Villette Summary

Charlotte Brontë

Villette

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Villette Summary

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Villette, written in 1853 by Charlotte Bronte, details the life of the first-person narrator, Lucy Snowe, and her transition to adulthood after moving from London, England, to Villette, France. The novel opens with Lucy’s visits with Mrs. Bretton, her godmother, and Mrs. Bretton’s son, John Graham Bretton. During these early years of Lucy’s life, another child named Paulina Home stays with the Brettons after her mother’s death.

While the reader does not find out much about Lucy’s past, she does reveal that she is left alone in the world and, dressed in mourning clothes, the reader can only presume that all of her close family have died. In this first bout of loneliness, she meets Miss Marchmont, an elderly lady who hires Lucy to travel with her and care for her.

After Miss Marchmont’s death, Lucy is once more left on her own. She perceives that the lights of the Aurora Borealis speak to her and tell her to travel to London, where her spirit is bolstered even more by the impressive architecture of St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is in this section of the book, in Chapter Six, that Lucy decides to travel to France.

In this first part of the novel, Lucy is naive and unprepared for independent living. While she is able to secure an income for herself, she is still missing the emotional connection to others—hers is a life onky half-fulfilled.

Striking out on her own, Lucy ends up penniless in Villette, where she meets Madame Beck, who owns a school on Rue Fossette. Madame Beck hires Lucy to teach English at the school, where she finds success despite the obstacle of her Protestantism in a Catholic environment. While Lucy is no longer penniless, she doesn’t have the family or friends that she had back home, and slips into depression. Her health declines until she faints one day. Loneliness leading to illness is a recurring theme in Villette.

In this instance, Lucy is saved by none other than the Brettons, who look after her while she recuperates. She kindles a friendship with John Graham, who has become a doctor, yet Lucy worries that her rediscovered companionship will be temporary. When they go to the theater one night, there is a fire, and John Graham rescues a woman from being trampled. That woman happens to be Paulina, and while Lucy is glad to see her again—and is relieved that she is safe—John Graham’s interest shifts to Paulina, casting Lucy aside.

In light of John Graham’s withdrawal from Lucy’s social life, and upon her return to Madame Beck’s school, she befriends a professor named M. Paul Emanuel. Though at first she dislikes him, her feelings change and grow to love as she learns of his generosity and kindness. When he must leave Europe for the West Indies, he ensures that Lucy is provided a home and a school.

During the three years that M. Paul Emanuel is away, Lucy grows the school from a day school into a boarding school, assisted partially by funds she receives from Miss Marchmont’s nephew. Finally, after so many times being thrust into loneliness, depression, and illness, Lucy is saved that ordeal by her love for M. Paul Emanuel.

The difficulties faced by an independent woman during the Victorian era is one of the main themes of this book, and for that reason, it is often compared to Jane Eyre by the same author. Criticism of Villette often revolves around the convenience of coincidence that saves Lucy again and again. Miss Marchmont saves her, offering her employment. After Marchmont’s death, Madame Beck does the same. The Brettons reappear to nurse her back to health, and then M. Paul Emanuel grants her the means to finally banish her loneliness by providing her a home, purpose, and love. Each time Lucy is down and out, something or someone comes along to pick her up again.

Other criticisms were largely negative; in fact, many of Bronte’s contemporaries thought Villette a painful read—too painful to endure. That doesn’t mean everyone disliked it; George Eliot thought it a better book than Jane Eyre. Views of the novel have grown even more positive since the Victorian era, thanks in large part to developments in psychological studies.

Another commonality with Jane Eyre is Bronte’s referral to the “dear reader.” This acknowledgement of the reader’s relationship with the narrator, and thus the author, was a relatively new technique, and one often associated with Bronte’s technique, as was the choice to have a young, single woman narrate the story.

It’s worthwhile of note that Villette, in yet another similarity to Jane Eyre, draws from Charlotte Bronte’s own life experiences. Replace the city of Villette with Brussels, and you have a fictional biography of Bronte’s life, including her love for a professor.