Lucy Snowe travels abroad, and discovers love and adventure

Charlotte's last completed novel is her most autobiographical and complex. Less happens on the outside, but the characters' internal lives are more intense than in any Brontë work. Some readers have found the psychological switchbacks unsatisfactory, but for many the knowledge that most individuals are a mass of contradictions makes it highly realistic...



The story, in essence, is simple. Lucy Snowe, an orphan, stays as a child with Mrs Bretton, her godmother, Graham, the son of the house, and Polly, who has been left in Mrs Bretton's care by her father who is grieving over the death of a frivolous wife - Ginevra. Lucy first finds work as a lady's companion, and then travels to Villette to seek employment.

Villette - 'little town' - is a rather condescending description of Brussels, the city where Lucy Snowe and her creator, Charlotte Brontë, worked as school teachers and had deep emotional experiences. Lucy takes a post at a girls' school, where one of the students is Ginevra Fanshawe, the niece (and spiritual heir) of Polly's mother. At the Pensionnat, she studies under and teaches alongside M Paul Emanuel, a waspish martinet with a heart of gold whom women love and fear, while he himself remains indifferent to them.

Lucy recognises the school doctor, John Bretton, to be Graham, her childhood friend, and has to repress her feelings of attraction as she sees his infatuation with the flirtatious Ginevra. Meanwhile, unnoticed by Lucy (but obvious to the reader), M Emanuel is falling in love with her, rather against his will and much against the wishes of other acquaintances whose interest lies in keeping him heart-whole. He angrily observes Lucy's affection for Bretton, but this is extinguished by the reappearance of Polly, whom the doctor rescues from a fire and recognises as his soul-mate.

Paul announces that he must go to the West Indies for three years to take care of the family investment there. As a final act of generosity, he presents Lucy with a school of her own. As the novel ends, he is about to return to Europe. Charlotte leaves us with a storm at sea and uncertainty whether M Paul survives it.

Villette is a reworking of material from Charlotte's first novel, The Professor (then still unpublished), and depicts, thinly-disguised, her passion for M Heger, her Brussels school master, and her attraction to George Smith, her young publisher. Many elements echo Jane Eyre: both have orphans as heroines, plain women who have to find their way through an alien world. Lucy Snowe (in drafts for the book, Charlotte alternated between Snow[e] and Frost, showing the importance of the name as representing coldness) is an outsider; in appearance a self-composed observer, in reality a mass of emotions which she can only control by suppression. Sometimes she confides in the reader; often, even we must guess at what is in her mind. By contrast, M Emanuel is fiery and choleric, but internally is cool until Lucy's coldness warms him.

The novel retains many gothic elements: far-fetched coincidences, ghosts and dream-like sequences, which contend with its prevailing realism. Its predominantly sombre mood is intensified rather than lightened, by moments of bleak humour. These contradictions, which made it unsatisfactory for many Victorian readers, are precisely what make it so appealing to many twentieth century ones.

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