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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Villette Chapters 1-22: “I had preferred to keep the matter to myself”

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 07/21/09 at 07:10 AM

Is there a technical term equivalent to “the plot thickens” to describe developments in a novel’s narrator? Because while in many first-person novels the general arc is towards revelation, exposure, or self-understanding, something different seems to go on in Villette, where the complications of dealing with Lucy only increase as we move through the novel. In this week’s installment the most notorious of her deceptions--or is ‘manipulations’ a better word?--is revealed: that she has been concealing, from us and from Dr. John, her knowledge of his real identity and his connection to her past life in Bretton. We had a preview of this ability to withhold significant data when she let on, in Chapter 10, that the young physician was the “young, distinguished, and handsome man” who had helped her find an inn back in Chapter 7 ("I believe I would have followed that frank tread, through continual night, to the world’s end"). But in Chapter 10 she also makes the further connection ("an idea new, sudden, and startling") and doesn’t tell ("I might have cleared myself on the spot, but would not. I did not speak.") Lucy gives a (partial, inadequate, evasive) explanation for her decision not to tell Dr. John:

To say anything on the subject, to hint at my discovery, had not suited my habits of thought, or assimilated with my system of feeling. On the contrary, I had preferred to keep the matter to myself. I liked entering his presence covered with a cloud he had not seen through, while he stood before me under a ray of special illumination . . . .

So she enjoys the power of surveillance, the feeling of superiority or control--but what power is it, really, to watch and know but not speak? And what is the cost to her of such repression, however gratifying the illusion of control, if truly what she needs is, as she tells him later, “companionship . . . friendship . . . counsel"--just what an old family friend could readily provide? Moreover, keeping secrets usually undermines trust; Lucy is fortunate to be so readily forgiven and accepted by Graham and his mother (who think her, or so she says, merely “eccentric” for her silence). Can we forgive her so easily? Often, again, the reader of a first-person narrative is in a particularly confidential position (Dear reader!), but here, though we are addressed as “reader,” there are no endearments for us. What is at stake here, thematically, aesthetically, formally, in refusing us this confidence? To me, in ways I can’t really articulate at this point, the process of the novel feels profoundly experimental, as if Lucy Snowe is a device being used to explore something about the possibilities or limits of fiction for expressing something about life--emotional life, above all--or about identity or the self, particularly its divisions or contradictions (Reason and Imagination, anyone?). I’m not suggesting that the plot is insignificant, but rather like the plot of Jane Eyre, its stages seem as much symbolic as realistic, with even more a sense here than in the earlier novel of seeing a series of set pieces, almost tableaux (or, thinking again of JE, charades): the play, the confession, the art gallery, the concert with the mirror scene, the letter in the attic.

Speaking of the letter in the attic, this is certainly a great moment, rife with interpretive potential:

Are there wicked things, not human, which envy human bliss? Are there evil influences haunting the air, and poisoning it for man? What was near me? . . . . [CB’s ellipses, which I think is a nice touch]

Something in that vast solitary garret sounded strangely. Most surely and certainly I heard, as it seemed, a stealthy foot on that floor: a sort of gliding out from the direction of the black recess haunted by the malefactor cloaks. I turned: my light was dim; the room was long--but, as I live! I saw in the middle of that ghostly chamber a figure all black and white; the skirts straight, narrow, black; the head bandaged, veiled, white.

Say what you will, reader--tell me I was nervous or mad; affirm that I was unsettled by the excitement of that letter; declare that I dreamed: this I vow--I saw there--in that room--on that night--an image like--a NUN.

We all know what’s in Jane’s (or, more accurately, Mr. Rochester’s) attic; why does Lucy’s attic have a nun? And, while we’re fretting about withheld information, why doesn’t Dr. John just tell her right away when he finds the letter?

OK, enough from me.

(Review the schedule here.)


I haven’t finished reading this set of chapters yet, but I have read the first half.  And this is the part where I think a reading that does not forthrightly acknowledge that what she wants from Dr. John isn’t “companionship . . . friendship . . . counsel” becomes more and more strained.  She’s obsessed with him—I couldn’t say whether it’s sexual interest, romantic interest, love, or even some strange displacement of her own sexuality and / or ambition onto him, but her own words about wanting him as a friend simply can’t be taken at face value.  I mean, she cries into her pillow that she doesn’t want to get too attached (to him and his mom, admittedly, but he’s the one that she’s always going on about).

So once again, I think that this is best read as Lucy fooling herself primarily, fooling us only secondarily.  If she were a liar narrating a coherent, false story, she’d cover up the broken parts better.  But this seems to me to be as much as she can understand of herself.

By on 07/21/09 at 11:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Her words about “companionship” etc. are spoken to Dr. John. I don’t take them at face value either: I think they tell either what she believes to be the story of her feelings for him (and thus she is in denial, or, as you say, fooling herself) or what she knows to be the acceptable polite way to cover up her feelings for him (which are almost certainly sexual, aren’t they?) which she is working to repress, or re-describe. I guess I take one of the significances of the nun that haunts her upper story to be sexual repression, or, more accurately, punishment for sexual expression (as suggested by the original story of the ghost). The nun “appears” to Lucy as she experiences the great pleasure and self-indulgence of reading Dr. John’s letter. Part of what I find extraordinary about this section is that her language of friendship is so patently inadequate to her feelings. It seems likely to me that some of the charge of the novel’s being ‘coarse’ and ‘unfeminine’ come from this indirect but also strenuous insistence that despite all the forces (internal and external) arrayed against her in this respect, Lucy is a very sexual person.

By Rohan Maitzen on 07/21/09 at 12:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The first time I read the novel - a long time ago - I don’t remember paying much attention to Lucy’s deception.  I was too involved with the uncanny weirdness of her godmother’s furniture reappearing years later and in another country.  This seemed loaded with psychological symbolism, in a way that Rohan has expressed by terming the novel experimental.  But that effect is obviously diminished by rereading and teaching the novel, and one begins to ask questions, or, if you like, to use reason to examine the product of Bronte’s imagination.
John Graham Bretton has a variety of identities, as the boy Graham, as the English gentleman, as Isidore, as Dr. John.  Lucy has trouble integrating them.  At one point in Chapter XVI she asserts that she and Mrs Bretton are of the same class, yet in the world of the school, as a teacher without any security of position, she is closer to the position of Rosine than of Mme Beck, and therefore not of the same class as Dr. John.

By on 07/21/09 at 12:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich is surely right about Lucy’s obsession with Dr. John (though there is an even stranger obsession building with M. Paul). I’m not sure we ought to take her as lying to herself, however. Doesn’t that interpretation deny her the authority and power that she as narrator insists on at every opportunity? I think the novel offers ample support for the idea that everything she shows us is calculated and consciously performed for our benefit. (Or perhaps for her benefit?) Or is the intensity of her attraction to Dr. John (or the intensity of her aversion to her own desire for him) so powerful that her control of the narrative is slipping just at this point?

By on 07/21/09 at 12:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

JRussell is right to point out that Graham has had four identities so far—I’d only remembered three.  And these aren’t really disguises, or identities per se: Lucy has seemingly run into him on four different sorts of occasions.  I’m waiting to see whether his reappearances have some strange stalker-y explanation (Lucy stalking him, that is), or if this is just one of those Victorian elements about being comfortable with coincidence that no longer works so well in contemporary fiction.

By on 07/21/09 at 01:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Why does Lucy’s attic have a nun?  Earlier, when she went to confession, she imagined herself as a nun, which wouldn’t have been such a different life from the routine of the school.  In the attic, however, the nun appears to be more an image of her erotic excitement than of her efforts to repress her feelings.  Can one say that in _Villette_ nuns and convents function on both a realistic and on a Gothic or romantic level, with differing significations in each?

By on 07/21/09 at 03:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The nun appears just after Lucy has read the letter—it’s not a love letter by any means, and Lucy admits it probably wasn’t as fabulous as she thought about it. Clearly this nun either is blocking Lucy from letting her feelings for Graham flourish (as Dr. Maitzen notes) or blocking her (warning her?) from pain and sorrow—already, Lucy foreshadows something bad about Graham, noting his shallowness (he certainly hankers for those hot women at the concert), which people told her about later—after something untoward happens to him? Remember, Lucy is wounded; she was so traumatized by her family tragedies that she can’t even describe them to us.

As for the letter, I think he’s playing with her—he’s seeing what she might do. He’s being kind of a jerk. It shows his frivolous side, as does his infatuation with Ginerva.

Catholicism seems to be a dominant theme in this book—yet another thing Lucy flirts with but fails to embrace, just as he goes half-way to becoming a man in the play. In the first book, she imagines herself as a nun but realizes she is too Protestant to become a religious. She hears Catholics at prayers but can’t quite join them; she goes to confession but can’t take Mass. She knows Graham but can’t reveal herself to him. Now she runs away in fright from the nun, whom we think for a time has taken the letter. She seems to think that becoming Catholic will drain her of individuality (a common prejudice), even though a lot of Catholics are seen here as individuals.

Yet for all intents and purposes she lives as a Protestant nun. She has an indistinct picture of herself and hate people who preen in front of mirrors—in fact, in the grand music scene (sending up the very domestic and unroyal Belgian royal family) she doesn’t even recognize herself in the pink dress when she sees herself and her party in the mirror. She dislikes the beauties at the concert, and she’s revolted by the portrait of the Reubenesque Cleopatra yet can’t keep her eyes off it until M. Paul insists on her turning away from it.

Note how insanely jealous M. Paul is. I think he’s clearly in love with or obsessed with Lucy, and Lucy responds to the forcefulness of his personality. She’s not typically female. Ginerva keeps calling Lucy by the male name Timon (Shakespeare? misanthrope?). Interestingly, before she goes to read the letter, she sees Ginerva sleeping, or pretending to sleep; more desires are cresting in her.

BTW, I was floored that she kept Dr. John’s real identity a secret. It was almost a “nuke the fridge” moment—one so unreal that it takes you out of the story. She’s deceiving us just as she deceives (unwisely?) Ginerva about Graham’s psychological state after Ginerva disses Graham’s mother. Concealment and hiding also are strong themes, as Dr. Maitzen suggests.

Also, once again, Lucy is pushed into a rewarding experience, as when her godmother buys her the dress and takes her to the concert.

By on 07/21/09 at 04:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For me, Dr. John’s reveal adds a playful, gleeful side to the narrator who had previously seemed largely resistant, reluctant, or just antagonistic toward her readers. The double revelation (first as a casual, largely meaningless end to a line of dialogue, then immediately reaffirmed by the narrator) seems particularly tongue-in-cheek, a reward for careful readers and a playful chuckle at anyone who wasn’t attentive enough. It’s less a “nuke the fridge” moment than it is a magic trick, with Lucy pulling all the strings behind the curtain and then taking pleasure when her misdirection succeeds. The idea that Lucy takes pleasure in tricking her audience and in performing brings the narrator figure closer to the figure of Lucy the actress, but it also highlights (and maybe partially answers?) the problem of why such a resistant narrator would be writing a novel in the first place.

By kvanaren on 07/21/09 at 05:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m still reading the chapters, but—egad, the dating section.  All right, Graham and Lucy go on a series of what we’d call dates, right?  First he takes her to an art museum a number of times.  And this part becomes, oddly, perfectly familiar.  Lucy is going through familiar adolescent techniques: pretending to be just a friend so she can trash-talk her competition, checking him out while he looks at a risque painting in order to get clues as to what he likes.

Then he takes her to a concert, chaperoned.  And Graham here, parenthetically, shows his incapacity as a romantic lead by joking around with his mother about admiring a woman he sees.  Ew.

But I haven’t seen anyone mention what I took to be an important scene.  At the concert, they win lottery prizes, and Graham gets a woman’s hat, Lucy gets a cigar case, *and she refuses to let him switch their prizes*.  In fact she gloats that she still has the cigar case.  Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but here?—no, I don’t think so.  Not after the play partial cross-dressing scene.

Lucy has been totally solicitous of Graham, saying more than once that she might want to do X, but he wanted to do Y, and she had to please him.  And here he’s “excessively anxious” to make the switch, and she won’t. Not when it involves what I can only take to symbolically mean sexual power.

By on 07/21/09 at 10:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The hat/cigar sequence is quite remarkable. It has some interesting parallels with the Cleopatra scene, where M. Paul seems to think that she’s occupying a masculine position in looking at the painting--she should only look at boring portraits suitable for women.

The funny thing, though, is that she’s really been occupying what is often thought of as a quasi-masculine position all along--disembodied and opaque, viewing others without being visible.

By on 07/21/09 at 11:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Teasing: the core relationships of the book are teasing relationships. Graham-Mrs. Bretton, Lucy-Ginevra, Lucy-M. Paul, Graham-Polly (although that one shifts). Ginevra-Dr. John is a one-sided teasing relationship that is as a result something worse. In the others, teasing is postive, a way to share intimacy, build friendship, or tolerate faults.

I’m forgetting one. Oh yes, Lucy-me: “Beginning now to perceive his drift, I had a certain pleasure in keeping cool, and working him up.” (Ch. 19) That’s Lucy revealing her method. My only argument with kvanaren is that it took the Dr. John/Graham revelation to see this side of the narrator. I’d figured it out long before that.

An example of Lucy’s teasing: Now that we’ve reached Ch. 20, we have some clues about the age of the “old woman” who is narrating the novel. Thirty-seven, more or less.

Rich, brace yourself. More cigars are on their way.

By Amateur Reader on 07/22/09 at 10:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

kvanaren and Amateur Reader help me to see the possibility that Lucy is more fun than I thought--not that I don’t find her fun to think about, but I like the idea that she is playful or teasing--this puts a more amiable spin on my reaction to her as manipulative. Certainly in her conversations with Ginevra especially, but also, increasingly, with M. Paul, she seems to enjoy repartee in a way that reminds me of the lively conversations Jane has with Mr Rochester.

Is it surprising that M. Paul, who almost alone sees her as fiery, is the one to direct her attention to the boring version of femininity in the gallery? Is he, too, conflicted about what she is, or might be?

I like all the comments here about the nun, especially JRussell’s about the doubling of genre with both the convent and the nun functioning as realistic and gothic at the same time. Here perhaps it is Bronte being playful, exploiting (via Lucy as her narrator) our, or her contemporaries’, expectations about what kind of elements belong in what kind of novel? It’s hard to say what kind of novel Villette is, really. Psychological?

By Rohan Maitzen on 07/22/09 at 05:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Finally having read the last of this section, I take Amateur Reader’s point.  Yes, teasing—the word even appears in Ch. 22 (I wouldn’t have noticed if it hadn’t been mentioned).  Graham is a genial tease, Ginevra a flirtatious one, M. Paul a seriously domineering one, but Lucy tends towards a sort of teasing through withdrawal, through hiding.

I don’t think that this invalidates my preferred interpretation of the book so far.  She’s just too clueless about her own motivations, even as she swoons over Graham’s letter.  I see it as that her first technique was plain withdrawal—hovering around Dr. John and never letting him know who she was, or that she was watching him—but that after they are thrown together by her breakdown, she picks up teasing as the technique that everyone else around her uses, in order to hide her deeper urges towards control and self-protection.  And by the time she’s narrating the story, she’s developed the technique.

I wasn’t surprised that Dr. John withheld the letter.  He’s kind of cruel, really, or at least self-centered.  I was more surprised that the instant explanation suggested for the nun’s appearance is psychological; that it was because Lucy was disturbed in her mind, and that it was an illusion.  That seems very contemporary.  Having Dr. John cheerfully advise her to think happy thoughts, like he does, is not, but again, he’s a bit cruel or at least thoughtless when it comes to figuring out that other people think differently than he does—as Lucy overtly tells us.

By on 07/22/09 at 11:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If we are reading the novel psychologically, and I have previously commented that I believe this reading, inspired by Rich’s early comments, to be the most interesting, then might we venture that, without being too simplistic, we see a battle in Lucy (and Charlotte?) between the unconscious and the subconscious self?

I offer these two sections from chapter 21 in support:

‘On that night, too, I had briefly met him who now stood with me. Had I ever reminded him of that rencontre, or explained it? I had not, nor ever, felt the inclination to do so: it was a pleasant thought, laid by in my own mind, and best kept there.’


‘But if I feel, may I never express?’

‘Never!’ declared Reason.

In the first of these, Lucy makes a ‘conscious’ decision not to reveal what is hidden in her ‘own mind’, deceiving herself (again) that she has never ‘felt the inclination to do so’. Hence, the private place to which only she has access is a good ‘burial place’ (foreshadowing, of course) for her feelings - better than chancing the reality and the ‘unconscious’ acknowledgement of possible rebuttal? Thus, ‘fantasy’ is better than reality but how far she is truly in control of either is equivocal since she is the quintessential unreliable narrator.

In the second extract I quoted, Lucy is literally battling with herself and forcing herself to repress her feelings, to make the conscious become subconscious in fact.

I think that Villette becomes a much more palatable novel read in these terms (and again I agree with Rich, Dr John is very ‘cruel’).

By on 07/23/09 at 10:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As an additional support to the connection between CB and Lucy, when CB was negotiating the publication and advertising of Villette, she referred to herself as, ‘a kind of ostrich-longing for concealment’(Gaskell,E. ‘Life of CB’) which seems to be very much to the point as she both wants and rejects notice, just as Lucy does.

By on 07/23/09 at 11:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The whole conflict that Lucy describes between Reason and her desires is pretty interesting, but I’ve been putting off commenting on it because I think it belongs most to the following chapters.  But, in short, her “Reason” doesn’t appear to me to be reasonable at all.  Reason might rationally tell her that she was wise to pursue a romantic attraction to a man who was a suitable marriage partner in every way, including background, wealth, age, character, and all the other qualities that she might rationally seek.  What’s irrational is to hide herself from this excellent marriage prospect.

So I think that her “Reason” can’t be taken as reason.  In fact her Reason is abusive.  It badgers her not to reveal herself, to keep secrets, to hide.  I think that people probably see where I’m going with this.

By on 07/24/09 at 10:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, I agree, Rich, and if she is presenting ‘Reason’ as ‘abusive’, what does that say about her inability to make ‘reasoned’ judgements? It strikes me she can’t cope - with herself, as much, if not more, than others and it is the reasons behind her being unable to cope that are making this reading of Villette (the latest of many) fascinating to me.

By on 07/24/09 at 10:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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