Friday, 27 September 2013

Villette and me

I first read Villette when I was 16. At that time, it made less impression on me, and while I enjoyed the poetical descriptions of scenery and feeling, and felt soothed by them, it seemed to lack the power of Jane Eyre. The whole piece reminded me of a French Impressionist painting on a cosy Sunday afternoon, with a sunny garden and mild blue skies in the background. As for the melancholy, I only felt sad when Paul died, but the whole power was lost on my adolescent mind. I could not understand the reason for Lucy's reserve and unhappiness throughout the novel, except the part when she was all alone during the summer holidays, and that was lost on me. Still, I liked the novel. I half-suspected that it was superior to Jane Eyre, but could not understand why, though the characters seemed far more real and convincing, and the language more refined and less purple. I was more interested in Paulina's character then than reticent Lucy's. I wondered why she had to reappear so late in the novel, but it was only till I was at university till I appreciated the power of Charlotte Brontë.

Many readers dislike Lucy for her anti-Catholicism and her prejudice against non-English people. The French and Belgians are skewered alive; they are said to be inferior and less intelligent, shallow, noisy, dishonest and coquettish. I admit I was surprised that everyone seemed to be hostile. But we are not asking for an objective, realistic vision of Belgian residents. It is not a minute detail of Belgian society Lucy is presenting us; it is an emotional record of her soul, and how she perceives them. The Belgians are obnoxious not because Belgians are generally obnoxious, but because they do not understand Lucy, and Lucy cannot identify with them. She is weak, uncharming, reserved and not calculated to gain affection from people in general. She has no charisma and cannot fit into society. Naturally the Belgians would be hostile to her. Even more so, in a foreign environment she experiences culture shock at the manners of Belgian citizens. And because Lucy's account is biased, we see how it is really like to experience culture shock, in Charlotte Brontë's version. We don't always blame ourselves; we are apt to blame the locals for being unruly, annoying, etc. Lucy cannot be objective because if she were, that would not be consistent with her traumatised character. This I only learnt after I had gone abroad, and had the misfortune to be placed in the same kitchen with mainly drunken and noisy students in my first year. I had the impression people there were a shallow, drunken bunch, and only later, when I got to know more sober students I realised my first impression was wrong. I can safely say that Villette has taught me many things about myself.

There are passages in Villette that explain Lucy's philosophy of good art. Art criticism was popular in Victorian high culture, exemplified by John Ruskin's Modern Painters. Charlotte enjoyed his works, but what in particular she liked we do not know. She does tell us, however, that on going to the art gallery, she prefers works which are true to nature, and picturesque scenes. She deplores showy paintings, painted to impress rather than to illuminate a truth. For example, the Cleopatra, which depicts a lazy woman reclined on a couch with pots and pans scattered on the ground, her form barely covered by sheaths of cloth. This is sloth and sensuality in excess, a symbol of how humans have degraded into, and this argument may be used for some Pre-Raphaelite paintings, which are more interested in pretty women and surroundings than truth to nature or emotional power. Look at some of the popular Victorian paintings and they are meant for gaudiness than truth. Such paintings are horrible because they are shallow and immoral. But Lucy doesn't stop there. Oh no, she condemns landscapes for not being accurate to nature, because the painters paint trees an idealised colour rather than the truth, and present things as being more exciting than they are. Real life, she implies, is not so sunny or Gothically gloomy. At first I was at a loss at her art criticism, because I like the Impressionists with their vague landscapes, and the gloomy, powerful Romantics, but recently her views on art have influenced my taste.
A depiction of Salisbury Cathedral by John Constable

I was going through some paintings of the Romantic era when I alighted on the works of John Constable. Formerly they were good, but boring; and now I derived a fresh source of inspiration from them. The trees and the grass are always faithful to nature, the water feels slow but flowing, and the essence of the Suffolk countryside is captured. He draws labourers at their tasks, instead of showy Grecian buildings in the midst of solitude, as the neo-Classical painters were apt to do. The trees are not stereotypical green paint on trunk, but real species you see. I felt the force of Lucy Snowe's argument in Villette. Especially since I underwent a similar experience at the Tate 2 years back. Most of the portraits were more interested in bright garish colours than in portraying how the sitter really looked; there was a lack of depth of space and dimension; many were more interested in depicting some ideology of the painter that no one could discern, unless well-read, rather than in painting things in a more straightforward manner. The symbolism was trite. There were a few JMW Turner paintings - I liked his sea-paintings with ships rolling on distinct waves, but his famous and powerful paintings puzzled me. They are vague and full of gleams and flashes, and very few outlines, that you cannot guess what they are supposed to represent. I quote the part where Lucy objects to certain paintings:
These are not a white like nature. Nature's daylight never had that colour; never was made so turbid, either by storm or cloud, as it is laid there, under a sky of indigo: and that indigo is not ether; and those dark weeds plastered upon it are not trees.

indistinct Turner. supposed to represent a railway. The rest is fog and mystery.

If you study the structure of Villette, you realise that the focus of Lucy's friends/acquaintances changes: in volume I, it is Ginevra Fanshawe she talks about; in Volume II, Dr John and Paulina; in Volume III, it is Paul Emmanuel. The divisions are fairly distinct that I wonder if Charlotte Brontë did it on purpose. This is important in a Bildungsroman; it's not a dramatic plot where everybody meets up for a jolly good yak continually over the course of the novel, like David Copperfield. Instead it mimicks real life, where you make and break relationships, lose touch with your friends from each stage of your life. This is part of the depressing factor of Villette - Lucy doesn't retain close ties with most of her friends.  I was initially sad we didn't get to see much of Dr John and Paulina after Volume II, but it was necessary to the development of the plot and Lucy's character. In Volume III she finally sees them at a fête without her, with their families; she is no longer their bosom friend, but an outsider, a horrid awakening reality. Certainly at university, my friendships did not have the same depth and intensity as my high school friendships, and I have moved on faster than I would have expected, and looking at Villette, I am struck by the prophetic powers of Charlotte Brontë.

It is a curious thing that the good, liberal and intelligent characters, Dr John and Paulina, first become friends with Lucy, then later their friendships cool. After Paulina and Dr John fall in love they are absorbed in each other, and lose interest in Lucy, and Lucy gives up on them. In contrast the less benevolent characters, Ginevra and M. Paul keep in touch with Lucy. We never find out whether John and Paulina keep in touch with her. And this does reflect some ironies in real life - we may love our flawed and prejudiced friends more than our good and broad-minded friends, because we just have more chemistry with the former than the latter. Lucy claims to despise the shallow and selfish Ginevra, but obviously she's fond of her in her own rough way. Ginevra is the sort of friend serious people love to despise, and yet you can't help liking her. She is rude and prejudiced and occasionally vulgar, but she is never too haughty to approach the diffident Lucy. Paulina on the other hand is cold and reserved with Fraulein Anna Braun, though the former is generally a good and humble character, and her pride is of a higher order than Ginevra's.  M. Paul is prejudiced against the English and Protestants, but he can't help being attracted to Lucy's individual spirit, and eventually they fall in love. So in Villette, chemistry seems to have a greater influence on friendships and relationships than intellectual compatibility and ideals (Lucy is intelligent like Paulina and Dr John). But this is simplifying matters: both Lucy and Paul are religious, only Lucy is a fierce Protestant, and Paul a devout Catholic - still, they believe in the same God.  They are both prejudiced against an opposite (Lucy against Catholics and Belgians; Paul against English and Protestants) and thus share a similarity in temperament (Paul notes their physiognomies are similar, indicating character is similar).  Lucy is not liberal and confident in cultivated society (unlike Paulina, who shines with the accomplished scientists, and Graham, a successful doctor and amateur scientist) though intellectually she is probably on par with them. Her prejudice and somewhat insularity places her on equal terms with Paul. Both she and Paul are odd characters in a sense: both insular, think their own nationality/religion is superior, and yet both are original and intellectual. Intellect is usually associated with liberality and not insularity, but they share this paradoxical quirk. You could say it makes them outcasts. Paul has more power, energy and charisma than Lucy, however, being based on Constantin Heger, Charlotte's beloved teacher in Brussels, and perhaps this is compatible with her passivity and anticharisma. But he brings out her fire and energy, her teasing and witty remarks, her originality in writing devoirs, and unlike Dr John and Paulina, refuses to see her as a shadow. She is the latters' listener; but she is on equal ground with Paul. I think we see a progression, from friendly acquaintance/obnoxious friend in Ginevra (who doesn't call her a friend), to not-so-close friends with Graham, good friends with Paulina, to lover in Paul. Only Paul really remains constant - is Lucy/Charlotte asserting the superiority of romantic relationships? Many of us forget our friends when we are in a committed relationship, preferring to tell things to the lover instead - and this is true for Lucy.


  1. Hey, I've just read Villette!

  2. Oh wait, you probably don't remember me, do you?
    I'm a Mansfield Park fan, like you.