Saturday, 27 April 2013

Lucy Snowe as art critic, Part 3

3) The Concert

Mrs Bretton insists on having a pink dress made for Lucy to wear to a concert, against Lucy's wishes. Since it is at night, I presume it is an evening dress. I'm not sure when Villette is set, but let us say at the time Charlotte Brontë was in Brussels, 1842-43. Since it is comparatively plain, it might look like this.
an 1840s evening dress
The simplest is the last, so this might be roughly what Lucy wore. In the 1840's Charlotte wore her hair straight instead of curling it, so we can assume Lucy did the same.
A more subdued 1840's hairstyle
This reminds me of the time Lucy chose to wear a gloomy subdued dress to the fête at the pensionnat, instead of the bright young white dresses the other girls wore. This time it is Mrs Bretton's decision to make Lucy go as a vibrant person she is not. Lucy feels the dress does not suit her reserved personality, and possibly it doesn't suit her (this I would dispute, as later on she wears a pink day-dress of her own choice). One of the reasons she is uneasy with her dress is she hopes Graham doesn't think she is trying to get his attention. She seems to be self-conscious. Being plain and obscure, it seems ridiculous were she to try to be vibrant and attention-seeking (but if she was pretty that would be another thing entirely). I also notice that when she is lonely and melancholy earlier on, she wears dull colours. Only later, with the friendship of the Brettons and M. Paul does she wear brighter colours.

To illustrate from life, there is a girl in my course who in our first year in college wasn't popular. Actually that's an understatement. She was pretty unpopular, because she kept on trying to send text messages to several people in class (including me) although not on cordial or speaking terms with most of us. Don't ask me why: she lacked charisma (like Lucy Snowe) and it was hard having conversations with her. She was reserved and not chatty, and asked the most stupid things like "Have you got a boyfriend?" Recently she has taken to  putting up photos of herself in poses and her new clothes on Facebook all the time. Now this is normal for many people, but the people I know who do this tend to be tolerably good-looking, or fun, or popular or charismatic. She had none of the last 3 qualities. Now she is tolerably attractive (in an insular way, because her taste tends to be garish), but because she's not popular, those who normally comment on her photos are guys who are not even her friends who just like ogling and objectifying women.  One of my friends told me he is disgusted with the way she finds every excuse to pose on Facebook. Surprisingly she gets a number of likes, and she is flattered because she thinks she's popular when they are only ogling her. Now if she was popular people would not be saying such things. So you understand why Lucy Snowe would not like to be made ridiculous in this way. This acquaintance of mine too has a tendency to wear pink too often, and while pink was more acceptable in the Victorian era, a bright pink might make Lucy garish.

Lucy and the Brettons go to a concert performed by the Conservatoire and attended by the King and Queen of Labassecour. The Brettons treat her like family, and she enjoys it.
I suppose people who go every night to places of public amusement, can hardly enter into the fresh gala feeling with which an opera or a concert is enjoyed by those for whom it is a rarity. I am not sure that I expected great pleasure from the concert, having but a very vague notion of its nature, but I liked the drive there well.
Most people who are used to amusement and society would find this concert comparatively ordinary, but being unused to company and excitement Lucy feels unduly exhilarated. To her it is a treat, because usually she is solitary at this time. Even the grandeur of the concert-hall seems almost magic to her. She scarcely recognises herself, and mistakes her reflection in the mirror for someone else, and was disappointed at her plainness. This may be reminiscent of the time Charlotte attended a concert with George Smith and his family, (though in day-dress, as she had no evening-gown). George Smith observed that she was self-conscious and angry she was not pretty.

Unlike the coarseness of their daily appearance, the people in the concert are now elegant, their elegance "kept nicely in reserve for gala use."  The beauty of the women are like models of Dutch paintings.
low-country classic features, regular but round, straight but stolid, and for their depth of expressionless calm, of passionless peace, a polar snow-field could alone offer a type. Women of this order need no ornament, and they seldom wear any; the smooth hair, closely braided, supplies a sufficient contrast to the smoother cheek and brow; the dress cannot be too simple; the rounded arm and perfect neck require neither bracelet nor chain...With one of these beauties I once had the honor and rapture to be perfectly acquainted: the inert force of the deep, settled love she bore herself, was wonderful; it could only be surpassed by her proud impotency to care for any other living thing. Of blood, her cool veins conducted no flow; placid lymph filled and almost obstructed her arteries... Such a Juno as I have described, sat full in our view—a sort of mark for all eyes, and quite conscious that so she was, but proof to the magnetic influence of gaze or glance: cold, rounded, blond, and beauteous as the white column, capitalled with gilding, which rose at her side.
They are compared to pillars and statues: lifeless and perfect.


They are stout and womanly-looking like models in old paintings, quite unlike the ideal English beauty of that time. An English beauty was supposed to have a high, well-sculpted, aristocratic face, with cheek-bones and what-not (Norman features), and in the 1840's the long ringlets over the ears was in fashion. Classically, hair was supposed to be plaited into a bun. These Dutch models were rounded and fleshy, with smooth plump skin and even smooth hair. (Fatness was not considered particularly repulsive then). Their faces were broader, their features still and less impressionable, and they were not aristocratic-looking, whereas English beauty was typically "aristocratic-looking." It is regularity and womanliness, rather than distinction or intelligence (aristocratic features were seen to be more intelligent) that makes them beautiful. English beauty also required well-made, upper-class dress to be distinctive; these Dutch madonnas do not, because the simplicity of their beauty suits the simple attire better. It is rustic and insular-looking in a way. (By the way typically rustic features are not considered beautiful in England). These madonnas are womanly, insular and not worldly or impressionable types. (Judging from appearances only). Clearly despite the fact Lucy admires their simplicity of beauty, she scorns their lifelessness and unconcern with things that do not concern them. This will contrast with the later type of woman: the passionate Vashti in the next chapter.

Unlike these madonnas, Ginevra is said to be the most beautiful, according to Lucy Snowe. Her hair looks like hair, it is long and flowing in curls, unlike the plaited shells of the Labassecouriennes. They seem to be placid and demure, whereas the English Ginevra is talking volubly, her freedom of expression is reflected in her free-flowing hair (if this is the 1840's, I think Ginevra would be wearing ringlets on both sides of her face, and the back hair gathered into a twist). Lucy says Ginevra is the least demure and hypocritical. Belgians are depicted as noisy and boisterous in class, but yet in these occasions they pretend to be demure and innocent though they are not. Their dresses of blue, rose and white suggest "heaven and angels" but Lucy snidely remarks two of the girls she knows always eat too much, which is a Victorian metaphor for being sensual and materialist  instead of spiritualised. Ginevra on the other hand is openly bad - she is rude, tactless, boisterous, selfish and shallow, and she openly talks about her suitors.  Contrast this with the pious-looking women in the art gallery pictures, who reflect the facade of Belgian society, beneath which there is deceit and hypocrisy. She is also at ease with Lucy unlike the rest. There is more life in her, it seems. Ginevra, however, is rude because she looks at the Brettons through her quizzing-class in a satirical manner, and shows herself to be less refined than Lady Sara, who is proud but not insolent. Lady Sara would not demean herself to be on the level of Lucy and the Brettons, but she is too refined to actually bother making snide remarks about them. I think this is true nowadays - the more vulgar brats will openly tease the nerds, whereas some of those rich kids, who are cultured and have travelled a lot and are at ease with society, will totally ignore them to exclusion. This is an oversimplification, but you get my drift.
Victorian quizzing-glass
Ginevra's quizzing at Mrs Bretton angers Graham, who now no longer loves her as his mother has been insulted. It seems he had known some time she was fallible, because she accepted his gifts, but till she insulted his mother he was very much in love with her. Graham also rants that Ginevra is "not honest" or a "pure-minded angel", because she exchanged a significant look with her other suitor de Hamal, indicating that she is to be his wife. Graham thinks she loves de Hamal and has been stringing him along all the while. We now know Graham insists on purity in a wife: either see it as chauvinistic of him, or deeper of him. Modern feminists will be insulted, and Lucy may think that he is unrealistic. Alternately, it may give a better impression of him, because instead of looking at the shallow, pretty girl for her charms he wants some morals. Lucy defends Ginevra, being sure she is honest. Ginevra after all openly scorned Graham in front of Lucy, and she was rude to Graham even while he pursued her, instead of pretending to be in love with him. She was cool and impassive to him, but affectionate to de Hamal. She was greedy to accept his gifts, but at least she did not pretend to love him - she treats him differently from de Hamal, and Graham was foolish to interpret her receptiveness as affectionate behaviour.  While Lucy despises Ginevra she has some grudging respect for her. They do both have good chemistry. We learn that truly genteel people need not be insolent, and Ginevra broke this code of behaviour. So despite the fact she is rude and vulgar in this way, perhaps it is why both get along well - Lucy has no position or charm, and therefore cannot be friends with Lady Sara's or Mrs Cholmondley's society. But Ginevra is less refined than these ladies, and therefore she is more equal to Lucy. So despite the fact Lady Sara is more polite, Lucy would certainly prefer Ginevra to her, to talk to, though she might admire Lady Sara's refinement. This is not mentioned, but it is probably what Lucy would feel. Graham's insistence on purity foreshadows his later fascination with the innocent Paulina de Bassompierre.

But I have digressed on the audience and neglected the art proper - the concert itself. (Mind you, the hairstyles and the ladies' figures are a form of art criticism). Lucy thinks the singing is marvellous but not touching - skilful but lacks true depth or sincerity. One of the singers is a sulky lady, a good gauge for insincerity - she is dissatisfied with her job.
a simple Scotch melody, played by a rude street minstrel, has often moved me more deeply.
Charlotte Brontë believed in simple truths in poetry, like that of Wordsworth and Burns, and scorned poetry that displayed intellect of the poet. (See Shirley for Caroline's opinion of this). She applies this to music, the symphony (or whatever it was) is complicated, but less favoured than the simple melody. I can't remember where I found this, but there was a concert in Brussels when Charlotte was living there. The music they performed was not of the Great Masters, so I can only presume the music, though skilfully written, lacked true power and sincerity. She later attended Rossini's opera in London with George Smith. While famous, Rossini isn't exactly Beethoven or Schubert or Mendelssohn (or even Schumann. Favourable music criticism tends to be biased to the more classically than Romantically inclined I notice). He is catchy rather than genuinely emotional. Lucy doesn't mention what composer they perform, but my guess is not a Great Master. I don't know Charlotte's opinion of the great masters, but she was noted to love Scotch melodies - she urged the Winkworth sisters to play more Scotch tunes when visiting them with Mrs Gaskell. And when she was scared of meeting new people, she was immediately warmed when she heard them playing Scotch music.
Robert Burns, Charlotte Brontë's favourite poet

I suppose old ballads reflect truths of the human condition - love, sickness, death, though I can't pretend to know much about them or even like them. Interestingly Lucy likes the native Labassecourians' old hymns,
Some rousing choruses struck me as the best part of the evening's entertainment. There were present deputies from all the best provincial choral societies; genuine, barrel-shaped, native Labassecouriens. These worthies gave voice without mincing the matter their hearty exertions had at least this good result - the ear drank thence a satisfying sense of power.
Their hymns must be patriotic and more rural. Hymns typically preach morals, or truths, or patriotism - fine feelings, which would agree with Charlotte, rather than wandering symphonies executed with more skill than feeling. I don't agree that complicated music is insincere - the Great masters often wrote touching pieces. But perhaps as a writer, the lyrics of a hymn was more accessible to Charlotte's feelings than some melodic motifs. Her sister Emily was the better musician.

We also see Charlotte expounding on melancholy, which she did in The Professor, though melancholy is called Hypochondria, meaning depression in the Victorian era. There must be a reason why the concert is attended by the King and Queen and the aristocracy (though Charlotte may have attended such a concert in Brussels). It gives us a good view of society at many levels - the monarchy, aristocracy and middle-classes. The King is based on King Leopold of Belgium, uncle of Queen Victoria. Lucy says the King is suffering from melancholy. No one else is like him, which shows how rare this temperament is, as only Lucy is like him. Charlotte wrote back home to say Leopold was gloomy, and Queen Victoria's visit would enliven the court. It is not just state problems which affect the King, observes Lucy, it is "constitutional melancholy" - natural to him, being genetic. (Think of Mrs Pryor's constitutional defect of being awkward around people).  He can't help it, just like Lucy. Lucy feels inadequate despite her success in school, and even when being pleased by the Brettons suffers from depression - she longs to be free. Yet when she is free she is lonely.


The Queen is better for her ladylike manners than the aristocracy - good, gentle and not proud, but stately and with simple manners. When she speaks to her husband he smiles, but when his "good angel" ceases he relapses into melancholy again. Perhaps this is a personal observation by Charlotte, but it might mean that the cure for melancholy is talk and company. Or that even his good wife cannot help him all the time, because he is otherwise sad, just like Lucy. It strikes Lucy that no one else understands or sees his predicament - only she, because she is a fellow-sufferer. Lucy realises it is a curse to have such a temperament. Charlotte hated crowds and society, yet complained of loneliness to Mrs Gaskell, which is paradoxical, and yet this is what a melancholic temperament might manifest, in Lucy Snowe at least.

Yet Lucy doesn't despise the king: she sympathises with him. Melancholy isn't considered a sin so much as an affliction you can't escape: Graham thinks Lucy can cure herself of depression easily by company, but it is a temporary relief rather than a permanent cure. According to Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Lucy's melancholy may be Charlotte's way of lambasting the Romantic poets' championing of solitude as a way to happiness. (Wordsworth, I'm looking at you). Solitude may be relief, but it is not happiness: it is loneliness. And yet crowds may depress you. The poets may be happy introverts, or perhaps they are just idealising the whole concept of solitude as a way to criticise industrialisation and crowded cities. Charlotte Brontë was a more complex matter: solitude made her depressed and weary, but society drained her spirits. But she enjoyed the company of a few friends, and this is still some sort of society, far better than utter solitude. No one can enjoy solitude that long, not even the introverted poets (unless you were some unusual neurotic, and neurotics generally do enjoy the company of at least a few people). Anyone forced to endure such solitude like Lucy would break down, and Charlotte had first-hand experience.

It isn't mentioned in the novel, as far as I remember, but melancholy was touted by some of the Romantics as the key to inspiration. Keats wrote his Ode on Melancholy, saying melancholy inspires him, and certainly the Romantic journalists and critics, William Hazlitt and Thomas de Quincey were inspired by melancholy, especially the latter. Coleridge's Ode to Dejection was written out of his disappointment in love with Sara Hutchinson. Lucy is melancholic and among the main characters in the novel, the most artistic and original. Does melancholy mean a higher form of existence? The only characters who are said to be melancholic are Lucy, the King and M. de Bassompierre, a good and intellectual man who dearly loves his daughter. M. de Bassompierre is also an accomplished scientist and not very practical, who needs his daughter to love him. These characters are on the whole sympathetically drawn.

Lucy observes that Mr. Paul is present (he seems to be present everywhere! Even in the art gallery) as his brother Josef is the music teacher of the performers. Josef cannot control them, but M. Paul can. He has fire and power, unlike the inert ladies of the art gallery. Paul looks at Lucy's pink dress sardonically, because he likes to make snide remarks on ladies' colourful clothing, which he disapproves of. There is some indication he wants Lucy's attention, because when she ignores him he goes angry. At first Graham teases Lucy "what is the meaning of this?" Ironically Graham suspects Paul's interest in Lucy before she does, though in a banal, unserious way. He is perceptive though less emotionally impressible. Lucy explains to him it is because she didn't curtsey to Paul. Graham dislikes Paul, because he can't understand him, and Paul is being rude and not following the convention's of society etiquette. This foreshadows Paul's affinity with Lucy - both are outcasts of society in a sense. Paul's demands for attention also reflect Charlotte's own desire to be noticed by M. Heger and George Smith. One of the reasons why Lucy wishes not to be too close to Graham despite loving him is because she knows she will never be his best friend, or first in his heart. Later on, she compares his mind to a building, where large apartments are reserved for his friends, and a small room just for her - that is how insignificant she is. Like Lucy, Paul wishes to occupy an important place in his friend's heart - in this case, Lucy's heart. Paul is Lucy's masculine double.
Victorian cigar-case
During the lucky draw Lucy wins a cigar-case and Graham a lady's blue turban. He wants to exchange but she refuses. Is there a significance in this? Lucy says it is to remind her of a happy evening, but she could have done that with the turban. The cigar-case being masculine, perhaps it is more to remind her of Graham. (since it is "supposed" to belong to Graham. Think of it as coveting your beloved's belongings).  Also, in Jane Eyre Mr Rochester's cigar is one of the things we are constantly reminded of, and also Paul Emmanuel smokes. Graham being Lucy's idol now, does she keep the cigar-case to remind her of his smoke? Rochester and Paul end up being the loves of the heroines, so could cigars be a code for a love-object? (And I refuse to subscribe to the believe that the cigar is a phallic symbol, as Villette predates Freud. So there). If we find out that George Smith smoked that might be another clue.

Regency lady's turban
This brings us to more questions. Why oh why must M. Paul be everywhere? In the art gallery, in the concert, and she will encounter more of him elsewhere. Partly for plot purposes, so his introduction in the story is continuous, but also to see more of his character in the public eye i.e. Graham's eyes and Lucy's changing opinion of him. He also expects Lucy to notice him, and he is her double, always there for her when she least expects it and before she realises his worth. Paul's involvement in music, despite being tone-deaf, shows his sensitivity to the arts and his insistence on perfection. This allies him to Lucy.

The concert is a new scene for us: it has more classes of inhabitants - almost the whole of Labassecourian society, except the working-classes, and a great range of complicated characters and emotions. The fête is within the school grounds, the art gallery for the intelligentsia and some visitors strolling by, the concert from various walks of life who want to go out, hear music and see the King and Queen. With each art-scene Lucy is expanding her circle so to speak. In the first, she is almost alone, the second, brought by Graham and left alone, the third, she is with the Brettons all the time. Her judgement and confidence improves.

Graham is also playing the stereotypical male, who either adore goddesses or condemn them as devils (like the critics who praise the silly paintings in the gallery). This is referenced in Shirley, where Shirley says male authors write female characters who are either angelic or demonic, and praised for it. Graham succumbs to this stereotype, not the best trait in a person to Lucy. Paul sees Lucy as a fiery woman, resents her at first for it, but he sees her as a nuisance rather than as a demonic creature.  Graham sees Lucy as odd, but good and quiet - not her whole character.

I realise very little of this has to do with actual art, but do bear with me: the other bits were too interesting to miss. Like the art gallery, music is seen to be made complicated and pretentious to common taste and critics, but with little soul within. Rustic authenticity and nationalism seems to be applauded: the Scotch and Labassecourian melodies are preferred to the more cosmopolitan opera. Is it a national identity Lucy is searching for? Must music have a distinctive flavour of their origin (simple ballads rather than classical opera is more likely to provide this)? You could argue it is being yourself to perform national music rather than a "standardised" opera that is accessible to all nationalities, and Lucy believes in being yourself. Just like the art gallery, where the "true" pictures featuring nature and historical scenes are preferred to the kitschy pictures favoured by critics and barbarians.

1 comment:

  1. During the lucky draw Lucy wins a cigar-case and Graham a lady's blue turban. He wants to exchange but she refuses. Is there a significance in this?

    It foretells the coming importance of Paul imo...for Charlotte the love object is always wreathed in cigar- smoke . Their coming often begins with the barest scent

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