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.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Lucy Snowe as art critic, Part 2

2) The Art Gallery

In this section, Graham and Lucy's friendship develop, and he takes her to art galleries. Before then, she speaks favourably of him and his mother, who are cheerful and can overcome troubles easily, unlike herself.
There are human natures, bland, blowing and genial,within whose influence it is as good for the poor in spirit to live, as it is for the feeble in frame to bask in the glow of noon ... They liked to communicate happiness... they did it instinctively.
Graham takes Lucy all round Villette, and proves to be a good, kind, devoted doctor, more benevolent than his mother. But here Lucy says he was not perfect.
A god could not have the cruel vanity of Dr John, nor his sometime levity. No immortal could have resembled him in his occasional temporary oblivion of all but the present ... In the first, the public [view of Graham], he is shown oblivious of self; as modest in the display of his energies, as earnest as their exercise. In the second, the fireside picture,[private view of Graham] there is expressed consciousness of what he has and what he is; pleasure in homage, some recklessness in exciting, some vanity in receiving the same. Both portraits are correct.
He is, in short, both good and bad, a liberal and benevolent man, but shallow of some inner vision. This was true of George Smith, Charlotte Brontë's publisher, and her acquaintance, Sir James Kay Shuttleworth. Both did public good, but were both shrewd and often manipulative businessmen. Graham's levity is reflected in the fact he likes to laugh at and make snide remarks about Lucy's later suitor and lover, Paul Emmanuel, who is deep and loving and generous, though less charming and successful, and most importantly, loves Lucy for herself above others. Graham could never appreciate Lucy's less attractive points for herself, whereas Paul learns to.
Sir James Kay Shuttleworth

Lucy remarks she has no head for science, but instinct inclines her to art. (Unlike Graham, a doctor and scientist). She likes to visit the pictures alone. Interestingly she also says she is bad and awkward and conversation.
In company, a wretched idiosyncrasy forbade me to see much or to feel anything .... I never yet saw the well-reared child, much less the educated adult, who could not put me to shame by the sustained intelligence of its demeanor under the ordeal of a conversable, sociable visitation of pictures, historical sights or buildings, or any lions of public interest... In the commencement of these visits,  there was some misunderstanding and consequent struggle between Will and Power. The former faculty exacted approbation of that which it was considered orthodox to admire; the latter groaned forth its utter inability to pay the tax; it was then self-sneered at, spurred up, goaded on to refine its taste, and whet its zest. The more it was chidden, however, the more it wouldn't praise.
Lucy here is condemning popular taste in art. Unlike other educated people, who can speak freely and easily on art, she can't, because being with others knocks her out. This is despite the fact she is a true connoisseur of art and has better feeling, depth and taste than most critics. Her difference in perceiving art also separates her from the rest of the world.

She observes that good pictures are rare, and that the artists often paint pictures according to their whims, rather than imitate nature or truth (and Charlotte believed art should imitate nature, just like the early Romantics did). Some portraits of complacent-looking women are not as "goddess"-like as they seem to think they are - Lucy is criticising the admiration of fine-looking women who are not wonderful within, because this is a false view of the woman. It is a condemnation of the public who must worship women for their beauty, rather than look at vision and truth in art. The pictures which are realistic and convey expression are preferred - it is clear she wants genius, life, vision and truth. This is why Charlotte admired Wordsworth.
It seemed to me that an original and good picture was just as scarce as an original and good book...And yet there were fragments of truth here and there which satisfied the conscience, and gleams of light that cheered the vision. Nature's power here broke through in a mountain snow-storm; and there her glory in a sunny southern day. An expression in this portrait proved clear insight into character; a face in that historical painting, by its vivid filial likeness, startlingly reminded you that genius gave it birth. These exceptions I loved: they grew dear as friends.
The main focus of this chapter, however, is on The Cleopatra, a painting admired by critics, and considered "queen of the collection."
It represented a woman, considerably larger, I thought, than the life. I calculated that this lady, put into a scale of magnitude suitable for the reception of a commodity of bulk, would infallibly turn from fourteen to sixteen stone. She was, indeed, extremely well fed. Very much butcher's meat, to say nothing of bread, vegetables, and liquids, must she have consumed to attain that breadth and height, that wealth of muscle, that affluence of flesh. She lay half-reclined on a couch, why, it would be difficult to say; broad daylight blazed round her; she appeared in hearty health, strong enough to do the work of two plain cooks; she could not plead a weak spine; she ought to have been standing, or at least sitting bolt upright. She had no business to lounge away the noon on a sofa. 
by Sir Lawrence Alma- Tadema, a Pre-Raphaelite.

Tony Tanner says, in his introduction to the 1970's Penguin edition that this portrait is an "extreme version of the physicality of the bourgeouis world. She is mere matter, a great lump of stuff, a commodity," just like the beautiful women in other pictures. I suspect we might call the art "kitsch," the way people think Thomas Kincaid is beautiful, but the colours are too garish and lack meaning. It seems cultured, because Cleopatra is a historical figure, but people are only admiring the materialism in the picture rather than any historical significance. Her fleshiness is a common Victorian metaphor, to symbolise decadence, sensuality and materialism compared with thin heroines, who represent spirit and childlikeness (because innocence was worshipped then). Lucy's obsession with Cleopatra's laziness could be a criticism of wealthy bourgeouis women who were materialistic, with no aim or vision in life.
She ought likewise to have worn decent garments; a gown covering her properly, which was not the case: out of abundance of material—seven-and-twenty yards, I should say, of drapery, she managed to make inefficient raiment. Then, for the wretched untidiness surrounding her, there could be no excuse. Pots and pans, perhaps I ought to say vases and goblets, were rolled here and there on the foreground; a perfect rubbish of flowers was mixed amongst them, and an absurd and disorderly mass of curtain upholstery smothered the couch, and cumbered the floor. On referring to the catalog, I found that this notable production bore the name "Cleopatra"
by Sir Frank Dicksee. Opulent and not much covering. No wonder Lucy disapproved. Other Cleopatra paintings typically feature nudity.

Also the comment on Cleopatra's garments is interesting. Despite having so much fabric, the gown doesn't cover her body properly. This might symbolise waste, or more likely, an attack on materialism. Cloth is viewed only as a fashion (perhaps it is used to make some exotic-looking folds) rather than a necessity, to cover oneself up. It is also indecent by Victorian standards, and therefore the Cleopatra is objectified as a sensual object. Tony Tanner surmises that Lucy Snowe is against "sexual display and opulent excess," and more.
It is a vision of the unsubstantial, physical world run riot, a world preempted by a swollen chaos of body, material and things - substance unsouled to the last degree. 
It is the sensuality of the picture that appeals to the critics, rather than the meaning and soul behind it. (One of the reasons why Dante Gabriel Rossetti's pictures were condemned by critics, he was fond of sensual female portraits too).  It is not just the immorality of the woman in the picture that repels Lucy, but the fact it represents body and surface over soul. The garments are not only indecent but signify vanity. Luxury, gluttony and indecency are typical values associated with the aristocracy in the 19th century, and later the upper-middle class socialites. The vases and goblets, on the other hand, are metaphors employed by Lucy for pots and pans. It is not some mere distant past involving strange crockery she is looking at, but she is comparing that picture with the real world of pots and pans, domestic items of her own era. The Cleopatra would not make a good housewife, with her tardy housekeeping. It is also ironic that such a banal materialistic picture should have such the grand name of a historical figure.
Une almé by De Beifve. Thought to have been the original for the Cleopatra, though it is a slave-girl rather than a queen in this picture. Charlotte Brontë may have employed artistic licence. It caused a stir when first exhibited in Brussels because it was oversexualised.
We can see that this Cleopatra has something in common with Ginevra Fanshawe, who longs for luxury and wealth, and has a lot of flesh, unlike the thin, childlike, spiritualised Paulina de Bassompierre. Though Ginevra seems to be better than the Cleopatra.

The picture does have good points, according to Lucy, having little details well-painted, but on the whole, meaningless and "claptrap." (Reminds you of the Pre-Raphaelites). She focuses her attention on some natural scenes instead, smaller and less noticed, but more true to nature. (Which reminds you of the Victorians preferring solid Wordsworth to exotic Byron, but Charlotte was a fan of both. In later years she mentioned Wordsworth more often. In the Romantic era, the opposite was true: Byron outsold Wordsworth. To like Byron was considered flashy, and to like Wordsworth was considered to have true taste. Both poets have survived, but Wordsworth has a better reputation. Also, consider that nowadays respectable old paintings tend to be either religious, allegorical and historical scenes with power, or landscapes. Pre-Raphaelites that focus mainly on sensuous women fare less well than pre-Raphaelites who depict emotional scenes from history or literature).
wild-flowers, wild-fruit, mossy wood-nests, casketing eggs that looked like pearls seen through clear green sea-water, all hung modestly beneath that coarse and preposterous canvas.
Lucy is interrupted by M. Paul, who scolds her for looking at the Cleopatra (because it is indecent and no woman should look at it) and recommends to her attention a set of pictures showing four stages in a woman's life. He is also shocked that she is alone in the gallery, as back then it was proper for ladies to walk around accompanied. But then Lucy has been left there by Graham, who has work to do, and is quite friendless otherwise. Paul also expected her to have been brought there not only by Graham, but by Mrs Bretton, because a woman walking round with only one man might be perceived to be loose or encouraging him. But there is nothing in that, because Graham does not fancy Lucy. This reflects Charlotte's walking around London accompanied only by George Smith, which might have seemed scandalous to some, but it was business for him. Charlotte wrote to Ellen Nussey that she would not be afraid to follow him to China, because he was decent.

It seems sad that Paul should expect Lucy to go around in public against her true self, because she is solitary and he expects otherwise. Paul's presence here is important, because we get a picture of how people perceive Lucy's strangeness in being alone. And apart from critiquing art, it is important we see Lucy in the gallery, because we see her alone in public, amidst crowds of others. It is not merely because she choose to be alone, but she cannot help it. Were this a domestic novel, set only in houses, Lucy being alone would be normal, because she has no family. But showing her in public emphasises her friendlessness. It is also amusing that a decent quiet mortal like Lucy is thought to be outrageous and indecent by Paul Emmanuel. It shows that the world perceives strangeness as something to be shunned or criticised, despite the fact the strange person has done nothing immoral or improper, just as Charlotte was told off for being unfriendly in Brussels.

The pictures Paul encourages her to look at are " flat, dead, pale and formal"
The first represented a "Jeune Fille", coming out of a church door, a missal in her hand, her dress very prim, her eyes cast down, her mouth pursed up—the image of a most villainous little precocious she-hypocrite. The second, a "Mariée", with a long white veil, kneeling at a prie-dieu in her chamber, holding her hands plastered together, finger to finger, and showing the whites of her eyes in a most exasperating manner. The third, a "Jeune Mère", hanging disconsolate over a clayey and puffy baby with a face like an unwholesome full moon. The fourth, a "Veuve", being a black woman, holding by the hand a black little girl, and the twain studiously surveying an elegant French monument, set up in a corner of some Père la Chaise. 
The language here is surely too strong? But I see her point. The first young girl is an ideal of society - a young religious girl, and Charlotte Brontë sees through the prim pose as a hypocrite, because how many really prim young girls were there in 19th century Brussels? They were according to her boisterous flirts. (Precocious in this context would mean sensuous or sexually mature). Imagine seeing an attractive model being painted in that pose: it seems unlikely that such a girl would be genuinely prim. The second is a married woman in a pious pose, which annoys Lucy, possibly because she is presumably Catholic, and Lucy dislikes Catholicism.  These females are said to be "angels", because they represent some 19th century ideal of women, like the Angel in the House. Lucy treats all these pictures as real women.
 What women to live with! insincere, ill-humored, bloodless, brainless nonentities! As bad in their way as the indolent gypsy-giantess, the Cleopatra, in hers.
This is the opposite of the ideals they are supposed to represent: innocent young girl, pious married woman, doing mother and widow. It seems harsh to judge a mere picture, but if you think about it, the purpose of judging pictures is to judge Life. Lucy is judging real people by looking at the pictures. The reality of most women is far from the sacred spot they are assigned.  Then the whole diatribe about why art should be real finally makes sense: Lucy takes each picture she mentions as a reflection of Life. Does this mean the artists she despises in these pictures have really depicted life as it is, since the women in their works are as awful as women in real life? Not exactly. They depict idealised women, but Lucy interprets this as wrong, and corrects their assumptions for us. They are empty and lifeless shadows.

Lucy and Paul talk, and he asks her about her holidays. She had to look after a "cretin" (I think a disabled person?) called Marie Broc, who was disliked and rude to Lucy. She says it was terrible to be alone with Marie Broc, and Paul accuses her of being a coward, and there are women who could nurse others well.  Lucy points out could he do it himself? She happens not to be one of those heroines. It is significant that Lucy had to nurse this cretin, because Tony Tanner argues it reflects how Lucy might potentially degrade into. It also shows Lucy has no one else better to be her associate during the holidays, and the only person fit to be her companion is this rude "cretin." Which means Lucy is cast into a lower lot of society, making her position seem even lower (socially) than those of her fellow-teachers, who at least have relatives and friends to go to. Lucy is with a nobody, and therefore she is like a nobody. She is not the equal of the others.

Paul does reply, however, that the Cleopatra is a fine woman, but he would not want her to be a wife, sister or daughter. Which shows his idealised expectations of women - he admires a pious woman who can nurse cretins, and recommends Lucy to see at the supposedly pious pictures. This gallery is a way to show these qualities in him, which we would otherwise be ignorant of, because at this stage Lucy and he are not friends. Lucy spots Colonel de Hamal (Ginevra's admirer) who admires the Cleopatra, is perfectly charming to his friends and titters. He is conventional in tastes, he is refined and gentlemanly, and he is shallow. It is unlikely that Lucy would see him elsewhere, as she doesn't go out much and they are not acquainted, so the gallery enables Lucy to study his character.

At this point Dr Bretton enters. Which means both Ginevra's suitors (Graham and de Hamal) and Lucy's loves (Graham and later Paul) are all in the same room together. Graham has interesting things to say of art to her, and Lucy likes to communicate her thoughts to him,
I always liked dearly to hear what he had to say about either pictures or books; because, without pretending to be a connoisseur, he always spoke his thought, and that was sure to be fresh; very often it was also just and pithy. 
 Graham disapproves of de Hamal and of the Cleopatra, which proves his taste is better than de Hamal. He says that he does not like the voluptuous type, but Ginevra is superior to that Cleopatra and so is his mother. He calls Cleopatra a mulatto, a derogatory term then. (This is ironic, because Ginevra is voluptuous and his mother is probably portly). Which means, Graham does not like the idea of the fleshy and sensual (because it is associated with decadence and indecency) and yet in reality he is in love with a voluptuous woman (Ginevra). But mulattos were typically perceived as more exotic and sensual and less respectable than white women.  Is this an attack on men who think they like sweet, innocent, spiritual girls, and yet in reality will fall for the sensual woman?  Graham has referred to Ginevra as an angel, yet she is fleshy and materialistic and far from spiritual. But Graham is seen in a good light, because despite being emotionally shallow, he is intellectually and artistically acute.

However, he laughs when Lucy tells him about Paul making her see different pictures. We see a less sunny side of Graham, who laughs at eccentricities and piousness. It shows us that Graham is unable to appreciate that side of Lucy too, pleasant though he is. Lucy is partly at fault for gossiping to him. But she resents Paul's strictness, whereas Graham is amused by Paul's strange behaviour. Lucy takes him more seriously. Now Lucy and Graham are friends; later Lucy and Paul are compatible and Graham takes less notice of her; Graham's ridicule of Paul shows that they will never be part of the same circle, and because Lucy is Paul's beloved, she is not part of Graham's circle. Despite being clever and good, Graham cannot appreciate others' idiosyncrasies; he is liberal and intelligent and worldly, but in a sense, narrower than the strict, religious Paul, who can at least see Lucy's depths.

Why a gallery? Why not paint people from life in some other scene, a party for example, where characters interact with each other in a social setting, rather than an aesthetic one? It solves the problem of Lucy's views on art and Life, and also Lucy being quiet, would not attend a party. She hardly goes out and would otherwise have no opportunity to study these characters (she wouldn't be invited in the first place). To show her isolation she must be in this less personal setting.  It is her way of studying people and Life, on impersonal terms, as she can hardly get to know people (apart from Graham and Paul). At a party she would be one of them on a society invitation list. At a gallery she is apart, with no mutual acquaintances to introduce them, emphasising her isolation from society. It is ironic too, that in a gallery where the figures do not imitate life well, she herself observes Life accurately, and therefore in a way is an artist of character in the background, her talents undisplayed on the walls. Lucy, no painter, is a better describer of reality than these masterpieces.

It reminds me of a scene in Shirley, where Shirley Keeldar criticises male authors for not writing realistic females, and thinks she should write an article saying so.
I'll prove that in a magazine paper some day when I've time; only it will never be inserted: it will be 'declined with thanks,' and left for me at the publisher's.
Truth is not appreciated or exhibited, whereas lies and glamour are shown and admired. Note that the art in the fête is moving (acting), whereas still-life and portraiture is discussed in the gallery. Lucy Snowe has moved from jesting and flirting (active behaviour in society) to looking at paintings (looking at passiveness and inertness in women). In the first, people are expected to be lively to be accepted; in the second, women are expected to be sensual or alternately pious and passive to be accepted. The latter especially is a contradiction with the first, no? This exposes society's unrealistic ideals.

To be continued ...

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 ...