Nearly eighty years after the publication of woman writer Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Villette, Virginia Woolf laments the poverty of women in her classic book, A Room Of One’s Own. In that classic piece is the famous conclusion that “a woman needs money and room of her own if she is to write fiction”(4). But how to attain it in a culture and time in that culture where women were notoriously poor?
Woolf speaks of how she came to having money of her own, five hundred pounds a year, left to her by her aunt “Mary Beton” who “died by a fall from her horse”(37). She explains how “the news of my legacy reached me one night about the same time that the act was passed that gave votes to women…Of the two—the vote and the money—the money, I own, seemed infinitely the more important”(37).
She reveals to the reader her work life previous to that, trying to make ends meet by doing all sorts of odd jobs, and how that infringed on her work as an artist, “like rust eating away the bloom of spring, destroying the tree at its heart”(38). And now that she had the money that was left her, she comments “it is remarkable, remembering the bitterness of those days, what a change of temper a fixed income will bring about. No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds. Food, house and clothing are mine for ever. Therefore not merely do effort and labour cease but also hatred and bitterness. I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me”(38).
I don’t think there could be a better summation to the end of Villette than this statement made by Woolf eighty years later. Brontë’s novel is a lot of things, but what stood out most to me was how well she captured, articulated and illustrated the position of a woman with no money in a culture built for men. The novel is over 600 pages long and it encompasses vast themes and literary commentary, making references to books before and contemporary to it. It apparently houses thinly laced biographical details about a love affair gone sour in Brontë’s own life and seems haunted by a sadness many attribute to the loss of her three siblings previous to its writing. It constantly reveals to us the self-consciousness of women and how they look, or appear to themselves, each other and society with mirrors permeating the scenes and plot lines in a dizzying fashion; almost as some sort of premonition to our current frenzied social media image and selfie-image obsessions. But the main theme, that which drives forward the plot, the raison d’être of the novel is the main character Lucy Snowe’s poverty and her quest for financial fulfillment and security without any strings.
The novel begins with a scene of Lucy in the countryside outside London in the home of her godmother, Mrs. Bretton, who takes Lucy in from time to time. She is obviously a friend of Lucy’s family, of which we know nothing and never learn anything. We assume that Mrs. Bretton is more well off than Lucy’s family, thus the act of charity toward Lucy. In this house Lucy meets Mrs. Bretton’s teenage son Graham and Polly, the young child of Mrs. Bretton’s friend. Polly needs to stay with the Bretton’s while the father (the future Count de Bassompierre) grieves the loss of his wife, Polly’s mother, and resettles his life. Mr. Bretton is deceased.
Eventually Polly moves on to rejoin her father on the European continent and Lucy Snowe returns home. Following some catastrophe, we find Lucy years later, now poor and desperately alone. The Brettons too have fallen on harder times.
“Graham, I learned from incidental rumors, had adopted a profession; both he and his mother were gone from Bretton, and were understood to be now in London. Thus there remained no possibility of dependence on others; to myself alone could I look. I know not that I was of a self-reliant or active nature; but self-reliance and exertion where forced upon me by circumstances, as they are upon thousands besides; and when Miss Marchmont, a maiden lady of our neighborhood, sent for me, I obeyed her behest, in the hope that she might assign me some task I could undertake”(Villette 43).
She works with Miss Marchmont as a sort of nurses aid and 24 hour caregiver until Miss Marchmont dies and leaves Lucy money which is withheld from her by the heirs proper who feel disinclined to honor the request.
With the small sum of salary she has left, Lucy impulsively leaves for London and from there boards a boat to sail to the continent. These are very unsafe choices Lucy makes and as a reader I found myself quite terrified for her.
Once in Belgium, having dangerously lost possession of her bags and most of her money, she finds herself in the city of Villette, the only place she knew to go because of a chance meeting on the ship with a young woman who attends a school there. Desperately alone, at night, at the train station in Villette, she remembers that same girl telling her the woman who runs the school, a Madame Beck, is looking for an English governess.
She begins to wander the streets looking for a place to stay. On the way she is almost attacked and raped by two men and, fleeing them, ends up miraculously banging on the door of the very school more for escape and rescue than a job. Once inside she says she is looking for work and is luckily allowed in and offered said job. Once settled in a bed, which we as readers are so relieved about, she must watch this same Madame Beck rummage through her belongings like a sleuth and thief and say nothing.
If she says something, she might end up out on the streets once again and we have been shown that those streets are far from safe and besides what other alternatives does Lucy Snowe have? She is not educated, she has no family, she has no money, she is in a foreign and French speaking country where she does not yet know the language. She must allow this infringement on her being, this violation of her privacy and say nothing.
Why doesn’t Lucy Snowe have a stronger voice?
Many critiques of this novel talk about Lucy Snowe’s passiveness, her inability to speak for herself, her silence in situations where she should speak, her docile nature, her dullness, her propensity also to lie or rather, often not tell the entire truth. But it is so obvious to me why Lucy does this. Because she is poor while female in a culture built and designed for men and one act of defiance (meaning telling the truth, saying what she thinks, speaking up, expressing her feelings) away from homelessness. And she well knows it. That terror, which is her truth, is what shuts her up.
What these critics are missing is the intersection between poverty and gender that Brontë so astutely and rigorously studies in this book, from almost every angle. How oh how can Brontë get her character, Lucy Snowe, out of this mess? How can she set Lucy free? How can a woman of this time, in these conditions, in this culture, become free? What is freedom and how can she possibly attain it for her character? How is freedom tied up with financial independence? That is what this book is about. One feels the chains on Lucy. With each move she makes, they tighten, they loosen, they restrict, they define, they characterize, they force her to display a false self, because she is too poor to do otherwise. Are self-definition, self-determination, self-reliance self-exploration and control over self-image the things of privilege?
Woolf and women and poverty
Why in the world are women so poor? Woolf laments after having spent the evening dining at a woman’s college, the first one ever established in England, and finding the meal wanting. Comparing it to the feasts and fancy consumed at men’s colleges, she wants to know why. “Why are women poor?”(28).
She reflects with her friend “Mary Seton” on how women are not endowed, their colleges not endowed because their mothers did not leave them money. It was hard enough for their foremothers to raise the thirty thousand pounds to begin the college.
“At the thought of those women working year after year and finding it hard to get two thousand pounds together and as much as they could do to get thirty thousand pounds, we burst out in scorn at the reprehensible poverty of our sex. What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us? Powdering their noses? Looking in at shopwindow? Flaunting in the sun at Monte Carlo?”(21).
Then she remembers that Mary Seton’s mother had 13 children and probably not a lot of time on her hands between diapers and preparing meals to earn money.
“Moreover, it is equally useless to ask what might have happened if Mrs. Seton and her mother and her mother before her had amassed great wealth… because, in the first place, to earn money was impossible for them, and in the second, had it been possible, the law denied them the right to possess what money they earned”(23).
And here is Lucy Snowe, the main character in Villette, created by Charlotte Brontë, one of those exact foremothers that Woolf is questioning, grappling this self-same issue eighty years previous.
Lucy has one asset that she uses to the max in her newfound home: she speaks English. Brontë has Lucy Snowe end up in as a teacher in a school where she is also simultaneously educated: one way for a person to climb out of poverty.
Read our other posts on the women writers Brontë:
Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre’s Righteous Anger, British Woman Writer (1816-1855)
Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights: A 19th Century Woman Writer Calling Out White Supremacist Patriarchy
Woman Writer Anne Brontë: To Tell the Truth (1820-1849)
The blind privilege of Lucy Snowe’s friends
Essentially Lucy is desperately lonely, not physically— she lives in a dorm and works all day in a school full of students—but lonely on a soul level for true camaraderie and longs to be seen as more than someone to be used (confided in, leaned on) or someone utilitarian; useful yet dull. Lucy longs to be seen for who she truly is.
Her friends, the Brettons and the de Bassompierres, (yes the Brettons from the beginning of the book and Polly and her father, the Count de Bassompierre, have also amazingly relocated to Villette) don’t seem to get it. They forget about her for months at a time. When Lucy Snowe is accidentally reunited with her godmother and her son, she spends many happy weeks blessed with their kindness and generosity. But that kindness and generosity is fickle with fits and stops according to what is happening in the life of the Brettons, not Lucy. After an exciting night at the theater with Graham, Lucy is ghosted by him. But she must never speak of it, no. She is available when they request her and lonely when they do not. Such is the life of a pauper.
“Following that eventful evening at the theatre, came for me seven weeks as bare as seven sheets of blank paper: no word was written on one of them; not a visit, not a token. …Towards the last of those long seven weeks I admitted, what through the other six I had jealously excluded—the conviction that these blanks were inevitable; the result of —above all—a matter about whose origin no question must ever be asked, for whose painful sequence no murmur ever uttered. Of course I did not blame myself for suffering: I thank God I had a truer sense of justice than to fall into any imbecile extravagances of self-accusation; and as to blaming others for silence, in my reason I well knew them blameless, and in my heart acknowledged them so: but it was a rough and heavy road to travel, and I longed for better days.
I tried different expedients to sustain and fill existence: I commenced an elaborate piece of lace-work. I studied German pretty hard, I undertook a course of regular reading of the driest and thickest books in the library; in all my efforts I was as orthodox as I knew how to be. Was there error somewhere? Very likely. I only know the result was as if I had gnawed a file to satisfy hunger, or drunk brine to quench thirst”(Villette 334).
When Polly asks her why she chooses to teach and Lucy explains that she doesn’t choose it, she must do it to make money, Polly can’t really understand. Her father has to explain it to her. And then Polly decides they must hire Lucy themselves but Lucy Snowe, always wiser than we are led to believe, sees the trap in that and declines.
Lucy’s voice is wry and ironic, amusing and powerful. While she sums circumstances up well to herself, we watch her lie and lose her voice at other moments, because of the risk it would be. In short, Lucy cannot fully be herself until she is free.
“‘I am a teacher,’ I said, and was rather glad of the opportunity of saying this. For a little while I had been feeling as if placed in a false position. Mrs. Bretton and her son knew my circumstances; but the Count and his daughter did not. They might choose to vary by some shades their hitherto cordial manner towards me, when aware of my grade in society….
When he did speak, his voice was benevolent. ‘Yours,’ said he, ‘is an arduous calling. I wish you health and strength to win in it—success.’
His fair little daughter did not take the information quite so composedly: she fixed on me a pair of eyes wide with wonder—almost with dismay.
‘Are you a teacher?’ cried she. Then, having passed on the unpalatable idea, ‘Well, I never knew what you were, nor ever thought of asking: for me, you were always Lucy Snowe.’
‘And what am I now?’ I could not forbear inquiring.
‘Yourself, of course. But do you really teach here, in Villette?’
‘I really do.’
‘And do you like it?’
‘And why do you go on with it?’ …
‘Chiefly, I fear, for the sake of the money I get.’
‘Not then from motives of pure philanthropy? Polly and I were clinging to that hypothesis, as the most lenient way of accounting for your eccentricity.’
‘No-no, sir. Rather for the roof of shelter I am thus enabled to keep over my head; and for the comfort of mind it gives me to think that while I can work for myself, I am spared the pain of being a burden to anybody.’
‘Papa, say what you will, I pity Lucy’”(Villette 356).
Lucy’s friends really don’t know her and really cannot understand her. Their blindness and privilege cause them to hurt and condescend to her much without realizing it. Again Lucy cannot reveal her true feelings, her life depends in part upon their kindness. Throughout the novel, Brontë illustrates in a detailed and painful way the cost this has on Lucy’s mental health. ’Tis one thing to be docile and dull, another to be problematic. They would dump her straight away. “Who needs it?” Lucy is hanging on to the edge of a cliff by her fingernails.
The genius of Charlotte Brontë
So what does Brontë decide? How does she help Lucy attain freedom at the end? Because, of course, she has to. That is the point of Charlotte Brontë’s novels. They are roadmaps for women, her contemporaries and in her future. Roadmaps of how to attain freedom while female in the patriarchy.
Well— there is a male teacher at the school, Paul Emanuel, also from a poor class, who has been educated, worked his way up and gained respect and esteem in his community. It takes a while, but eventually, after thoroughly checking each other out, he and Lucy formally agree to a friendship. It is consensual.
Lucy finally has one true friend. Someone who sees her and can understand her. It is a rather unlikely development. But Brontë makes us believe it. Before that her relationships cannot be truly authentic because they are transactional. The power dynamic is off. They are not equal.
To Paul Emanuel, Lucy confides her dream: to one day have a school of her own. After many plot twists and turns, he has to leave the country, but before he leaves, he secretly sets up a school for Lucy. He rents the building, sets it up, and presents it to her.
Before Virginia Woolf ’s, A Room of One’s Own, Lucy Snowe gets a school of her own.
To be radically thorough, Brontë makes sure the reader understands that Lucy is not renting the school building from Paul Emanuel, but from someone else. Paul Emanuel only sets up the lease for her. She is renting from someone who values education. A man who owns a bookstore in town and wants Lucy to educate his daughters. At this time, Lucy also inherits the money from Miss Marchmont. One of her relatives felt badly about having withheld it from her all those years back. With this money, Lucy rents the building next to the school, turns it into a boarding school, and is able to secure her financial future.
Before Paul Emanuel leaves, it seems perhaps their relationship is turning to one of a sexual nature and upon his return from the West Indies, they will marry.
Thus we reach the line:
“M. Emanuel was away three years. Reader, they were the three happiest years of my life. Do you scout the paradox? Listen”(Villette 614).
In typical Brontë fashion, the man must be moved out of the way, disabled or in this case, perhaps eliminated for the main female character to attain full autonomy and happiness. Again, it seems the only way the Brontë sisters could work out happiness and true equality for a woman in the patriarchal world of Victorian England. They must even the power dynamic so there is true equality. Thus the male character, love interest, financial provider must be somewhat lessened in his masculinity. In this case, M. Emanuel is away and ultimately lost at sea. In other words in Villette, Charlotte Brontë actually kills him off. Or she wants to anyway. She has decided this is how Lucy can attain true selfhood and independence, autonomy and if not happiness, perhaps a life lived on her own terms, what we may dare call freedom.
Paul Emanuel sets up the school, and so leaves her to the happiest years of her life. He is there but not there. He is writing letters, and she feels supported and loved and she is living her life independently without him. She is able to enjoy the fantasy of him, of them, in her head. But to make the man return and have the woman move into marriage, back into subservience? How could Charlotte Brontë do that to her and to us, the readers? Well, she didn’t.
Reader: She deleted him.
And thus Lucy need not hate any man; he cannot hurt her. She need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give her.
Brontë sets Lucy free.
Ah but there is a catch. As Lucy could not truly say what she thought all through the book until the end when she is free, Brontë, the author in 1853, can still not write the ending she wants to write. In the world she truly inhabits, which is not fictional, Brontë is not free. She needs the money she will make off this book and future books. Writing is her livelihood.
In the notes at the end of the book we read that Brontë had intended the whole time to kill Paul Emanuel off at sea, but her father wanted her to write a book with a happy ending, “as he disliked novels which left a melancholy impression upon the mind and he requested her to make her hero and heroine (like the heroes and heroines in fairy-tales) ‘marry and live very happily ever after’”(Villette 662). To earn her keep, she must appease her audience and her father, just like Lucy must lie to keep her job. Thus she leaves the ending strange and almost comically ambiguous. Choose your ending reader.
“Leave sunny imaginations hope…Let them picture union and a happy succeeding life”(Villette 617).
And so Brontë lies at the end of her novel, but she does it ironically and with genius so that those of us lucky enough to catch it can set her free.
Charlotte Brontë is a #NastyWomanWriter.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2020
Brontë, Charlotte. Villette. Oxford University Press, 1990.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. N.Y., Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1929, 1957.