Friday, 19 April 2013

Lucy Snowe as art critic, Part 1

Charlotte Brontë notoriously held strong views on art and literature throughout her short life. She thought Jane Austen was passionless, revered Wordsworth and Byron for realism and passion, and always ruled that poetry should be simple and sincere. Villette is riddled with art criticism, and here are some examples.

1) The Fête at the Pensionnat Beck.
Lucy orders a new dress for the occasion, a sober dress of dun mist, a purple-grey crepe, I think. The dressmaker tells her it is a sad and serious colour, and Lucy remarks that her complexion does not make her look pretty. The girls are dressed in white muslin and blue sashes, the colours of the Virgin - ironic, because Lucy thinks they are lazy, hypocritical and unchaste. (Read The Professor and the schoolgirls are shameless flirts). I suppose it is an aim against Catholicism and hypocrisy. A hairdresser is hired for the day to twist their hair into elaborate plaits. What is the significance of Lucy's dress? It reflects her staid, serious nature - an example of pathetic fallacy. Also I am sure you will have noticed that nerdy quiet people tend to dress more conservatively than outgoing people. Unlike the white-robed girls who are not the innocent things they dress as, Lucy's dress truly reflects her shadowy nature.
purple-grey dress from Esprit
A popular colour scheme in the 19th century

To illustrate from life, one of my friends asked me whether she should cut her hair. Her hairdresser told her (lucky thing!) that her face shape suits most hairstyles. She said she wanted a change and yet she wasn't sure. "What sort of person would you associate with short hair?"

I thought about it. "Someone outgoing, daring, adventurous."

She explained that she thought it wouldn't suit her personality - that it wasn't her, though she would still have looked good. So I agreed with her, more to please her. Which brings me to another friend. She confided to me that sometimes she sees dresses she likes in the shop windows and wishes she could buy them. She doesn't because though they look nice on the window they don't suit her. Now my friend isn't plain or fat or any of those things everyone scorns but she does look rather young and diminutive for her age so I see her point.

So perhaps Lucy thinks that her figure and appearance are not set off well by a white muslin dress, because as everybody knows, glamorous clothing on plain Janes make them even plainer. Or perhaps she doesn't feel like one of these damsels, gadding about in light diaphanous dresses. And she hates to stand out when she is shy and wishes to retreat.

In the midst M. Paul comes to Lucy and asks her suddenly to rehearse a role for the play. The original actress decided to fall sick at the last minute and they want it to go on, and Paul trusts Lucy's diligence and abilities. He locks her up in a lonely garret, and she is left to practise. She feels unconfident and her acting is not good, but it will do. Her role is that of a shallow, inconstant, flirtatious fop - a man's role that is opposite her character, not a true, steady hero. Interesting though she is alone she cannot act her role well - you would expect Lucy, being shy and reserved, to act best alone than on stage. Then Mademoiselle St Pierre asks Lucy to wear a man's costume. She consents to wear a cravat and the tops but not a man's trousers. Tony Tanner in his excellent introduction says that Lucy is preserving her identity on stage.

Then when the play begins she sees Graham and plays the part superbly well. Graham being the suitor of Ginvera the heroine, I suppose Lucy is reminded of how to play suitors. Now why does Lucy play best in public when she is shy and unremarkable? Tony Tanner argues that Lucy must hide her true self in order to be received well by the public, and in order to play a part not hers she must preserve her identity i.e. through not wearing man's clothes.
In the first [the lonely garret] - miserable and imprisoning, she can be herself; in the latter [on stage]- relatively brilliant and open - she has to play another ... Ginevra Fanshawe is an excellent actress, as at home on stage as in society where she mindless enacts what the whim and the moment prescribe.
Which is why Ginevra is a social survivor and is received everywhere she goes. So the play reflects Lucy and her attitude to life - she is forced to play a role not hers in order to shine out. She is likeable as an artificial fop, not as her true morose self. It is as if Lucy is trying to point out to us that people like her cannot be genuine in order to survive.

It is also possible that Lucy is making a fool out of Graham on purpose, as she sees him first before acting the part well. Thinking of Graham's silly courtship of the shallow Ginevra, she plays out (in some malice) the silly aspects of courtship and foppery. In this way, art is Life. Lucy acts to please herself, which corresponds with Charlotte Brontë's attitude that art should reflect life. And art does reflect life, in this case, because Ginevra the heroine favours Lucy the fop, and Lucy observes she is acting at someone: Ginevra is in love with a real-life fop, Colonel de Hamal. Seeing this, Lucy puts heart and soul into her performance, and excels. She longs to defeat her stage-rival, the true constant hero, possibly to show Graham (subconsciously) what a fool Graham is making out of himself, because the fop de Hamal will be favoured in the end by Ginevra.

After the play is over, Ginevra approaches Lucy and compares their situations rather vainly. Ginevra says she is pretty and admired and only eighteen, whereas Lucy is a nobody though she is clever. Lucy is offended but she says Ginevra is truthful and shrewd, because she is more honest than the more spiteful Zelie St Pierre who would not say this to Lucy's face. Though Ginevra is shallow and being mean, at least she is not a hypocrite. Though Lucy has a low opinion of Ginevra's principles, she still puts up with her and even saves her bread rolls for her, so I suspect she has some liking for Ginevra's company and amusing talk. It's better than being lonely, and at least Ginevra doesn't ignore Lucy the way everyone else does - she is less proud.  Interestingly enough Graham shows concern and love for Ginevra at  this point, and Ginevra shows her disinterest in him, as she loves de Hamal. Lucy unexpectedly shows a witty side of herself, when she flippantly tells Ginevra that were de Hamal is wonderful and beautiful and how cruel it is of Ginevra to suggest the idea of de Hamal being Lucy's lover, as it is impossible. On discovering that Graham loves Ginevra but it is unrequited, Lucy scolds Ginevra sharply as Graham is sincere and pure in his affections, and a better man than de Hamal.

Graham confides to Lucy that he thinks Ginevra a lovely angel, and de Hamal is a puppy. Lucy replies rather maliciously, in an unusually witty strain, that de Hamal is godlike and beautiful.  Lucy does not encourage Graham's love for Ginevra - she thinks he is too adulatory.  This is most unlike herself, and she stops. The thrill of acting well has put her in high spirits. And this reflects life: being received well by people in general makes you happy and attracts other people to you, in this case receiving the confidences (at last!) of Ginevra and Graham.

Will be continued ...


  1. Lovely! I finished Villette for the first time a month or so ago and found it so substantial that I didn't even attempt to analyze much, just enjoyed the ride. I've sought out a few analyses since then and have greatly enjoyed how they've deepened my experience retroactively. Thank you for your perspective!

  2. Very interesting post! There is a certain irony in the gray dress - certainly Lucy hates to stand out, but by refusing to follow the norm, she still does. I remember being able to relate to Lucy; should re-read Villette again sometime... Looking forward to the next part of your analysis!