Thursday, 5 July 2012

Lasting Impression: Why Lucy Snowe is blind

Years ago, I read this quote in Villette by Charlotte Brontë. Paulina is waxing ecstacies about her lover, John Bretton, to Lucy, who replies:
"I'll tell you what I do, Paulina,' was once my answer to her many questions. 'I never see him. I looked at him twice or thrice about a year ago, before he recognised me, and then I shut my eyes; and if he were to cross their balls twelve times between each day's sunset and sunrise, except from memory, I should hardly know what shape had gone by.'
'Lucy, what do you mean?' said she, under her breath.
'I mean that I value vision, and dread being struck stone blind.' 
 I didn't know what it meant then, but age and analysis has made me understand precisely what Charlotte Brontë meant. To know this you must understand that John Bretton was based on Charlotte's publisher, George Smith. While this novel was being written (and before that) he wrote to her frequently, and would from time to time invite her to stay with his family in London. She enjoyed his company and correspondence very much, but was not comfortable with his family, Charlotte being an awkward personage. There may have been some feeling on her part towards him, but she knew very well it could not be. But she suffered when he did not write to her at certain times, because she was lonely in remote Yorkshire. And she tried to suppress her need for his letters. Smith's world of commerce and a London social life was something the shy, intense spinster could not belong to. He was good-looking and charming,  mildly flirtatious to the ladies, and a successful publisher - most unlike the unworldly Charlotte Brontë. And so she immortalised all these doubts in Villette. Lucy says she doesn't see Dr John because she does not fully understand his mind and the sort of life he leads - she is not akin to it, just as Charlotte was not akin to George Smith's urban sophistication. She sees him as a caring, interesting person who is genial to his author one moment, the other a self-assured man of town confident with luminaries like Thackeray.  Dr John is kind and sympathetic to Lucy but his true self seems to lie with the society of prominent scientists and people like the de Bassompierres. So what is he? Someone of his sunny temperament seems incongruous with Charlotte/Lucy, and yet they are friends. (Note in Jane Eyre, Jane says she feels no sympathy with sunny, handsome, gallant men. If this reflects Charlotte's opinions, it would explain why she felt confused that she could get along so well with someone of that description in George Smith). He is difficult to define. He is good and yet not without some shallowness (but most of us would be shallow regarding Charlotte and Anne, as I have discovered even among excellent scholars who fail to see the full Brontë temperament. I myself am shallow about Emily).

The next remark from Lucy is more ambiguous. It seems every time she sees John she is deceived as to what he is, and what she can understand of him is from her memory. Her reflections will tell her that they are not suited to each other, either as good friends or lovers, (though she likes and appreciates him), but being in his company makes her like him all the more. Which blinds her as to her resolve not to be over-attached to Dr John. For after her first visit to the Brettons, Lucy is in tears, hoping she will not be over-attached to them.  Villette discusses a great deal on the dangers of over-attachment, to which Lucy is susceptible despite her attempts not to be so.

Is this quite right? I think it is, but Brontë enthusiasts are free to dispute the matter with me. It is the only plausible theory which fits not only the story, but Charlotte Brontë's life. To see into her novels, do not simply imagine a clever prodigy, but see the awkward lonely spinster who was not fond of society. Which brings me to another point: her juvenilia is over-rated, not because her language was bad (it was good), but because she had no idea how people talked and thought and lived. Only with emotional maturity could she write masterpieces.


  1. I read Villette about six years ago so I really must revisit. I remember feeling so frustrated with Lucy Snowe; she's so complex both in her character and the way she tells her story, holding back information and when she shares her emotions. I love how you've fleshed out this quote with information on Charlotte. I hadn't known of her interest in George Smith.

    1. Her infatuation for George Smith is a must-know for all Brontë fans. :) One of the better biographies is by Winifred Gerin, which is easy to read, but the best modern one,which is double the size, is by Juliet Barker. It tells about the industrial riots, the Oxford Movement, basically a lot about the history of her era. I'm planning to finish it by the end of the year.

  2. I think that most of all she is being sarcastic. She likes both Paulina and Dr John, but being so lonely (plus secretly in love with him) Paulina's enthusiasm and praising is too much for her to bear. It is her way of telling: "All right your suitor is gorgeous, but for Heaven's sake, shut up about it!". In the meantime her irony goes so close to reality (meaning that she really thinks him so dazzling and is afraid of surrendering to his charm that she prefers to acknowledge his actual presence to more than a passing shadow) that it both confounds Paulina and constitutes a private joke to the reader. This is how I understand it.

    1. So it's a self-imposed blindness? That makes sense. And they do say love is blind, only Lucy sees his faults better than Paulina. :)

      I think I remember reading your blog sometime - about the Brontes I think? And your Bronte videos on Youtube. Really thrilled to see another Brontë fan here, especially a fan of Charlotte. I think many readers don't see the subtle clues in her books that could help them understand her better.

    2. I'm not sure whether Lucy can see Graham's faults better than Paulina for two reasons: 1) his behaviour towards the two ladies is very different therefore they have a different view of him. He ignores Lucy, but admires Paulina's beauty and he generally thinks greatly of appearance 2) we tend to choose to spend time or mate with other persons that have the least irritating faults/behavior towards us. So, Grahams desire to be served matches Paulina's need to be useful to the point of becoming an accessory of his, something that the skeptical and sarcastic Lucy finds bothering.

      To say that I have a blog about the Brontes since I have posted only once is an exaggeration :P
      I' m glad you 've watched the videos though.
      I know what you mean about the subtle clues. Some miss them even in Jane Eyre which is a way easier to understand book than Villette.

      I also seem to remember your nickname other than the heroine in Shirley of course. LOL.

  3. Both reasons sound right. Knowing Charlotte Brontë's insistence on portraying on what's real, I think she would do this even if she didn't know the full reason why a character did what he did. She might not have even known the full reason why Graham appears in a better light to Paulina. It may be a case of Negative Capability, where not everything in fiction has a clear-cut reason.

  4. I always thought it meant that she thought he was attractive (That is what Paulina and Lucy are discussing in this passage, right--Graham's attractiveness?) but didn't want to be distracted by it and thus become inured to his follies.

    Like, just because he's good-looking, don't let that blind you to what he does.