3. Villette: "I could not flag"

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n Villette, Lucy Snowe's pursuit through dark streets by two sinister-looking men in Chapter 7 signals more extraordinary and troubling incidents, and this heroine's journey forward in life promises to be particularly fraught. And so it is. This time, the conflict between different levels of reality is fully worked out on a conscious, even abstract level. Lucy, in this last of Charlotte Brontë's completed works, portrays her own personality as split:

I seemed to hold two lives – the life of thought, and that of reality, and provided the former was nourished with a sufficiency of the strange necromantic joys of fancy, the privileges of the latter might remain limited to daily bread, hourly work, and a roof of shelter. [140]

"Thought" for Lucy means imagination, fed by those "strange necromantic joys of fancy" which she feels she must reject in order to subsist calmly in the everyday world. In Chapter 14 of the novel, her resolve strengthens, and, much like her author when wrenching herself away from Angria, the young student-teacher decides to abjure "the world of delight" which acting in the school vaudeville had opened up for her. Her evident gift for it, and "the strength and longing" involved, "must be put by; and I put them by," she adds, "and fastened them in with the lock of a resolution which neither Time nor Temptation has since picked" (211).

But the tension soon mounts. When Lucy's beloved Dr John confesses his feelings for her pupil Ginevra Fanshawe, and Lucy herself is left to endure her spiritual turmoil during her solitary summer vacation, this heroine too has a kind of break-down, during which the phantasmagoric takes over: the very beds in the dormitory appear to be spectres. Not a phantom, but another improbable reunion, comes to her rescue: this time, in the shape of her godmother, Mrs Bretton, who nurses her back to health. Again, the counter-claim of reason is quickly felt: Lucy refuses a second extension of her stay with the Brettons, and returns to the Pensionnat de Demoiselles where she had suffered so much, and where a tyrannical personified Reason whispers to her that she absolutely must not reply if Dr John (now revealed as Graham Bretton) writes to her. Then, gradually, "a composite feeling of blended strength and pain wound itself wirily around [her] heart"; she is made "fit for the day's work" and can lift her head up again (310; emphasis added). Here too, and quite explicitly, the pain expressed through such elements proves empowering in the end.

Although the struggle in Lucy Snowe's soul is couched in the most metaphysical terms, there is still a correlative in the physical world. This time it is provided by the atmospheric conditions. The "equinoctial storms" rage around the heroine, and she is feverish "for nine dark and wet days"; when she begs for the respite of sleep, the almost invariable response is a "rattle of the window, a cry of the blast" (231). Like Jane Eyre after her flight from Thornfield, she ends up being brought to her eventual succour "perfectly unconscious, perfectly bloodless, and nearly cold" (258). Her consequent return to reason, to sense, is evoked particularly graphically, by personifying spirit and substance, and describing their reunion almost apocalyptically:

they greeted each other, not in an embrace, but a racking sort of struggle. The returning sense of sight came upon me, red, as if it swam in blood; suspended hearing rushed back loud, like thunder; consciousness revived in fear: I sat up appalled, wondering into what region, amongst what strange beings I was waking.... But the faculties soon settled each in its place; the life-machine presently resumed its wonted and regular working. [237]

Yet Lucy, like Jane Eyre and Caroline Helstone, has been actively involved in this agonizing struggle back to normality. In the hour of her direst need, when driven onto the streets by her inner turmoil, this dyed-in-the-grain Protestant made confession to a Catholic priest; she learns later that her instinct to do so was entirely right – for it was this same kind elderly man who first rescued her and then brought her to Dr John/Graham Bretton and the haven of her godmother's present home in Villette.

Portrait of M. Héger, from a photograph. Source: Brontë, Villette (Harper ed.), frontispiece.

There can be no real closure for Lucy, however. M. Paul, the domineering professor for whom she finally admits a more abiding passion, is lost to her at the end. In Shirley, Brontë had not quite been able to bring herself to offer "the unvarnished truth" – or, as she put it in the last chapter of that earlier novel, "the squeak of the real pig" (587). The result was an ending that proved less than satisfactory both to her more demanding contemporaries, and to later readers. But in Villette, finally, she took her courage in both hands. Those who wished to could simply ignore the false notes in Shirley and Caroline's double wedding to the Moore brothers; but not even those with "sunny imaginations" could seriously think that M. Paul survives the terrible storm at sea here. It seems clear that there can be no "wondrous reprieve from dread" for Lucy (596). The Examiner's anonymous reviewer was bitterly disappointed, wailing, "it was in the power of the disposing author of the book to close her story with a charming satisfying picture ... she daubs her brush across it, and upon the last page spoils it all for no artistic purpose" (qtd. in Allott 177). By now, the other important single women in the novel have found their respective partners: Mrs Bretton's younger charge, Paulina, has won Graham Bretton, and Ginevra too has got her appropriate "portion" (576). But Lucy's great need for love is left unanswered. There is no final help, therefore, for what Harriet Martineau describes as the novel's "pervading pain" (qtd. in Allott 172).

Sally Minogue praises the novel for arousing sympathy "both for those who float easily on life's surface and for those who struggle bravely with life's pain" (xx-xxi); but we are much less involved with the lucky Paulina and the bold Ginevra than we are with the beleaguered and battling Lucy. "I know some signs of the sky; I have noted them ever since childhood," Lucy cries (595; emphasis added). We feel for her as she reels under this latest blow of fate, and as Brontë makes her fullest, most courageous and final acknowledgment of life's sufferings.

So, does pain triumph here? Not completely. Just as Brontë struggled on with her life, Lucy is set to carry on with the life in which M. Paul has left her. "I had been left a legacy ... – I could not flag" (594), she says. As with "herself seemed to herself the centre" in Shirley (457), the repetition of the personal pronoun seems important at this juncture. Lucy's sense of identity has indeed been weak in the past: when Ginevra asked her once, "Who are you, Miss Snowe?" she could only reply half-mockingly and half-bemusedly, "Perhaps a personage in disguise" (392-93). But M. Paul's support has given her a new stability and sense of purpose, as well as the economic means for independence. That is worth a great deal, even if she is finally denied the love for which she has yearned.

Not "too consolatory to console" as Frank Kermode puts it (164), the ending of Villette represents a conscious, mature accommodation to life, similar to that found in such later novels as Trollope's The Small House at Allington (1864), and George Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1876) – works still ahead of their time in checking their heroines' progress towards the altar and the family hearth. Moreover, unlike the Brontës' largely escapist juvenilia, this narrative perfectly fits R. D. Laing's definition of the creative faculty, as sending out "bridgeheads into alien territory" and performing "acts of insurrection" there (37). By allowing Lucy's feelings to be vented so completely, Brontë has affirmed her heroine's individuality more fully in this novel than she had ever done before, and brought her, through her trials, to a certain hard-won composure.

For all these protagonists, pain, intense pain, is dramatically expressed through the jostling of different elements in their stories, in a way that looks forward to the collage of the ordinary and the extraordinary that we find in the postmodernist novel. It is also expressed in the very language and imagery of the narrative. Most importantly, it is shown to be an inextricable part of the heroines' effort to move forward with their lives. For Brontë's contemporaries, however, it all seemed just too much to bear....

Created 20 January 2018