Yes, I know very well Jane and Rochester have an intensely physical relationship, but Charlotte was 30 at the time and would likely be more susceptible to the romances of her youth. Their very sensuousness sounds more like the fantasies of an idealistic young woman who imagines how love could be, rather than a sex-starved spinster who was tempted to kiss a man. Note with time the sensuousness in her fiction disappears, as she grew to know herself better. I rather think she got disillusioned with physical affection with time. There is scarcely any of that in Shirley and Villette. True, Caroline worships Robert's handsomeness, but it is a visual pleasure, not the kisses of Mr Rochester. These are different things, as a well-informed asexual will tell you.
Then there's the evidence in Villette. Lucy does not wax lyrical on Dr John's beauty - rather they distance them apart, because she knows she has nothing in common with him, as he has the advantage of beauty over her. She finds his handsomeness painful, and admires it as an artist, not as a lover. With Paul it is an emotional connection. Except for the smell of the cigar their relationship is noticeably devoid of physicalness - understandable by Victorian standards, but strange when you compare it to Jane Eyre.
I envied no girl her lover, no bride her bridegroom, no wife her husbandShe is content with his friendship. Charlotte is trying to say through fiction and Lucy Snowe that her love for Heger was platonic - well, romantic perhaps, but certainly not physical. If there was physical attraction she did not intend to act on it. She is a lonely woman who needs a friend, not a pretty woman dangling for a lover. Which reminds me of a letter she wrote to Ellen Nussey.
“The trouble is not that I am single and likely to stay single, but that I am lonely and likely to stay lonelyIt is not so much the conjugal affections as the emotional friendship Lucy longs for, if Charlotte's sentiments are similar to Lucy's. Lucy is lonely from lack of friends, not because she particularly desires any man until Paul Emmanuel. She cries at leaving the Brettons, because they are her only friends so far. She may be in love with John Bretton but she harbours no delusions about him loving her. She longs for his letters, because she likes talking to him, but she hopes for nothing more. She is in love with his charm and friendship but not his beauty. With Paul Emmanuel this need for friendship is satisfied. Note that when she befriends Paulina her complaints grow less intense, because Paulina is to some extent her equal.
Later on when Paul goes off to the West Indies she still remains happy, because she has his letters as testament of his firm friendship. They do love, but in a higher sense. She does not go ecstatic like a girl. In the final scene when they declare their love for each other, the only physical thing is hand-patting and hair-stroking, nothing more. Even the kiss is on the hand. There is nothing remotely sensuous here. It is pure, almost the way two best friends who are girls might in those times treat each other.
Villette is also Charlotte's answer to her dilemma on whether she loved her publisher George Smith or not. By making Paul Lucy's lover instead of John Bretton and calling Dr John superficial, she is justifying why she could not ultimately love George Smith. Because what she felt for Paul's real-life counterpart, Heger, was greater than what she felt for George Smith. Villette was a struggle to understand her own feelings. She fought against her feelings for George Smith, and by writing out the novel, was trying to convince herself Smith was nothing to Heger. Heger was master of her heart, he taught her to write. Smith was nice and kind and charming, but she did not feel the thrill of inspiration. Paul does inspire Lucy, but not Dr John. To Dr John, Lucy is just another friend; to M. Paul, she is a friend he is interested in and seeks to know better and make observations on. He may be intrusive but at least he is interested. Just as Heger was interested in making Charlotte a better writer - which she responded with passion. He is of her kind, as Dr John is not of Lucy's kind. A love based on intellect and inspiration rather than charm must surely be superior. George Smith was upset Charlotte didn't make him the hero. I wonder why. Even if she had, it would mean Lucy got together with John, in other words, fictional Charlotte with fictional George Smith, which would reveal her love for him and be rather embarrassing. Perhaps that would have been more flattering.
It explains why, despite having given up on Heger and fallen for Smith, in the novel, it is the reverse chronology. Not what you would expect, but by having Lucy paired off with M. Paul, Charlotte is reaffirming the superiority of her old love over her new one. That her love was unreal is besides the point. It was true to her, anyway, and with Heger she did not feel as inferior as she might have with Smith, whose associates she was uncomfortable with.
Another thing that I wondered about was why did Charlotte write an ostentatiously passionate novel like Jane Eyre, and feel shocked when the critics found it coarse? All the passion would have been out of place in prudish Victorian times, that is, if you equate it with sexuality. However, on the other hand, if the passion wasn't meant to emphasise sexuality you begin to understand Charlotte's confusion. If the passion was mainly emotional and intellectual (as it is in Villette) then it would be less shameful to Charlotte. Had it been overtly sexual she would have felt guilty. Jane Eyre does have a great deal of physical sensations, but it might be the result of reading many romances in her youth, rather than a deliberate attempt to characterise sexuality. Obviously it is difficult to wax lyrical over soul-mateship, but if you put in physical elements it is easier, because it has been done before. Charlotte was imitating her predecessors in physicality rather than actually advocating sexual things. Also all the emotional-intellectual stuff isn't a great way of showing the reader how in love a couple is, unless you are a very skilled writer (and Charlotte only developed this later on).