Monday, July 20, 2009

I had a certain pleasure in keeping cool, and working him up - the astounding insular audacity of Villette

Fiction writers, even the most perverse, especially the most perverse, like to give their readers clues about how to read their novels. Charlotte Brontë provides a direct one in the ingenious Chapter 19 ("The Cleopatra") of Villette (1853). Our drab, prickly heroine Lucy Snowe has been looking at a monumental canvas of a nude Cleopatra. A fellow teacher is appalled:

"M. Paul's hair was shorn close as raven down, or I think it would have bristled on his head. Beginning now to perceive his drift, I had a certain pleasure in keeping cool, and working him up.

'Astounding insular audacity!' cried the Professor."

I think Lucy is revealing one of the aesthetic principles of the novel here. She keeps cool, and works him up, "him" meaning not just M. Paul, but me, the reader. This is one wild book; Lucy Snowe is one wild narrator. It's easy to say that she is unreliable, easy but incorrect. If you ask your friend to feed your dog while you're out of town, and when you get home the dog is suspiciously thin, that friend is unreliable. Lucy Snowe took your dog to the pound the day you left.

Here's an early, simple example, one that threw me off at first. In Chapter 5, Lucy makes what I think is her first reference to the composition of her book: "Fifty miles were then a day's journey (for I speak of a time gone by: my hair, which, till a late period, withstood the frosts of time, lies now, at last white, under a white cap, like snow beneath snow)." Lucy Snowe-the-character is twenty-three at this point; Lucy Snowe-the-author, with her snow beneath snow, is, then, what - sixty? Eighty?

Well, I had my doubts about that, and it turns out that there's pretty good evidence that Lucy-the-author is an ancient thirty-seven years old. See Chapter 20, "The Concert," and compare to the biography of King Leopold I of Belgium. But I want to save the Belgian business for later.

Lucy, both Lucy-the-character and the slightly older Lucy-the-author, is a gleeful liar. The character lies to other characters; the author lies to the reader, who is at her mercy, and then cackles when she reveals her deceptions. Since I'm only about two-thirds through, I'm a little nervous about making even this claim. At the current pace, there's room for at least two more major turns in the plot. Maybe she's deceiving me about her deceptions. Certainty does not seem like the right approach to this book.

I finally understand the Charlotte Brontë-William Thackeray mutual admiration society. Both authors are audaciously cussed. They like to mess with their reader. I can understand how some readers really dislike this sort of thing, and want a more stable point of view. Not me, though. I'm having a great time with Villette.


  1. I think (if memory doesn't fail me) the hair reference is the only time Lucy mentions herself in the present. She is certainly an unreliable narrator and I think you're right about her liking to keep cool and wind us up. I don't know if you've read it, but A.S. Byatt and Ignes Sodre have a really interesting discussion about Snowe as narrator in the book Imagining Characters.

    I'm interested to see what you think of the ending!

  2. I'd been meaning to pick up a copy of Villette for weeks and weeks for the Valve summer read, and until I just saw this post I had genuinely just...forgotten. And this sounds so good! Drat.

  3. THB, Lucy-the-author does mention herself in a few other places. For example, when she wins a cigar case in a lottery, she says that she has it to this day, "to remind me of old times, and one happy evening." And a just came across a specific reference to the events of 1848, with the past on one side and the present on the other.

    Thanks for the book recommendation. That might be useful for my little project to correct my misguided ideas about sympathetic characters.

    Nicole, I think you'd like this book. Lucy's a hoot. I'm not really participating in the Valve thing so much, myself.

  4. THB, thanks for reminding me about the Byatt/Sodres book; I'd forgotten Villette was one of the books they discuss. It's a remarkable conversation.

    Wish you would, AR. But I guess I can just keep up with your interesting thoughts over here.

  5. I may have sounded grumpier about the Valve than I meant, although that's just the problem - I'm worried about my tone. I see that the particular line of attack I found so irritating has receded.

    Rohan, why are so many of the Valve participants so deadly serious about this book? It's all traumas and breakdowns. Lucy's having fun, and so is Currer, and so am I.

    Close thy Foucault; open thy J. Hillis Miller! Maybe those aren't exactly the right names, but you know what I mean.

  6. I do love Lucy Snowe. I've just finished chapter 22, so you're further along than I am--but it seems to me that she is lying to herself right along with everyone else, continually telling herself that she believes things she doesn't believe or doesn't want things she actually wants. The remarkable dialogue with Reason (which put me in mind of Thomas Jefferson's famous Head-and-Heart letter) is the most explicit example of this, but there are others.

  7. Gayla, that's exactly what I don't see. Maybe I've got blinders on. I see Lucy-the-author telling the reader "that she believes things she doesn't believe or doesn't want things she actually wants."

    Lucy-the-author may very well be deceiving herself about various things, although at this point I don't see what. Her control over her own text seems very strong.

    Even restricting my attention to Lucy-the-character, what is she lying about in the Reason dialogue? She wants (Feeling) to write to Graham, she wants to indulge her love for Graham, she wants Graham to love her. But she believes (Reason) that she shouldn't indulge, because she believes that Graham doesn't love her. Isn't this all true?

    I definitely do not mean to say that you're wrong - but I could use some help!

  8. why are so many of the Valve participants so deadly serious about this book?

    You know, I had always felt it to be a deadly serious book myself--claustrophobically so. So I am quite enjoying the idea that actually there's a lot of messing around, or cussedness, involved. The nun turns out to be another way for Lucy to mess with us--as Lucy-the-author knows perfectly well what she saw in the attic...

    Still, there are all those storms at sea (beautifully explained in the Sodres / Byatt conversation, by Sodres: "the old Lucy is describing her traumatic experiences between the ages of 14 and 22 through the use of metaphors created from her adult traumatic experiences [spoiler omitted]. . . . The imagery that belongs to the more recent past is cast backwards to convey symbolically an emotional childhood experience").

    It is a remarkable novel; I don't know any other 19thC novel quite like it, really.

  9. One purpose of comedy is to highlight more serious matters. So I don't want to push this too far.

    On the subject of religious faith, for example - sincere religious faith, at least - Lucy does not joke or tease. Same thing with genuine romantic love, her own or others'. The superficial love affairs of Ginevra are endlessly mockable, but not those of Polly (or young Lucy).

    Comedy - jokes, pranks, teasing - are also part of Lucy-the-author's arsenal of techniques by which she asserts her control over the reader, over everyone. My favorite example is when Ginevra (Ch. 14) interrupts a list of her accomplishments to say that she "can't spell." I interpret that as a joke, a sharp insertion of Lucy's, made funnier when we learn that they continue to be correspondents long after the novel ends. It's 185- Lucy mocking 185- Ginevra.

    It's such an original novel. It's like Tristram Shandy in a way - one can see how parts of it relate to the novels around it (English or Continental), but other parts are unique, inexplicable.