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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Villette Chapters 1-15: Ghostly Nuns, Cross-Dressing, and Meribah’s Waters Gushing Out

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 07/14/09 at 06:51 AM

After a rich start to our discussion of Villette, we’re on to the second installment of our group reading (the full schedule is here; the discussion guidelines are here). There are all kinds of tempting scenes and details for us to consider; I’ll just mention a few and then get out of the way. I continue to be fascinated by Lucy as narrator: her voice vies for my attention and interest with the action it describes. Though at least twice in this week’s chapters Lucy refers to herself as “a looker-on at life,” by the end of Chapter XV her cherished reserve has been broken or failed several times. One intriguing element is the ghostly nun said to haunt both the “allee defendue” and the attic: in a novel making such a parade of anti-Catholic sentiment ("a subtle essence of Romanism pervaded every arrangement: large sensual indulgence ... was permitted by way of counterpoise to jealous spiritual restraint"), what associations should we make between repressed Lucy and the “girl whom a monkish conclave of the drear middle ages had here buried alive, for some sin against her vow”? What does it mean that Lucy mistakenly receives the “billet-doux,” and then is wracked, first with laughter, then with tears, at the impossibility that she should be the one caught up in this romantic intrigue? What do we make of the relationship between Lucy and Ginevra Fanshawe, who seems to have replaced little Polly as a foil character, or perhaps an alter ego, for Lucy? What is at stake in the remarkable cross-dressing sequence, in which Lucy is brought out of her “gown of shadow” and onto the stage where she competes, not with Ginevra for Dr. John, but with Dr. John for Ginevra “(I hardened my heart, rivalled and out-rivalled him. . . . somehow, my longing was to eclipse the ‘Ours’")? Finally, what is the significance of Lucy’s emotional and psychological decline at the end of this volume, culminating in her confession to the Catholic priest? Is there some truth to his suggestion that “Protestantism is altogether too dry, cold, prosaic for you”? Though “dry, cold, [and] prosaic” exactly captures the characteristics Lucy cultivates in herself, it seems likely that M. Paul Emmanuel would agree that her true nature is other: “I know you! I know you! Other people in this house see you pass, and think that a colourless shadow has gone by. As for me, I scrutinized your face once and it has sufficed. . . . I watched you and saw a passionate ardour for triumph in your physiognomy. What fire shot into the glance! Not mere light, but flame: je me tins pour averti [I consider myself warned].”


The cross-dressing sequence is also notable for her refusal to cross-dress.  She insists on wearing a few symbolic items to indicate that she’s supposed to be playing a man, but not a full costume.  Indicating that she wishes to compete romantically as herself, perhaps.

Can we agree on a few things regarding her mental breakdown?  First, all of the reasons she gives for it appear to be bogus.  She’s used to solitude, or near-solitude, and she can’t really be worried about her lot in life with regard to work; she just had a successful English examination of her students, as a new teacher.  And her confession is, typically, a non-confession—of what?  It appears to me to be clear that she breaks down because she has to confront feelings of attraction for Dr. John.  Obviously, she’s interested in him, in some sense.  Dr. John is rather a vapid person, and Lucy ironically doesn’t catch the point of her own speech to him telling him how silly it is that he thinks that Ginevra is lovable because of her looks.  Perhaps Lucy really wants the feeling of being attractive, of loving and being loved, rather than being attached to Dr. John per se.  The point of her competition with him in the play would be that she wants to be desired, as he is, rather than that she really desires him specifically.  But in any case, her struggle to repress her interest in romance appears to me to be the likely proximate cause of the breakdown.

The breakdown is rather suggestive when read through the interpretive theory I’m using, that of Lucy having suffered from child abuse.  Confronting adult sexuality, and adult desire within herself, could be particularly traumatic for her.

By on 07/14/09 at 09:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Lucy’s breakdown seems to be connected above all to her solitude, and to the mental turmoil it precipitates--which once again she connects with the weather.  ("Weather abroad / And weather in the heart alike come on / Regardless of prediction.” Adrienne Rich “Storm Warnings").  What I’ve been noticing most about the novel in these chapters is the references to social identity and money.  Today we are used to the idea of the self as multiple and unstable, whereas Lucy craves a stable, fixed identity.  Her lack of identity is deeply threatening to her.  In chapter IV she says “self-reliance and exertion were forced upon me by circumstances.” In chapter IX, speaking of the need to assert herself in the school, she says “I must look only to myself.” The Emersonian phrase “self-reliance” seems to have a financial meaning on one level: she wants to earn her bread.  I wonder if some of her reticence about her family is attributable to a loss of social position, perhaps connected with a scandal in the family (eg financial failure).  The metaphors of drowning and shipwreck were often used in the nineteenth century in connnection with social failure (the shipwreck of one’s hopes etc), and for a young woman to lose her social position would be to die metaphorically in connection with her former friends.  Her uncles stayed at the respectable hotel near St Paul’s where the waiter remembers her, but Lucy can only stay there because she has been paid her wages by Miss Marchmont’s relative.
Lucy is trying to maintain her position by earning her own living (and it was cheaper to live on the Continent, which is why Victorian novels are full of people who escape from their debts to live in Belgium).
Of course, there is also the issue of her passionate nature, and her erotic longing, which I’m sure we will talk about more, but I think we should remember that Bronte is always on one level the pragmatic Yorkshirewoman who tells us where her heroines get their money and how much things cost, just as in Wuthering Heights her sister Emily grounds her romantic tale in a precise knowledge of English property law.

By on 07/14/09 at 10:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

JRussell, I’m sorry to repeat what I commented just above, but I don’t believe that this is about “social identity and money”.  The last thing that Lucy tells us about before her isolation and breakdown is her successful English examinations.  If she’s concerned about social identity and money, she should be satisfied—she’s just passed a major test of her new status as teacher.

Lucy can’t hide—because it would invalidate other parts of her narrative—the bare fact that she’s had a breakdown.  So she comes up with a socially acceptable reason for it; she is concerned about self-reliance, making something of herself, etc.  But I don’t see how this can be true, given that she is making something of herself.  Her reasons are deceptions of self or other; the really important thing seems to me to be all the cravings she’s shown, as with her tears after she gets the billet-doux and her longing to compete in the play, and her repeated, almost incessant descriptions of how good-looking Dr. John is.

By on 07/14/09 at 10:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, Agreed about the attraction to Dr. John - Ginevra even becomes a “heroine” to her by the end of Volume I.  But after her success in the examination she has to confront the fact that everyone else has somewhere to go for the holiday, whereas she is left with the “poor deformed and imbecile pupil” whose stepmother does not want her to return home.
It’s interesting that Lucy, Protestant heretic, can imagine herself as a Carmelite nun.  But instead she expresses her collapse in biblical language: a longing for wings to ascend, but instead “I seemed to pitch headlong down an abyss.”

By on 07/14/09 at 10:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Like Rich, I too was struck by Lucy’s attribution of her breakdown solely to loneliness. She previously described her frustration at being constantly interrupted in her “daydreams”. Free to spend the summer months reading, writing and thinking in peace, sitting under the trees, wouldn’t she welcome this solitude? But in the absence of any outside influence to distract her mind from them, her thoughts at that particular time (re. Dr. John, and perhaps also Monsieur Paul?) nearly drive her over the edge.

By on 07/14/09 at 11:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Lucy attributes her breakdown in part to isolation, which I’m sure was a factor—in that she was left without distractions—but she also mentions the disabled girl she had to care for as being a trial.  I was wondering what part this girl plays in the narrative, if indeed she plays any.  The things that Lucy needs to do to care for her could indeed be distressing, but Lucy has been in a caretaker role before.  Perhaps she’s especially bothered by it since it’s a sort of substitute parent-child relationship; the girl, though chronologically in adolescence, has to be taken care of in the ways that small children require.  That could remind Lucy of what she will apparently never have—marriage and children—or even of her own childhood.

By on 07/14/09 at 01:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As Rich suggests, I think the disabled girl is important.  Two further suggestions: the fact that she has been rejected by her stepmother means that she is another reminder to Lucy about her own lack of close family connections, and the girl’s utter dependency perhaps foreshadows Lucy’s collapse at the end of Volume I.

By on 07/14/09 at 02:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I am finding Bronte’s use of gothic tropes fascinating.  Lucy’s inflamed gothic sensibility was discussed briefly last week, and as I’ve read more I’ve been wondering about the ways Gothicism informs her perception of events.  I’m not sure Bronte is writing a gothic narrative (at least not completely); perhaps instead she shows how the Gothic as a narrative mode structures Lucy’s understanding of her experience.  I guess what intrigues me is that Lucy at times resists gothic associations (“romantic rubbish,” chapter 12; “I did not believe this, nor was I troubled by apprehension” of the ghostly nun in the attic, chapter 14), but other times, she appears enthralled (her fearful excitement at nightmarish saint stories, chapter 13; her readiness to go to confession in a solemn, gloomy church, chapter 15).  I’m not sure what all of this amounts to except that we’re regularly reminded of the gothic possibilities in Lucy’s experience.  It seems as though she has read plenty of eighteenth-century gothic novels, which have influenced her perception, yet she wants to discount their influence at the same time that she finds some pleasure in their effect.  Is she fantasizing that she is a gothic heroine as she relates her life?  Then she realizes that the fantasy is bosh?  The novel seems comprised of mixed narrative modes:  how does this mixture affect the reading experience?  The reader picking up on the gothic tropes would seem to have them frustrated, much as Lucy seems to discount the presence of the ghostly nun.  Is Bronte critiquing the gothic genre? Challenging the reader?

By Albert on 07/14/09 at 10:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree with Rich that the breakdown is partially caused by Lucy’s suppressed feelings for Dr. John (and yes, he is vapid--he is the male equivalent of the boring, silly heroines of whom Dickens was so fond). But surely the concerns about her social identity that JRussell mentions are bound up with her feelings about Dr. John? Part of the reason, it seems to me, that these feelings cause her so much pain is because of her low social status. Lucy’s continual commentary on her social identity reminds me of the scene in Jane Eyre in which Jane resolves to draw portraits of herself and her rival for Mr. Rochester’s affections in order to remind herself how lowly she was and how much less desirable than her rival.

I don’t agree that Lucy’s resentment of the “cretin” (as she charmingly puts it) has anything to do with regret over the lost possibilities of motherhood; if that were the case she would resent Georgette, but she adores her and grieves when she goes away. I think, rather, that caring for the mentally-disabled girl is the kind of job only the lowliest teacher would be given; it is a task that strikes at the heart of her fears about her social identity.

Albert, I think you make good points about the gothic tropes in the novel. I find the way that Bronte plays with these tropes very intriguing; it seems oddly modern to me.

By Gayla on 07/15/09 at 12:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think it’s probably right that Lucy’s breakdown is closely linked to some sort of sexual or romantic awakening. But I’m not sure even RP’s child abuse thesis quite explains the intensity of this event. Its rhetoric reminds me of a protestant spiritual crisis--the rhetoric of despair and hopelessness, the terror that no redemption is possible--"the conviction that Fate was of stone, and Hope a false idol.” But this despair is oddly mixed, apparently almost simultaneously, with a (new?) hope for salvation, for she begins to feel that there is “affection and sorrow in Heaven,” etc. I kept being reminded of Bunyan’s *Grace Abounding*, but given the Catholicized setting, maybe St. John of the Cross is more apt.

I’m also oddly fascinated by the fact that M. Paul has to lock her in the attic to get her to learn her lines. And that she takes this opportunity to build herself a “throne.” She’s very good, it seems, at taking situations where she is powerless and confined and fashioning some sort of improvisational power within them.

By on 07/16/09 at 03:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, one more thing. The disabled child--the “cretin"--is described somewhat inconsistently, isn’t she? In one paragraph, she comes across as languid, sitting by the fire, lethargic, inert. But two paragraphs later, Lucy describes her as malevolent, evil, and mischievous. We don’t see any concrete acts of mischief except for some unattractive facial contortions. Not a contradiction, I guess, but not quite a coherent picture.

Is this inconsistency just a glitch in the narrative? Or does it perhaps tell us something important about Lucy’s mental state? Is there some sort of doubling/projection at work?

By on 07/16/09 at 03:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think the “cretin,” described in the most heartless terms by someone who has no feel for working with the disabled, is supposed to be at times docile, at times malevolent. But Lucy’s prejudices make her a stronger character, particularly her revulsion at the disabled girl and her anti-Catholicism. It’s fascinating how her sexual roles keep shifting, and who’s responsible for shifting them. M. Paul seems to move through the society with an ambiguity similar to Lucy’s, and it’s M. Paul who pushes her beyond her own preset boundaries, both sexually and scholastically. It’s almost as if Lucy needs an outside catalyst to do anything—a death, a word about teaching English expats, the forcefulness of M. Paul or Dr. John, or the compassion of the priest. Bronte’s depiction of depression is especially strong. Plus, she seems to be attracted to, at times, all three characters—Dr. John, M. Paul and Ginerva.

The dryness of Protestantism was in the air in England, of course; this was about the time (maybe a little later) of the Oxford movement. Did Bronte have any connection to that, or did she die before its full flower?

By on 07/20/09 at 07:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think Lucy’s slghtly OTT self-degradation (like Jane Eyre’s) is a kind of conceit; she almost seems to boast of her plain, insignificant self - like Charlotte herself, perhaps? Frankly, I get really fed up with her arrogant displays of what I see as mock humility. Only Rich’s reading helped me start to understand her a little and be more compassionate to a character I dislike as much as the autor intended, it seems.

By on 07/20/09 at 09:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, I think that Sue’s onto something, there.  She’s always talking about how retiring she is, of how unambitious she is, and it’s just false—she set out by herself to a whole different country, not even just moving to London.  And it comes off as a sort of arrogant conceit.  It’s possible to boast about how humble you are, of course.

I see it not only as a sort of smokescreen thrown up for the person she’s narrating to, but also for herself.  She’s not really aware of why she does things, and—according to my interpretation, anyways—whenever she tries to think about it too hard, the nightmares come back and she risks another breakdown.  So the continual line of patter is her convincing herself—convincing herself that she is a shy, retiring person who regrettably only does what people tell her to do.  The self-repression is part of her defense.

By on 07/20/09 at 09:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, I agree, Rich. Even in gender specific terms she’s duplicitous - hence the very odd semi-cross dressing, for example. She seems psycholgically fragile, certainly, and emotionally dislocated (for what reason we can’t know, of course, but I found your citing of the imagery in the dream-narrative pretty convincing, even if Bronte was unconscious of it).
The difficulty for me - and maybe it’s something lacking in me - is that I lose patience (in life and fiction) with characters who say ‘Don’t look at me!’ so loudly as to attract the attention they say they don’t want.
In one of the biographies (it may be Gaskell’s, can’t recall just now) there is a story of Charlotte hiding behind a curtain at a party so both there and not there but ultimately attracting more notice - a ‘smokescreen’ such as you suggest applies to Lucy? 
I think all the Bronte’s novels display repression of some sort - even more than most Victorian Literature and that’s saying something ...wonder why? BTW I’m teaching Jane Eyre in the autumn and this will help!

By on 07/20/09 at 10:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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