Villette by Charlotte Bronte

Arguably Brontë's most refined and deeply felt work, Villette draws on her profound loneliness following the deaths of her three siblings. Lucy Snowe, the narrator of Villette, flees from an unhappy past in England to begin a new life as a teacher at a French boarding school in the great cosmopolitan capital of Villette. Soon Lucy's struggle for independence is overshadowed by both her friendship with a worldly English doctor and her feelings for an autocratic schoolmaster. Brontë's strikingly modern heroine must decide if there is any man in her society with whom she can live and still be free.

"Bronte's finest work!" said Virginia Woolf

Protagonist, ten year old Lucy Snowe, observes her godmother, Mrs. Bretton, her son, Graham Bretton, and a young visitor, Paulina Home de Bassompierre. Paulina adores Graham, but he doesn’t notice her in a romantic way because she is only six years old. After a family tragedy occurs, Lucy now 23 years old sails to “Labassecour” in Belgium in the novel even though she doesn’t speak French. Once she arrives in the capital city of Villette, Lucy works as a teacher at a boarding school for girls run by Mme. Beck. This school could be the faux representation of Hegers’ Brussels pensionnat where Charlotte Bronte and her sister Emily Bronte taught and were students in Brussels. 

In Villette, Lucy thrives in her new environment and the lonely girl notices the handsome English doctor, Dr. John, who is in love with Ginevra.  Bronte, spins a plot twist where Dr. John is late revealed to be another person altogether! Ginevra cannot be bothered so he turns his attentions to lonely Lucy who falls in love with him even though her emotions scream otherwise. It is not to be for poor Lucy and Bronte throws a third party into the mix resulting in an unforeseen love triangle! Go 1853!!  

Gothic elements abound at this point in Villette where Lucy has several encounters with the shadowy figure of a nun in the attic. Yes, the attic; where else! No this isn’t Jane Eyre but this ghostly figure may connect to a sub plot of a nun who was buried alive on the grounds of Mme. Beck’s boarding school for breaking her vows of chastity; a nun’s habit is destroyed and another character’s secret identity is revealed!

Lucy does find love at the boarding school so Villette is not a complete romantic tragedy; there are the family members who try to keep them apart, he leaves for a while and we have the pining of sad Lucy missing her love and the discovery and test of whether or not it is real love after all! 

Charlotte Bronte leaves the final pages of Villette up to the reader to form their own conclusion about Lucy’s happy ending. She however, hints at Paul’s ship being destroyed in a storm on his sail back to her and his possible death!  Oh no!!   Not a Miranda the Tempest moment!!


If you would like to read one of my older articles about Charlotte Bronte's real life teaching at Brussels,  The Tale of Unrequited Love


Hels said…
This sounds remarkably like Charlotte Brontë's own life, doesn't it? If it was her most refined and deeply felt work, we should not be surprised. Charlotte's profound loneliness following the deaths of her three siblings must have been devastating. I personally would not have survived it.

And fleeing from an unhappy past in England to begin a new life as a teacher at a French boarding school on the Continent must have seemed highly autobiographical to her readers!
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Hels,
Yes, it is 'supposedly' modeled closely after her own life experiences. I don't know quite how she survived losing her three sibling's but how does anyone survive loss in their life? Yes, I'm sure it was devastating. Charlotte and Emily Bronte taught at the boarding school early in their lives and thank goodness we have some surviving manuscript mentions and her books of course!