word of her prayers, for they were whispered low: sometimes, indeed, they were not whispered at all, but put up unuttered; such rare sentences as reached my ear still bore the burden, "Papa; my dear papa!" This, I perceived, was a one-idea'd nature; betraying that monomaniac tendency I have ever thought the most unfortunate with which man or woman can be cursed.
What might have been the end of this fretting, had it continued unchecked, can only be conjectured: it received, however, a sudden turn.
One afternoon, Mrs. Bretton, coaxing her from her usual station in a corner, had lifted her into the window-seat, and, by way of occupying her attention, told her to watch the passengers and count how many ladies should go down the street in a given time. She had sat listlessly, hardly looking, and not counting, when—my eye being fixed on hers—I witnessed in its iris and pupil a startling transfiguration. These sudden, dangerous natures—sensitive as they are called—offer many a curious spectacle to those whom a cooler temperament has secured from participation in their angular vagaries. The fixed and heavy gaze swum, trembled, then glittered in fire; the small, overcast brow cleared; the trivial and dejected features lit up; the sad countenance vanished, and in its place appeared a sudden eagerness, an intense expectancy. "It is!" were her words.
Like a bird or a shaft, or any other swift thing, she was gone from the room. How she got the house-door open I cannot tell; probably it might be ajar; perhaps Warren was in the way and obeyed her behest, which would be impetuous enough. I—watching calmly from the window—saw her, in her black frock and tiny braided apron (to pinafores she had an antipathy), dart half the length of the street; and, as I was on the point of turning, and quietly announcing to Mrs. Bretton that the child was run out mad, and ought instantly to be pursued, I saw her caught up, and rapt at once from my cool observation, and from the wondering stare of the passengers. A gentleman had done this good turn, and now, covering her with his cloak, advanced to restore her to the house whence he had seen her issue.
I concluded he would leave her in a servant's charge and withdraw; but he entered: having tarried a little while below, he came up-stairs.
His reception immediately explained that he was known to Mrs. Bretton. She recognised him; she greeted him, and yet she was fluttered, surprised, taken unawares. Her look and manner were even expostulatory; and in reply to these, rather than her words, he said,—"I could not help it, madam: I found it impossible to leave the country without seeing with my own eyes how she settled."
"But you will unsettle her."
"I hope not. And how is papa's little Polly?"
This question he addressed to Paulina, as he sat down and placed her gently on the ground before him.
"How is Polly's papa?" was the reply, as she leaned on his knee, and gazed up into his face.
It was not a noisy, not a wordy scene: for that I was thankful; but it was a scene of feeling too brimful, and which, because the cup did not foam up high or furiously overflow, only oppressed one the more. On all occasions of vehement, unrestrained expansion, a sense of disdain or ridicule comes to the weary spectator's relief; whereas I have ever felt most burdensome that sort of sensibility which bends of its own will, a giant slave under the sway of good sense.

(Opening of Chapter 2 of Villette (1853) by Charlotte Brontë, then aged about 36)

It was a lonely Charlotte Brontë who set about writing Villette. Since the time of writing "Lines Addressed to 'The Tower of All Nations'", composition had always been a family affair. A new novel had always been tried out on sisters, even Shirley, though by the end there were no sisters left. But now, according to a letter, she was deeply conscious of making her way unaided (her father apparently was no substitute, though we know his opinion had a modifying influence on the ending). 

There are many voices here. The author's wit, though no longer funny, brims with energy. The remarkably accurate observation of the child Paulina, her father, and later Graham, is hard to reconcile with the cool, judgmental Lucy Snowe. Surely such observation must imply tenderness? We're meant to notice Lucy, of course. At times it's a little unsubtle, for example the adverb "quietly" intruded into a remark that Lucy never even gets to make. At the end of the quoted passage we see how Lucy is oppressed by palpable emotion even more than by a blaze of passion, because she can't find the former ridiculous. But why this terror of emotion, if Lucy's unspecified tragedies are still in the future?

Lucy already, it seems, sees herself as something less than a human being. On the first page of Villette, she comments: "One child in a household of grown people is usually made very much of, and in a quiet way I was a good deal taken notice of by Mrs Bretton..." But why is Lucy "one child in a household of grown people" when she is only a year younger than Mrs Bretton's son Graham, who is still at school? Graham appears to regard Lucy as, if anything, rather older than himself: old enough, anyway, to safely pronounce her dull in contrast to little Paulina.

The anti-self-portrait of these opening chapters is sufficiently tortuous to draw the attention that it seems to want to hide from. The reader keeps wondering if Lucy is perhaps joking about her own cool nature, if she must mean us to interpret her as being full of the warm feelings that we like to think we feel ourselves when we read about Paulina and her father. The mystery is never, perhaps, quite resolved. Lucy holding Paulina in her arms on the night of her departure, or the dark-haired boy child a couple of chapters later, suggests a reasonably warm heart and more than usual consideration, where children were concerned. Yet both scenes also suggest that Lucy didn't feel the children were very fond of her.

In some way the apparent contradictions in the narrator are a searching self-portrait of Charlotte, very different from the passionate Jane Eyre. But not quite resolved. Lonely as she was, Charlotte was now a famous novelist, no longer hiding behind the name of Currer Bell, and made some short visits to London -- meeting Thackeray and G.H. Lewes, among others. Witnesses say she appeared grave and serious. She apparently found the presence of young children burdensome. Patricia Beer tells us that her late and all-too-brief marriage was a happy one.

jacket of a Spanish translation of Villette



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