By Alisa Holahan
The University of Texas at Austin Undergraduate Research Journal, Vol.10:1 (2011)
Introduction: Charlotte Brontë’s 1853 novel Villette is not a book about which is it easy to be ambivalent. George Eliot called Villette a “still more wonderful book than Jane Eyre” (qtd. in Gordon 255). Matthew Arnold, in contrast, referred to the novel as “one of the most utterly disagreeable books I have ever read” (qtd. in Gordon 283). One explanation for readers’ strong responses to the novel lies in the complex way in which protagonist and narrator Lucy Snowe relates to the reader. Villette, by Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855), tells the story of a young woman, Lucy Snowe, who experiences a personal tragedy that leaves her alone and entirely dependent upon her own resources. She decides to leave England and becomes a teacher at a girls’ school in the city of Villette, in a fictionalized Belgium. The vast majority of the novel relates Lucy’s experiences at the school over the course of a year.
While too many characters in the novel Lucy is a mystery, the reader learns a great deal about her thoughts and feelings. However, although Lucy is more honest with the reader than she is with the novel’s characters, a closer look at the narrative suggests that Lucy in fact conceals a great deal from the reader. Throughout the novel she betrays her awareness of the reader’s presence and of the fact that the reader, like many of the novel’s characters, will try to judge her. Lucy’s narrative stance toward the reader can be seen to reflect a complex amalgam of both self-revelation and concealment that mirrors Victorian women autobiographers’ desire to connect with their readers without foregoing a deep need for privacy. Thus, the idiosyncratic relationship between the narrator and reader in Villette can be perceived as a reflection of and commentary on Victorian women’s autobiography.