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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Villette Chapters 1-35: “Oubliez les Professeurs!”

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 08/04/09 at 07:52 AM

What was become of that curious one-sided friendship which was half marble and half life; only on one hand truth, and on the other perhaps a jest?

Was this feeling dead? I do not know, but it was buried. Sometimes I thought the tomb unquiet, and dreamed strangely of disturbed earth, and of hair, still golden and living, obtruded through coffin-chinks.

Lucy clearly would have been an excellent Gothic novelist--perhaps she already is, depending on how you read Villette. She’s capable of a delicious morbidity, at once grim and poetic. And then there’s this:

There had been a strange and inexplicable sound from that quarter, as if the arms of that tree had swayed of their own motion, and its weight of foliage had rushed and crushed against the massive trunk. Yes; there scarce stirred a breeze, and that heavy tree was convulsed, whilst the feathery shrubs stood still. For some minutes amongst the wood and leafage a rending and heaving went on. Dark as it was, it seemed to me that something more solid than either night-shadow, or branch-shadow, blackend out of the boles. At last the struggle ceased. What birth succeeded this travail? What Dryad was borne of these throes? We watched fixedly. A sudden bell rang in the house--the prayer-bell. Instantly into our alley there came, out of the berceau, an apparition, all black and white. With a sort of angry rush--close, close past our faces--swept swiftly the very NUN herself! Never had I seen her so clearly. She looked tall of stature, and fierce of gesture. As she went, the wind rose sobbing; the rain poured wild and cold; the whole night seemed to feel her.

(All you who opted not to read this perverse and fascinating book are surely now regretting it!)

I think this is the first time someone else has seen the nun, and it seems appropriate that M. Paul is Lucy’s companion at this point, just as she has said good night to her wistful (and surely misplaced) love for the wooden-headed and conventional (if handsome) Dr. John. If what she has buried is hope, perhaps her vision of the golden hair leaking back through the coffin is a hint to her of the new love struggling to free itself from--what? If the main obstacles to her love for Graham were social (class or place) and sexual (on his side, at least, there is no physical attraction), perhaps the nun represents the obstacles that face Lucy and Paul, which seem to be primarily religious. Paul thinks so, anyway, when he wonders if she is the ghost of Justine-Marie. As far as class or social places goes, Paul and Lucy seem equally at sea, and we know Paul sees Lucy as highly (problematically) sexual, or at least that’s how I interpret his hostility to her “scarlet gown” ("pink!"). What else is their relationship about? We’ve talked before about the importance of teasing in the novel; I’ve been thinking that teasing is a form of play that succeeds only between equals (else it is bullying, or patronizing, or baiting). Lucy never seems more powerful than when she is standing up to M. Paul (“‘Vive l’Angleterre, l’Histoire et les Heros! A bas la France, la Fiction et les Faquins!’"). One of the problems I’m typically interested in, when reading 19thC courtship novels, is how to achieve a satisfactorily equal, balanced relationship when women are systemically disadvantaged by the legal and economic frameworks of marriage. Often in novels that highlight challenges to female autonomy, the lover has to be weak, or weakened, before the romantic conclusion can be achieved (e.g. Jane Eyre, Aurora Leigh, Tenant of Wildfell Hall, even, arguable, Middlemarch, though whether Will is a weak alternative is an argument for another time). Is it because M. Paul, like Lucy, is already marginalized (is he, in fact, feminized?) that he does not seem to threaten but rather, even, to enhance Lucy’s independence? The episode of the watchguard is fascinating--so much perversity, on both sides.

I’m fascinated in this installment by the continued emphasis on concealed connections and duplicitous identities: everybody keeps turning out to be somebody else, usually somebody we already know. The priest at Madame Walravens’s is the same Pere Silas who overheard Lucy’s confession (and has since joined the posse of people spying on her); his patron is M. Paul; the examiners are the men who frightened Lucy many chapters ago. We can add these examples to Dr. John being Graham as well as the helpful stranger, Miss de Bassompierre being Paulina, and “Mees Snowe” being Lucy herself. There seem to be too many coincidences: what larger idea or principle is served by this intricate web of identifications?

Lucy continues to be somehow connected to the weather.

Next week brings us to the end of the novel. I had suggested taking a couple of weeks to read and discuss some criticism on the novel. I still think this would be an interesting exercise, though I’m a bit perplexed about logistics as it occurs to me that many academic articles may not be easily available to participants without university affiliations. Suggestions welcome, including about which articles would be of general interest. Also, what is the collective wisdom about whether making my own downloaded PDFs of articles available through links? Would something like this reading group seem to fit within ‘fair use’ clauses?

(Review the schedule for our Villette reading here.)


I’ll have more to write about this part, but why are M. Paul and Lucy equals?  Well, they are both strong personalities, of course, but specifically they both have a particular relationship to surveillance—they subvert it by acting “as they should” even without being watched, and thus become watchers themselves.  M. Beck comments on this with Lucy; that even though she had exchanged what Beck expected to be love-letters with Graham, they were innocent—and therefore Beck doesn’t have to watch Lucy; she’s English and strange (Paul says this too) because she’s internalized her superego rather than have it be there because of outside reinforcement.  Paul maintains a blameless household, supporting various dependents, even though the whole matter is secret and people generally don’t know how virtuous he is.

If Paul had seen Lucy do anything he considered to be wrong while he was watching her—as he saw M. Beck and the teacher whose name I forget do—he wouldn’t have fallen for her.  And if she hadn’t found out about his secret household without his knowledge, she might not have fallen for him.

But both of their virtues are damaging, I’d say, from a contemporary sensibility.  He’s stuck on the fantasy surrounding his dead fiance, and as we’d callously say, it’s time for him to get over it.  Lucy, for her part, might be a good deal happier and might have an actual family if she had decided to flirt a bit more.  Lucy makes these into virtues, sort of, but her heart isn’t really in it.

By on 08/04/09 at 01:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

At any rate, to continue: this section, in which Lucy comes closer and closer to admitting mutual attraction, has quite a number of bits supporting my ongoing reading of this book.

1.  The mostly comical

In chapter 29, Lucy catches Paul going through her desk.  “Now I knew, and I had long known, that that hand of M. Emanuel’s was on the most intimate terms with my desk; that it raised and lowered the lid, ransacked and arranged the contents, almost as familiarly as my own.” Wait, what?  Presumably that’s a misprint, or something—it should be “his* own—but the Freudian slip is an interesting one if read as a slip.  She’s thinking about his hand being on intimate terms with her what?

The scene continues with, yes, cigars.  The things he gives her smell of cigars; she’s shocked at first, and holds them fastidiously away, but then when he withdraws snatches the cigar-smelling papers back, etc.  So far so good.

2.  Panic

At the end of Chapter 33, Paul is looking for Lucy—probably to declare his love for her more explicitly, she realizes.  And she hides at first, then as she prepares to “do what, after all, I most wished to do in the world—viz, meet him”, St. Pierre lyingly tells Paul that Lucy is *in bed*.  And she freezes.  Then she wonders why she evaded what she most wanted as if it were death itself, and refers to “choking panic”.

3.  Resignation

At the beginning of Chapter 34, two pages later, she’s walking in the rain.  Remember her describing her childhood as a storm, and when she has the nightmare, it’s the “rush and saltiness of briny waves in [her] throat”?  Here it’s “I fear a high wind, because storm demands that exertion of strength and use of action I always yield with pain; but the sullen downfall, the thick snow descent, or dark rush of rain, ask only resignation—the quiet abandonment of garments and person to be drenched.”

By on 08/04/09 at 03:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I guess I interpreted the hand comment to refer to her own--as in, his hand knew her desk as intimately as her hand knew her desk.

By Amy on 08/04/09 at 04:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ah, I see, Amy.  Yes, that’s it.  I think that the bit about his hand being on intimate terms with her desk still stands as suggestive, but that clears up the “is it a misprint” question.

By on 08/04/09 at 05:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The overabundance of coincidence reminds me of Dickens, and as in Dickens, a lot of _Villette _ seems like a dream.  Illustrating Freud’s idea of condensation, there is a kind of economy of characters in _Villette_, as though everyone has to have several different functions.  And of course, as in a dream - as both Rohan and Rich suggest - there is a lot of erotic symbolism going on.
Also relevant is Freud’s concept of the uncanny, as this novel is full of the familiar returning with a troubling difference.  (The scene of Lucy awakening to the furniture from Bretton is the most striking example.)
Isn’t the visit to Mme Walravens especially like a dream?  (Perhaps this is just another way of saying it is especially Gothic?)

By on 08/04/09 at 07:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s definitely suggestive, no matter how you read it!

By Amy on 08/04/09 at 08:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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