The heroine of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, Lucy Snowe, is an iconic unreliable narrator, a true outsider who carefully observes and carefully divulges what she has seen and what she knows.
Who are you, Miss Snowe?” she inquired, in a tone of such undisguised and unsophisticated curiosity, as made me laugh in my turn.307
Villette is the mysterious story of Lucy Snowe. A seemingly passive and unremarkable young woman with no family and limited connections; Lucy travels from England to the fictional Labassecour and becomes an English teacher at an all-girls Pensionnat in the town of Villette. Here she meets new friends as well as old; this is a novel where identities are revealed by chance and characters are brought together by fate.
I first read Villette a couple of years ago and it was an intimidating experience. Brontë paints an intense but sensitive picture of Lucy’s psyche-shipwreck, storms, forests, fire and frost are some of the images which haunt the novel and convey variously the heroine’s struggle to express herself: should Reason or Feeling reign? At times verbal silence is a choice for the character and on other occasions it seems she is compelled to silence by her nature.
There were many parts of the novel I could not fully grasp and that is still true now, but I had been reminded of the heroine recently which is why I decided to revisit.
I find Villette a hard read but I think that is the point, obscurity is key to the novel and Lucy particularly. While Lucy shares much of her inner emotional turmoil with us there is a sense that far more is left private.
A disclaimer of the sentiments attributed to me burned on my lip, but I extinguished the flame. I submitted to be looked upon as the humiliated, cast-off, and now pining confidante of the distinguished Miss Fanshawe: but, reader, it was a hard submission. (189)
Revisiting the novel it also struck me what a modern character Lucy is. Her different personality is thrown into sharper contrast by the women around her. There is the beautiful “pet” Paulina and the coquettish Ginevra who express more openly and appeal more to the male characters. People in Lucy’s life are keen to define her, identities which she resists. She has secrets and why not?
In silence Lucy cannot be cast neatly into a role which gives her a certain autonomy. A woman and indeed any person should be free to be whatever they want- tricky in the 19th century context and still now. Yet as much as Lucy practices self-restraint, being completely alone without anyone to talk to drives her mad, and her attraction to Dr.John and eventually love for Monsieur Paul are expressed in one way or another.
Lucy’s inner voice is loud but verbalising the depth of her feelings requires courage. With Monsieur Paul Lucy finds her ‘tongue’ and someone who she can tell her true self to, flaws and all.
Reading Villette at this time for me was different, I felt I could understand elements of her character more and even relate to her in new ways. Lucy is a fascinating heroine and definitely one who offers a lot to the reader.