Without having achieved the same degree of popularity as Jane Eyre, Villette is considered by many as Charlotte Brontë’s finest work. It owes this appraisal to the complexity of the heroine, Lucy Snowe.

Largely inspired by Charlotte’s life, Villette is narrated by Lucy, a young woman who shared with the author the experience of working to provide for herself. In Victorian England, women either had enough money or beauty to find a husband (the whole problematic accounts for most of the plots of Jane Austen’s novels), or else they had to make their own living. The jobs that a woman could apply for were scarce: they could be mainly servants, governesses or teachers (heroines favored by the Brontës sisters).

Lucy Snowe, estranged from her family (the particular terms of the disagreement never made known to the reader), has to earn a living. First a nurse to an old lady, she finds herself confined indoors, behind shut windows, surrounded by sickness and loneliness, much like what Charlotte herself experienced while taking care of her father, and when she lost her brother and two sisters within eight month. Though the situation is not appealing, Lucy “would have crawled on with her for twenty years, if for twenty years longer her life of endurance had been protracted”. But Miss Marchmont eventually dies, confronting Lucy to a freedom even worse to bear than confinement.

Lucy then decides for a total change of scenery. She travels to London and from there, decides to take a boat to Villette (Brussels), where she is lucky enough to get a job as a governess, and later on as an English teacher. Her apparent submission to fate and to her condition both as a woman and as a pauper struggles with the passion of a strong and opinionated character (as her name suggests: outward cold and inner light). Though she is physically confined, her mind takes the liberty of forming original opinions and sometimes makes the boundary of her virtual prison explode (sending her in fits of fever and delirium). The illness following her flights of fancy proves that she fights to repress herself when she is not repressed by others, by society. If her physical experience is almost exclusively limited to the walls of houses in which she feels estranged (her Godmother’s, Miss Marchmont’s and the Pensionnat in Villette) and if every withdrawal from the known places is a source of extreme anxiety, her mind does not know any boundaries, and follow her acquaintances where they go (she of course is the only one who stays). As the writer of her own story, language allows her the freedom she is denied socially. As critic Tony Tanner points out, “it is in her “heretic” narrative that she can find the freedom to define herself as an individual, and as a woman”.

Feeling invisible to most of the people around her (being blessed neither with beauty nor with a social status), seen as a “nobody” by beautiful and empty Ginevra Fanshawe, Lucy compensates for not being seen by being herself the sharpest witness of every little detail and person around her (which of course defines her as a good narrator). She even outsmarts in this faculty for observation her directress, Madame Beck, who rules her Pensionnat by acting as a spy, eavesdropping and peering through the private belongings of her staff. Lucy quickly discovers her dubious activities, but Madame Beck, for all her prying, never suspects that Lucy knows.

Her talent for observation enables her to uncover the changes and inclinations of the heart in the people that surround her. Herself in love with the doctor who visits sick pupils, she eventually becomes her confident, but knew beforehand where his own affection lay. Only when analysing complex Paul Emanuel does she fail: she is unable to read his heart or guess his alienated situation and she also fails to observe that he has been “study[ing] the human heart” from a concealed place overlooking the garden of Madame Beck’s pensionnat.
Lucy forms her first opinion about love very early , when she witnesses the young Paulina Home, a six-year-old, infatuated with Graham, the son of her Godmother.

With curious readiness did she adapt herself to such themes as interested him. One would have thought  the child had no mind or life of her own, but must necessarily live, move, and have her being in another: now that her father was taken from her, she nestled to Graham, and seemed to feel by his feeling: to exist in his existence.

Though Lucy is lonely and dreams of reaching out to others, she would never accept, like Paulina, to “exist in another’s existence”. Her mind belongs to herself and it is the only thing she possesses, that cannot be violated by prying characters such as Madame Beck. When Lucy realizes that she will never have the place of a lover in Dr John’s heart, she symbolically buries the letters he once wrote to her and allows herself to love again, her fellow teacher M. Paul Emanuel (whose personality reminds very much of Jane Eyre‘s Edward Rochester). But even then, facing a man with a strong personality (however, we learn this is just a facade), she refuses to change her beliefs to please him, risking to encounter his scorn and rebukes (he tries to force her to disguise as a man to interpret a man’s part in a play, or later, more significantly, to convince her to convert to Catholicism). A character like Paul Emanuel illustrates the paradoxical views of Charlotte Brontë: though they rebel against male domination in society and refuse to live by their standards, her heroines are only attracted to powerful, even tyrannical men. For her heroines to have their own way in Brontë’s fiction, the man must be diminished (like Edward Rochester), or entirely removed of the equation.

Villette, in the rich and powerful language of Charlotte Brontë, tells the story of the evolution of Lucy Snowe, from a solitary outcast, to a woman who has managed to affirm herself and her place in a society that does not care, earning respect and love along the way. In the process, she also learns that deceit and manipulation are commonplace, and she has to accept the flaws of the world, and in a large measure to accommodate to them, before she is able to fit in. (Though her own deceitful potential is mainly directed against the reader…)

Rating: 4/5