Monday, July 06, 2009
Villette Chapters I-8: “I, Lucy Snowe, was calm”
As before, the main function of these posts is to provide the occasion for everyone’s comments, not to define or direct the discussion. Still, we have to start somewhere, so I’ll lead off above the fold here by saying that for me, the most fascinating, and also the most frustrating, aspect of this novel is certainly its narrator. The introduction to my edition quotes Bronte to her publisher: “[a] cold name she must have ... for she has about her an external coldness”; “I am not leniently disposed towards Miss Frost--from the beginning I never intended to appoint her lines in pleasant places.” I’d say she succeeds in making Lucy Snowe quite unpleasant, as she listens in the dark, for instance, to little Polly Home’s tears without offering any comfort, or remains unmoved after Polly’s father leaves: “I, Lucy Snowe, was calm,” she reports with apparent satisfaction. Of course, there’s no rule that a first-person narrator should be a sympathetic (or, as my students would say, “relatable") character, but with Lucy I feel doubly alienated, first from those around her, whom we observe through her cool, judgmental eyes, and then from Lucy herself, as again and again she freezes out any hint of sentiment ("I roused myself and started up, to check this scene while it was yet within bounds").
And yet that refusal of sentiment is so self-conscious, so deliberate, that it becomes, though not endearing, certainly interesting: in her life and in her narration Lucy performs her icy self-sufficiency, I think, to ward off vulnerability of the kind she perceives in Polly (who is bound, Lucy is certain, to suffer from “the shocks and repulses, the humiliations and desolations, which books, and my own reason tell me are prepared for all flesh"). “The negation of severe suffering was the nearest approach to happiness I expected to know,” she tells us; her emotional withdrawal from her life (and her story) suits such drastically lowered expectations even as it creates tensions between our own hopes and expectations (not least as novel readers) and what she offers us. And, I think we can already see, it may not be sustainable: the little classroom contretemps at the end of Chapter VIII (again, also, quite a deliberate performance) shows a fiery side to ‘Miss Frost’--another source of tension, then, in an already pretty uncomfortable novel.
Another source of tension or instability is Lucy’s unreliability as a narrator: she not only withdraws but also withholds, including most of what we would ordinarily consider key information about herself. Who is she? What is her situation? What exactly happens at the beginning of Chapter IV?
It will be conjectured that I was of course glad to return to the bosom of my kindred. Well! The amiable conjecture does no harm, and may therefore be safely left uncontradicted. Far from saying nay, indeed, I will permit the reader to picture me, for the next eight years, as a bark slumbering through halcyon weather, in a harbour still as glass--the steersman stretched on the little deck, his face up to heaven, his eyes closed: buried, if you will, in a long prayer. A great many women and girls are supposed to pass their lives something in that fashion; why not I with the rest?
Picture me then idle, basking, plump, and happy, stretched on a cushioned deck, warmed with constant sunshine, rocked by breezes indolently soft. However, it cannot be concealed that, in that case, I must somehow have fallen over-board, or that there must have been a wreck at last. . . In fine, the ship was lost, the crew perished.
I can’t think of another novelistic protagonist (from the 19th century, at least) who is so conspicuously adrift--for the first eight chapters of the novel she doesn’t belong anywhere ("home, I was going to say, but I had no home")--and also so conspicuously untrustworthy ("grand with imperial promise, soft with tints of enchantment--strode from north to south a God-bent bow, an arch of hope. / Cancel the whole of that, if you please, reader...").
Rohan, I think you were exactly right in beginning with the narrator: this novel more than most Victorian novels is all about its narration. One remembers not so much the plot as statements like “I, Lucy Snowe, was calm”!
Lucy certainly performs an icy self-sufficiency, or at least retrospectively informs us that she does (another of the many confusing things about her narrative is that she is writing as an old woman who has gained experience of the world eg familiarity with the West End of London). Yet at other points the language with which she describes what are objectively fairly mundane events or challenges is charged with great emotional energy and filled with extreme metaphors and allusions. Unsettled weather makes her think of plagues and the legend of the Banshee; a ride in a river taxi makes her think “of the Styx, and of Charon rowing some solitary soul to the Land of Shades.” Beneath Lucy’s calm exterior we find an inner life of extravagant Gothic tropes. But because of her reticence we don’t know much about their emotional source.
Lucy’s near-absence and apparent role as spectator is quite remarkable… I was going to say reduction to spectator, but that doesn’t seem right either. Certainly it’s a cool picture of an odd, unreliable character who seems to live vicariously (though not necessarily approvingly) through Polly, then plays the cultural role of the “idle, plump, and happy” female. She only seems to take charge of her story when her role as child and nursemaid expire and she is forced to. She doesn’t start out as any proto-feminist, but rather drifts through the roles with an offhand detachment and mild contempt. On the one hand she seems to willfully accept her place, and on the other only comes to life and determination once those places run their course and she is free to return to them or make other choices.
But she’s definitely unreliable, and I guess that is all part of it. As far as a portrait of a chilly oddball with a Gothicky sense of observation, it’s good stuff. I also think it’s a pretty bold, uncompromising move on Bronte’s part, as it is almost stubbornly alienating if you can’t go with it. Lucy would be a heroic example of self-sufficiency and re-invention if she weren’t so frosty and snooty.
In these early chapters, it’s all quite perplexing. I enjoy the Gothic elements of the Bronte novels, and the dreary ambience of “Villette” is morbidly fascinating, giving rise to plenty of fine passages.
This is my second reading of this. I last read this perhaps ten years back (for university), and have always retained a soft spot for how bonkers this book is. I decided this Valve summer reading project was a good excuse to read it again. I remember some of what is to come, but am certainly enjoying Lucy as a willful lacuna and opaque voice.
What strikes me about the first chapters is not necessarily the narrator—her withdrawal from emotion and lack of self-direction seem to me to be even more dull and less virtuous than she thinks they are—but the authorial adjustments of time. The engine of the first three chapters is the Lucy-Polly-Graham relationship, and the reader is forced to try out different versions of it. Graham is a fairly fixed quantity; we’re told that he is sixteen early on. Polly could be an unusually childish older child, or an unusually self-possessed younger one, and it’s only late that we find out she’s six. Lucy tries to evince an attitude of being above the whole thing, and certainly doesn’t show any overt interest in Graham, who you might suppose to be too childish for her in turn. But at the beginning of Chapter IV, we’re told that 8 years go by after this, and at the beginning of Chapter V, after the Miss Marchmont episode, Lucy says that she hasn’t yet seen 23 summers. It isn’t stated, but somehow it seems like she was probably with Miss Marchmont for about a year. So during Chapters 1-3 she was what, 12 or 13? That retrospectively made me re-evaluate the episode.
There’s also whole lot about settled vs unsettledness there. The first line is “My godmother lived in a handsome house in the clean and ancient town of Bretton.” Clean is not something that usually goes along with ancient, and it’s reinforced in the next paragraph. Bretton is quiet, well-ordered, ancient (=fixed), clean, and is shortly to vanish—at Chapter IV, Lucy is leaving it telling us that she didn’t know that she would never again visit it. The contrast being set up is with Villette, also a town, the land of adventure. But there’s something oppressive about ancient clean orderliness: Bretton figures as the childhood that produced Lucy’s bland self-congratulatory untouchability.
Lastly, contract Lucy’s journey to Villette with Hetty’s journey to London in Adam Bede, both of them by rural women traveling alone without much preparation or resources. Nothing falls magically-coincidentally into place for Hetty, but Lucy gets through difficulties by always meeting the right person at the right time. It’s untouchedness again—Hetty has had sex, Lucy is narratively safe because the world is authorially honoring her choice.
How do we know, per JRussell, that “author” Lucy Snowe is an old woman? Does that information come later? Or did I miss it?
Jane Eyre, for example, does not tell us until near the end (Ch. 38) that she is writing Jane Eyre ten years after it ends, making the author 29 or 30.
Chapter V: “(for I speak of a time gone by: my hair, which, till a late period, withstood the frosts of time, lies now, at last white, under white cap, like snow beneath snow).”
Parenthetically, I think it’s also significant that when Villette first appears, the vapid teenager talking about it blanks on the word and refers to it as “chose”. It’s the objet petit a.
Amateur Reader: In chapter V, Lucy says that she speaks “of a time gone by: my hair which till a late period withstood the frosts of time, lies now at last, white under a white cap, like snow beneath snow.)”
Thanks. What a strange place to slip in that information, as an explantion of why it took an entire day to cover the fifty miles to London.
I like the way Bronte depicts Lucy’s disorientation on her travels, especially on her arrivals in London and Villette; it reminds me of the first time I was in London, on a Sunday afternoon, disoriented and seriously jet-lagged, wandering from Bloomsbury down to the Thames. Her contradictions are numerous and rather stunning—she’s content to spend many months as nursemaid to a shut-in, then decides suddenly to embark on this ill-planned but rather lucky journey.
It’s also fascinating to contrast a girl’s life in middle-class (?) England at the time; she seems stuck in neutral for years, whereas our girls today get put through the wringer—dance, sports, intense schooling, camp, driver’s ed, school trips, Girl Scouts, shopping, dating, going to movies. This kind of upbringing is almost like sensory deprivation.
Does Lucy have a schoolgirl crush on Graham, and is stifling her jealousy of Polly? It seems as if Graham registers not at all on her.
And why does she keep saying “unclosed” when she should just say “open”?
I really like Russell’s remark about Lucy having “an inner life of extravagant Gothic tropes.” That’s where the sense that her coldness is unstable or fragile comes from, isn’t it? I think this is a really risky strategy on Bronte’s part, especially compared to Jane Eyre in which the immediacy and passion of the first-person narrator is so compelling right from the first few pages. Repression is much more complicated to do without losing your audience.
Given that we learn Lucy is in fact narrating retrospectively, I think it’s interesting that I don’t get the same sense from her as I do from, say, Pip, that her older self has changed a great deal from her younger self. In Great Expectations we realize that the novel is about Pip maturing enough to become the narrator. Except for learning her way around London, what wisdom or new perspective does old Lucy bring? I can’t be sure at this point.
Another theme that comes out very strongly in these chapters is surveillance. Once Mme Beck comes into the story, Lucy’s watching of everyone around her looks a bit different, less passive and more manipulative--or at least potentially so. It’s all in how you use what you see, right?
I am new to literary criticism, typically I read a book to enjoy the story and feel no impulse to question the reliability of the narrator. However, in this case I read further than chapter 8 (this my first time through the book) and found out that the narrator was holding back information about another character in the book, this brought me up short from the story and destroyed my usual trust in the narrator. I came up out of the story in quite a huff and began to question all the story and the characters as they had been presented to me. My first conclusion was that Polly was never real just an invention of the narrator to allow her to express her feelings about what was happening to her life and about Graham while keeping her distance from all of it. As I rolled this possibility over in my head I was reminded of Armistead Maupin’s character Gabriel Noon and his self description as a fabulest, the need as a teller of tells to embellish a story in a way that might not make it more factually actuate but make it more truthful non the less. I then thought of the little I know of Bronte’s life and how she and her siblings apparently told each other stories as children and created worlds for characters to exist in. This lead me to think that it was not impossible that Bronte might have created a character who is a fabulest, a narrator who tells personal truth without regard to facts or reality. Looking back at the first 8 chapters with the assumption that Lucy Snow is a fabulest softened my view of things, if Polly is a creation of Lucy’s mind to help her dissociate from and deal with the pain of an eight year period that started with an illness in her family that removed her from her home and put her at Bretton and includes a “crush” on Graham it makes Lucy far more sympathetic. Lucy’s description of Polly’s attempts to do grown up things and the absurdity of it might be a description of her own adolescent attempts to deal with problems much bigger than herself and her description of Polly’s youth might be her own feelings of extreme youth in the face of adversity even as remembered years latter. Lucy’s characterization of Polly’s youth may also be Lucy’s way of justifying her own inability to deal with what is going on in her life. While Lucy is not very sympathetic she feels sympathy for Polly and goes out of her way to tell us about it in describing how Polly pricks her fingers when she tries to sow and in out right wondering’s about what will happen to Polly. How much truth does Lucy owe us anyway, perhaps she is telling us more than we want to know in making up Polly, perhaps she is telling us of the terrible pain of her life the only way she knows how. If that ‘s the case than the beginning of Chapter IV is a warning, Lucy Snow is a teller of tells, reader beware. Even if it is a warning come to late. As a reader if my view of my narrator is correct I am no longer annoyed with her but it does not make my job as reader any easier because I am constantly trying to decide what Lucy is saying about other people which she really means about herself and I am on the look out for other characters that might represent her alter-ego. I am also very convinced that Polly is not real or the characterization as presented by Lucy is not real and I’ll be annoyed if I’m presented with evidence that she is.
Also, re the Lucy-Graham-Polly triangle, as I have read the novel before (though not recently enough to recall the nuances), I’ll tread lightly here, but Polly certainly has “foil character” written all over her sensitive, doll-like features! (I wonder if I warm to snarky Lucy partly because I find Polly’s cuteness annoying myself.)
Stacy, that’s a really interesting reading, especially the idea that Lucy is a kind of fabulist or story-teller, tale-teller. While something like this is true of all first-person narrators, often (again, Pip comes to mind as a contrast) it is with the goal or inadvertent effect of self-revelation, where here, something more evasive seems to be going on. I think “reader beware” is a fair warning for this novel!
At this point, I’m most interested in Lucy’s performances and her unreliability - both of which point to a guardedness that can’t apparently be dispensed with even in her old age, given how selective she is about what she reveals.
But performativity is so often associated ( purposefully or otherwise) with deception or manipulation, that I wonder if it would do well to step back from such negative assumptions and consider two things:
1) Lucy, once her family (or whatever stands in for it) is “shipwrecked” she quickly ends up with nothing; and having nothing quickly begins to mean “nothing left to lose”. With nothing left to lose, Lucy is free to literally start over, which she does when she decides to head to Villette. It’s a terrible sort of freedom but one, I suspect, which might require the ability to change one’s approach and personality to survive whatever arises.
2) With no familial or other social connections to anchor her “meaning” in the world, as well as her conspicuous lack of any notable talent whatsoever, Lucy is in essence a cipher, a non-entity.
But that kind of cipher in effect allows for the creation of her own sort of existential cipher in the secret form of writing kind of way. Having no connections to the markers with which other elder women in Victorian England might align their life stories, she’s left as she apparently always has been to create her own narrative, which simultaneously means her own *kind* of narrative.
Constantly being forced to recreate oneself must be tiring work and if habitual, likely hard to stop. So, I wonder if Lucy’s freedom through constant refashioning of the self to fit circumstances ultimately becomes a sort of prison. But that’s speculation, as I’ve read only the first 8 chapters!
Am I the only one wondering why the oh-so-reticent Lucy Snowe decided to start telling the story in the first place?
I just read Bleak House, so I kept thinking of Lucy Snowe in contrast to Esther Summerson. They both appear to be orphans under uncertain guardianship, but such different characters! Lucy feels much more real than Esther, despite her cipher-ness. Her voice reminds me of the protagonist in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go; maybe for that reason, the book feels oddly modern to me so far, despite its Gothic qualities.
I’m glad to find you all noting the unreliability of the narrator, I was wondering if she was a bit ‘bonkers’...
She claims to be “guiltless of that curse, an overheated and discursive imagination”; but when she learns of a letter arriving, she “thought at first it was from home, trembled, expecting I know not what disastrous communication”. I’m not suggesting that letters in 1853 were as commonplace as blog comments are now, but it still seems an over-reaction to a letter to tremble in fear of disaster. What news from ‘home’ might she be frightened of in her alleged uncursed lack of imagination? Or why might the sight of a girl, bereaved of her mother, praying in the moonlight lead Lucy to “scarcely know what thoughts I had, but they ran the risk of being hardly more rational and healthy than that child’s mind must have been”? What sort of pity or sympathy is this?
The nominative determinism evident in Lucy “Snowe” also might hint that the “Home” family might be deliberately named as well? I wondered whether it would be too much anachronistic psychoanalysis to suggest that Lucy projects her own home-related complexes onto Polly - “Is that the child?” seems a very distant and objectifying kind of language; and a little later - “when the small stranger smiled at [Mrs. Bretton], she kissed it“ - it, that child, ‘this being’, might well withdraw into a corner and struggle to disguise her sobs, and I wonder if Lucy Snowe associates her own home (from whence disastrous letters might at any moment arrive) with such ‘angular vagaries’ which she tries to persuade herself she has too cool a temperment to participate in?
From the first pages of Villette, more than in any other book I know, the great compelling mystery is why the narrator is narrating, a question we usually don’t bother asking. It clearly makes her uncomfortable and combative, and she clearly expects little sympathy from the reader. I found (and still find) it a page-turner—not so much a whodunnit as a why’s-she-doing-it. One of the reasons it feels satisfying to me may be that it’s also a narrative about feeling displaced. The form embodies the matter.
Of course, another reason may be that I actually find Lucy, with all her damned standoffishness and prickliness and prejudices, likable, although I can’t imagine the sentiment being returned.
Yes, Ray, exactly. Beginning with Chapter IV, Lucy is at least telling her own story. We grant people, mostly, the right to tell their own story, even if we may doubt that the story is very interesting.
But then what is she doing in the first three chapters, where she is barely present? In the first, she does not even have a name, and when she does name herself, in Chapter II, it’s in a forced and peculiar manner ("I, Lucy Snowe, plead guiltless of that curse, an overheated and discursive imagination").
Even if this episode turns out to be an important part of Lucy’s own story, it’s a strange way of telling it.
So far, I find Lucy’s “icy self-sufficiency” and self-possession endearing, and not unlike that of Jane Eyre. Though Jane is certainly hot-tempered and passionate when we first meet her, she does develop a certain coolness comparable to that of Lucy Snowe. Like you, I found it self-conscious and deliberate; Lucy protects herself from turmoil and upset. I didn’t think her unfeeling as she listened to Polly cry in the dark--another sometimes too self-possessed creature!--for Polly was deliberately unpleasant and cold to Lucy. As others have commented, Lucy appears to have a vivid inner life that contrasts with her cool demeanor.
The peculiar manner suggests a ceremonial, like a wedding or a trial, although it’s characteristic that Lucy would avoid the word “innocent” and strictly qualify her guiltlessness. As for the emotional import of Paulina’s story, I confess that I have memories of my own which sear retrospectively as the initial instance of an experience which would become increasingly familiar.
To shift to the end of the chapters, I’m very amused by Lucy’s hardboiled attitude in the classroom: “She had the range but if I got the jump on her, I thought I could take her.”
And what of Madame Beck? She’s an odd one, isn’t she? And yet, following on Stacy’s suggestion, I wonder if she isn’t in some ways a double of or projection of the narrator. She is similarly observant, similarly calculating, similarly detached. What distinguishes her most sharply from Lucy Snowe, perhaps, is that she is powerful, mistress of her own domain, while Lucy is self-contained but adrift.
But noticing this also made me wonder how one gets power in *Villette*. Is it through knowledge and surveillance? Or is it through performance and a heartless willingness to humiliate, like Lucy’s attacks on the students at the end of chapter 8? How does a drifting soul like Lucy get some leverage on the world?
Ray: “I actually find Lucy, with all her damned standoffishness and prickliness and prejudices, likable...”
That’s it, but I’d say more. And in this I draw on many years of teaching this novel to earnest, slightly prickly-standoffish undergraduates, of both genders, who love it. We, as readers, would like to date Mr Rochester, or Madame Bovary, or whomever; but we feel in some way we are Lucy Snowe.
Drat, tried to comment on this twice, the comments didn’t go through both times.
But I don’t get the same impression of the classroom scene as “hardboiled”, “heartless willingness to humiliate”, etc. Lucy really doesn’t seem to me to approach that scene as an in-control adult. First she’d so worried about doing it that she cries. Then, two paragraphs later, after some transparent emotional manipulation by Mme. Beck, she’s saying that she is “no more excited than this stone”—an unbelievable lie, except that Lucy seems to believe that by adopting this suggested role wholeheartedly she can make it true. And she doesn’t win the class over by force of character or anything like it, she’s simply the biggest bully among the students—she tears up a paper and shoves a student into a closet and locks her in. That’s not really what I’d think of as a move from emotional strength, more like one of desperation.
If this were a more contemporary narrative, I’d say that it could be easily seen as one of a character suffering from child abuse. The reluctance to speak about it, the at-times almost confusion of memory, the indications that e.g. other relatives stopped her from seeing her sympathetic godmother, the way that the godmother saw early signs that Lucy needed to be protected—all of that is presumably part of some Victorian struggle around bringing up a poorly provided for orphan by relatives, but could be seen differently.
Also, Colleen writes: “With no familial or other social connections to anchor her “meaning” in the world [...]”
I don’t think that’s really supported by the text. At our stage in her journey, Lucy stops at an inn in London, and she introduces herself to the waiter by telling him that her uncles stop there, and he immediately places her socially. Lucy seems to have familial connections, and is willing to refer to them from a distance when that will provide something for her, she just isn’t willing to tell us about them.
Again, a reading involving child abuse might fit. Lucy’s impetus to absent herself not just from rural Britain to London, but all the way to France, might be because she wants to separate from whatever familial connections she has left.
I think that Lucy’s standoffishness is what makes her a believable character. I think there is a certain level of identification/believability to Lucy because of her detachment. My first instinct when telling a story is to put myself in the role of “calm, cool, collected hero,” “Seeing the car racing toward me, I did not panic, but calmly assessed the situation. There was no opening to either side of me so I hit the brakes and turned hard to the right. My car spun through a gap in traffic and came to a stop heading the opposite direction allowing me to drive to the ramp and get out of traffic before I called 911 to report the loon going the wrong way on the interstate.” I see this same bravado, obviously false bravado, in Lucy’s narration of the story.
On the other hand none of the other actors in Lucy’s life, at least the ones she describes in detail, are believable. How many six year olds act like Polly? I’ve known a few and none of them even come close, even if Polly was ten her behavior is odd. The only reason I put up with her character at all is I’m willing to make allowances for the differences in culture between now and Victorian England but even that is a stretch, the brain of a six year old at any other point of time on the human continuum is still the brain of a six year old. Madame Beck is another character I make allowances for based on the period of the book, but for me her behavior is outrageous. I realize that spying and a sense that your life was always public was more common in the Victorian era but still Madame Beck seems to much. I also find the lack of drama associated with Madame Beck’s behavior odd, in the places in our society where people are stripped of most elements of a private life (the military, prison) they still get testy when you rifle through their foot locker. No one at the school seems the least concerned.
The comments and questions about power and gaining leverage in the novel (“How does a drifting soul like Lucy get some leverage on the world?” from Lew Gubrious) make me wonder about Lucy’s “project” to leave England, which struck me as abrupt, especially after just arriving in London. Others have spoken eloquently about the various silences in the text, and here I wonder, where did this notion of sailing to Boue-Marine come from? Did I miss something earlier? In any case, is her leaving England part of gaining leverage? Her comments about home and England suggest this. But isn’t this an odd kind of leverage? She doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t seem to know where she’s going, has no connections there until speaking to Miss Fanshawe on the boat, and finds herself in stressful situations after disembarking. Is Lucy impulsive, naïve, or is she leaving some things out of the narrative? Yet, all works out, and I found myself proud of her finally when she gains power in the classroom; I wasn’t expecting such a dramatic performance, after what came before.
The comments and questions about power and gaining leverage in the novel (“How does a drifting soul like Lucy get some leverage on the world?” from Lew Gubrious) make me wonder about Lucy’s “project” to leave England, which struck me as abrupt, especially after her just arriving in London. Others have spoken eloquently about the various silences in the text, and here I wonder, where did this notion of sailing to Boue-Marine come from? Did I miss something earlier? In any case, is her leaving England part of gaining leverage? Her comments about home and England suggest this. But isn’t this an odd kind of leverage? She doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t seem to know where she’s going, has no connections there until speaking to Miss Fanshawe on the boat, and finds herself in stressful situations after disembarking. Is Lucy impulsive, naïve, or leaving some things out of the narrative? Yet, all appears to work out when she arrives at the school, and I found myself proud of her when she gains power in the classroom; I wasn’t expecting such a dramatic performance, after what came before.
I am really enjoying reading these comments on a book and central character I have always loathed. I do hope Adam’s wrong - please don’t tell me I’m Lucy Snowe and I don’t want to date Rochester or Madame Bovary, if it’s all the same to you, Adam, either!
I venture to suggest that there is a real difference, though, between ‘unclosed’ and ‘open’ as the former suggests perhaps that many doors have been closed to this character. In a way it connects with Rich’s excellent inference on child abuse, I think, a reluctance or inability to accept or cope with life due to childhood experience. In fact, the total lack of facility to be ‘open’ at all and ‘unclosed’ the closest one could get as a damaged individual struggling with herself as much as others.
Also loved comments on Lucy being plain daft and not so much a ‘whodunnit’ as ‘whydunnit’ - great stuff, guys.
That notion about child abuse is intriguing. Need it be quite that specific, though? Could we perhaps say that there is evidence that Lucy’s background includes some sort of nameless trauma (which, now that I type that out, seems fairly obvious)? What critical purchase does that specific term--"abuse"--buy us?
I too think Rich’s idea intriguing and she certainly seems post-traumatic (developing other symtoms of this later). The problem is that Jane Eyre is also ‘traumatised’ in youth (I’m thinking of the sexual imperative of the red room amongst other things) and reacts quite differently from Lucy who seems to me much more solitary and abrasive whilst at the same time oddly rapacious in her secret self. Maybe it’s as Rohan pointed out i.e. that the timing of the book is important because this was the first book Charlotte wrote withouth her sisters around.
Hello everyone! I had the good fortune to find a copy of “Villette” at the thrift store yesterday and thought I’d try something new by joining this group reading. I have loved Regency and Victorian literature for many years, but have no-one with whom to share this experience.
If you’ll permit me, I thought I’d start with a linguistic contribution. As a native French speaker and freelance translator, I’m paying special attention to the way in which French dialogue is translated. It has been satisfactory thus far, except in one instance…
In chapter 6, Ginevra Fanshawe decides to go below, and tells Lucy that she intends to order the stewardess about. She says: “Heureusement je sais faire aller mon monde.” In my copy of the book (Penguin Classics edition), the translation provided is: “Happily I know how to get my world moving.” I have to admit I’m puzzled — does this sentence make any sense in English? In my very humble opinion, “Fortunately, I know how to make people obey me” would be more accurate and certainly more idiomatic. I’m curious to know how this sentence is translated in other editions.
"What critical purchase does that specific term--"abuse"--buy us?”
A nameless trauma could be a single incident—the death of a parent, say. But that isn’t what Lucy allows herself to express resentment about. She pretty much says that for eight years, you might have expected her to have had a normal childhood / adolescence (assuming that she was 12 during her last visit to her godmother), but that the whole thing was stormy, ruined. And there are the remarks about her godmother getting her to visit to implicitly protect her from whoever she’s living with, and the one about how other people kept her from seeing her godmother later. That’s not a nameless trauma, that seems to be about an extended period of time in childhood and a specifically familial conflict.
And I don’t want to go there, but—oh, all right, I’ll go there. The part at the beginning of Chapter IV where she gives an angry non-description of her childhood, and then compares it to nightmares repeating the rush and saltiness of briny waves in her throat? Well…
I really think you are onto something here, Rich, and it’s making me rethink a character with whom I have always failed to connect. The behaviour patterns she displays later echo the inferential abuse you draw on and now you have pointed it out, I can certainly see the Freudian symbolism of those nightmares!
I see. Sexual abuse that begins when she is a young teen. Who does Lucy mean when she says “we” and “us”? “For many days and nights neither sun nor stars appeared; we cast with our own hands the tackling out of the ship; a heavy tempest lay on us; all hope that we should be saved was taken away. In fine, the ship was lost, the crew perished.”
After a point isn’t it fruitless, and potentially distracting, trying to speculate on or diagnose a specific trauma (e.g. abuse) given how little specific information we are given? Perhaps as we read on and see the effects of whatever it was that happened, we will be able to look back and infer--but we’d still be speculating beyond what we have evidence for (unless there’s some specific explanation about this past episode later on, which I don’t think there is).
Deleilan, my edition (Broadview) translates that line as “Fortunately I know how to get my own way,” which seems to sort of combine the two meanings you give.
Like Albert, I’m interested in the whole choice to go abroad, and in the issues of national identity that are aired by Lucy herself but also about Lucy (the “only an Englishwoman would X” trope). The sense that there is something particularly bold about Lucy’s adventure also seems to me to blend this national question into a question of how different national characters are gendered, or perhaps how different varieties of femininity are getting associated with different nationalities (e.g. Mme Beck’s methods of covert, almost passive-aggressive control, or the pert insolence of the students Lucy faces down--"I never saw such eyes and brows in England,” she remarks).
Just a quick admin issue: I notice a number of comments have been submitted twice--I’ve caught most of them so they only appear once, but for those who don’t comment here often, if your comment doesn’t appear right away that’s because unless you have an account here, your post needs to pass through moderation first. Usually it’s pretty quick, but be patient as we are all in different time zones and also on different work schedules! Usually, though, there’s no need to re-post.
’After a point isn’t it fruitless, and potentially distracting, trying to speculate on or diagnose a specific trauma ‘
Possibly, Rohan, but I think Rich is picking up on a psychoanalytical reading the novel invites, especially given the abundance of duplicitous existences, secrets, hidden feelings, deprivations and sado-masochistic instances that ensue. The fact that Lucy (or Charlotte, I should say) doesn’t reveal a derivation is no surprise, she’s habitually covert, another example of those ‘secrets’. To quote from Macbeth: ‘Nothing is but what is not’.
"After a point isn’t it fruitless, and potentially distracting, trying to speculate on or diagnose a specific trauma (e.g. abuse) given how little specific information we are given?”
I don’t think so, given that these specific sentences in the text bear on the main mystery of the first chapters. Clearly it’s an interpretation, a reading, but it’s not made up wholesale.
"Who does Lucy mean when she says “we” and “us”?”
That appears to refer to the crew of the ship. “In fine, the ship was lost, the crew perished.” But Lucy herself is the ship. “I will permit the reader to picture me, for the next eight years, as a bark slumbering through halcyon weather, in a harbor still as glass—[...]”. She’s also, confusingly, the steersman of the ship. That sentence continues: “-- the steersman stretched on the little deck, his face up to heaven [...] Picture me then idle, basking, plump, and happy, stretched on a cushioned deck [...}”. Perhaps the ship is herself, the steersman is her directing consciousness.
But when people start talking about themselves as plurals in this way, in this context, it brings up dissociative identity disorder, loss of memory, doesn’t it? The next paragraph has a number of odd statements about memory. “I must have somehow fallen overboard”; is she concealing what happened from us, or does she possibly not quite remember? “I too well remember a time—a long time—of cold, of danger, of contention.” Why is she emphasizing that she well remembers something described in generalities? Then there’s “To this hour, when I have the nightmare, it repeats the rush and saltiness “ etc. But after that, “I even know there was a storm, and that not of one hour nor one day.” She even knows? Wouldn’t the usual assumption be that she knows? I read this paragraph and saw it as indicating some confusion on her part; she even knows that there was a storm, and she well remembers a long time of cold, danger, and contention, but all of this self-assurance of memory and knowledge conceals that she doesn’t really remember exactly what happened.
Do I think that Bronte wrote this section intending it to have that meaning for the reader? No, I don’t. As I mention above, it’s probably supposed to suggest that Lucy is, perhaps, an orphan left to the care to grudgingly dutiful relatives—it’s not only a time of danger, it’s a time of “cold”; perhaps she is poorly cared for. But I don’t see any reason why this couldn’t be developed as a reading supported by the text nevertheless. Authorial intention isn’t usually held to control the meaning of a work.
I was up in the mountains this week and missed the early discussion, and I’ll admit that I was reading ahead over the past couple of weeks, although I have never read V. before. It’s great and really interesting to read through the comments without racing ahead to throw in my own worthless two cents. Lots of excellent stuff.
RM deftly starts with the narrator/narration, which is fascinating/compelling and an extraordinary 19th c. novelistic accomplishment, showing her maturity as a writer, especially when you consider the complexity of this narrator. The comparison to Pip which comes up in the comments is rich stuff. I found the Bronte/gothic/Haworth background looming over the story a strong contrast to Dickens’ urbanity--in the comments there’s a nice mention of Lucy’s journey to Villette (compared to Hetty’s climactic Adam Bede walk of shame), but AR points out the oddity of placing the narrator’s ultimate perspective as an aside on on her journey to London. At any rate, the London portion of the novel--I don’t even remember it now--couldn’t be shorter; Lucy gets out of there in a hurry, and as Albert points out, exactly why does she leave? I mention this only as a contrast to Dickens and Pip, and will also note here that I loved the comment by RP about the contrast between the “clean” Bretton and Villette, which turns out to be “the land of adventure.” It’s interesting, and I was surprised, that CB titled the novel after a city--I guess I’d always vaguely thought that Villette was a person. And so what is Villette, anyway?
About RM’s comment on Lucy being “adrift”: I know it’s meant in a general sense, and she certainly seems to have “no direction home,” but when you mentioned it I was reminded of Romola, where I remember her drifting away: doesn’t literal drifting, as the quote used describes, come up in George Eliot more than once (Mill too)? I really liked the description of “icy self-sufficiency” masking vulnerability. And I wonder if this doesn’t raise larger issues, as CB’s attempt to probe and define the state of “Women in the 19th Century,” as her “emotional withdrawl” is, as suggested, a philosophical stance and stoicism, and a statement of rationalism. Perhaps this can help us out of getting caught up in vague abuse discussions. Cold Lucy has a rationalist, scientific attitude without being a scientist--but more on science and doctors and math later, I suppose.
RP mentions the passage of a great length of time in the novel, and that’s another impressive feat. It’s great to isolate the beginning, where the first chapters create a powerful Lucy-Polly-Graham portrait, with the ages and relations quite carefully calibrated, and Graham’s character thrown off with an easy “nonchalance” (an important word--anything French/English seems important in this book). Polly, on the other hand, gets a lot of careful attention--it’s quite a striking, dramatic introduction, almost unreal, as some have commented. My own note would be the significance of 6-year-old Polly portrayed as a determined, strong-minded proto-adult, a Wordsworthian child as father of the man, with the quaint, carefully posed stance of a portrait: motherless child compensating for grieving father. Perhaps we don’t need to worry about the absences/silence about Lucy so much, and we should remember instead the intensely observed, sharp character of Polly, her reaction to the death of her mother (which is why she is so mature and adult-seeming), and the intensity of her longing to be with her father--which can only be described as Brontean.