Villette by Charlotte Brontë
Villette is a novel published in 1853. After an unspecified family disaster, protagonist Lucy Snowe travels to the fictional city of Villette to teach at an all-girls school. The novel is celebrated not so much for its plot as in its acute tracing of Lucy’s psychology, particularly Bronte’s use of Gothic doubling to represent externally what her protagonist is suffering internally.
Biographical sources – In 1842 Brontë traveled to Brussels, Belgium with her sister Emily, where they enrolled in a boarding school run by M. and Mme. Constantin Héger. In return for board and tuition, Charlotte taught English and Emily taught music. They had to go back to England because of their aunt Elizabeth Branwell who had joined the family after the death of their mother to look after the children, died of internal obstruction in October 1842. Charlotte returned alone to Brussels in January 1843 to take up a teaching again; but this time her stay at the pensionnat was not a happy one; she became lonely, homesick, and fell in love with M. Héger. She finally returned to her family’s rectory at Haworth in January 1844.
Her experience was material for her first novel The Professor which was unsuccessful; then Brontë reworked the material as a basis for Villette. In particular, most literary historians believe the character of M. Paul Emanuel to be closely based on M. Héger.
– The Professor was the first novel by Charlotte Brontë. It was originally written before Jane Eyre and rejected by many publishing houses, but was eventually published posthumously in 1857.The book is the story of a young man, William Crimsworth. It describes his maturation, his loves, and his eventual career as a Professor at an all-girl’s school. The story is based upon Charlotte Brontë’s experiences in Brussels where she studied as a language student in 1842.
Cover of 1979 Penguin Classics edition of VilletteSpoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow. Villette begins with its famously passive and secretive protagonist, Lucy Snowe, age 10, observing her godmother, Mrs. Bretton, her son, Graham Bretton, and a young visitor, Paulina Home de Bassompierre. The child Paulina is devoted to the older Graham, who showers her with attention but fails to notice her in a romantic sense as she is only six years old. An unspecified family tragedy soon forces Lucy into action, however, and at age 23 she boards a ship for “Labassecour” (apparently based on Belgium) despite not speaking a word of French. After arriving in the capital city of Villette, Lucy finds work as a teacher at Mme. Beck’s boarding school for girls (which can be seen as a literary representation of the Hégers’ Brussels pensionnat), and thrives despite Mme. Beck’s constant surveillance of the students and staff. Dr. John, a handsome English doctor, frequently visits the school because of his love for the heartless coquette Ginevra. In one of Villette’s infamous plot twists, Dr. John is later revealed to be Graham Bretton, a fact that Lucy has known but deliberately concealed from the reader. After Dr. John discovers Ginevra’s unworthiness, his attentions briefly turn to Lucy, who has fallen in love with him despite her usual emotional reserve. When Dr. John rescues Paulina from a burning theatre by chance, however, the two fall in love with each other and eventually marry, leaving Lucy heartbroken. At the same time, Lucy has the first of several encounters with a shadowy nun in the attic who may be the ghost of a nun buried alive on the grounds for breaking her vows of chastity; in a highly symbolic scene, she finally finds the nun’s habit in her bed and destroys it. She later discovers it to be the disguise of Ginevra’s amour, de Hamal. Lucy finds herself becoming closer to a colleague, the autocratic, fiery schoolmaster M. Paul Emanuel; the two eventually fall in love. However, a group of conspiring antagonists, including Mme. Beck, the priest Père Silas, and the relatives of M. Paul’s long-dead fiancée, struggle to keep the two apart, and finally succeed in forcing M. Paul’s departure for the West Indies to oversee his plantation there. He nonetheless declares his love for Lucy before his departure, and arranges for her to live independently as the headmistress of her own day school or externat, which she later expands into a pensionnat. Villette’s final pages are ambiguous; though Lucy says that she wants to leave the reader free to imagine a happy ending, she hints strongly that M. Paul’s ship was destroyed by a storm on his return from the West Indies, killing him. She claims, for example, that “the three happiest years of [her] life” were those before M. Paul’s return journey, which would suggest that he did indeed fall victim to the “destroying angel of tempest”. Brontë described the ambiguity in the ending as a “little puzzle”.
Villette is very incisively and interesting for its explorations of gender roles and repression. It explores isolation and cross-cultural conflict in Lucy’s attempts to master the French language, as well as the conflicts between her English Protestantism and the Catholicism. Remember the denunciation: ‘God is not with Rome’ of Labassecour.
In The Madwoman in the Attic, the character of Lucy Snowe is probably based in part on William Wordsworth’s Lucy poems, emphasizing this idea of a feminine re-writing.
Shirley by Charlotte Brontë
Shirley is a social novel by Charlotte Brontë, published in 1849. Its popularity led to “Shirley” becoming a woman’s name, first a male name (In the novel, Shirley’s father gave her the name he had intended to give a son.)
Set in Yorkshire in the period 1811–1812, during the industrial depression after Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. The four central characters are studies in contrast: brothers Robert Moore, an industrialist whose mill is idle because of the war; Louis Moore, a private tutor to a family’s children; and their two loves Caroline Helstone, timid and uncertain, and Shirley Keeldar, heiress to a fortune.
The Keeldar family home in Shirley is called Fieldhead; Charlotte Bronte based Fieldhead on an Elizabethan Manor House called Oakwell Hall.
A silent adaptation was done in 1922by A. V. Bramble and Carlotta Breese starred as the title-character Shirley.