Victorian Literature Seminar Paper




The book Villette by Charlotte Bronte, was published in 1853.

The majority of the early critics of this work expressed their views at this time.

The author is seen as living up to her superior reputation as a writer when compared to another literary success of the time – Jane Eyre.  Yet, our protagonist Lucy Snowe is depicted as experiencing bitterness in the former.  We find that Lucy’s morbid sensibility is a weakness when juxtaposed with the literary magnificence of the author.  But this appears as a strong point when we consider how the others are formulated.  The love denied to Lucy is available to the other remaining characters.  Anne Mozley was one of the few critics to condemn the novel (Villette), namely for the following reasons.  The teaching profession is undervalued and a naive opinion which is biased against Catholicism is presented by Charlotte Bronte – a woman who was a devout Protestant.

No 42:  Unsigned review 5 February 1853 in “The Examiner”.

In an unsigned review on the 5th February 1853 an optimistic outline of the book is highlighted.  The author Charlotte Bronte is described as living up to her reputation as an original and strong writer.  The characters of the novel are almost life-like.  They consist of a true hearted sense of vision on behalf of the writer and are personified as such to the reader.  We are able to identify with the characters since they are formulated in a way where we ourselves realise out of our own everyday experience how we think and act in a comical manner.[1]

According to the above critic, a negative aspect is evident in the story.  This is seen where Lucy Snowe is presented as enduring bitterness.  We experience the heart throbbing feeling as Lucy does, and can therefore relate to her.  The author has reason to consider fate and happiness as a cause of one’s circumstances which may be more prosperous to that of others.  This results in irony which leads to a touch of morbid outburst.[2]  Lucy’s faith is expressed in the following passage:

It appears that if someone was attached to the idea that ...“happiness is a glory shining far down upon us out of heaven” and that it... “is not a potato”...  to be cultivated, they, after a day of difficulty may await the far glory, even until the second coming of Christ.  An act of exercise is an essential element of a healthy lifestyle, whether mental or physical.  A delayed despondency is merely a form of disease.[3]

In another unsigned review in “The Spectator”, on 12 February, 1853 a comparison of Villette is made with one of Charlotte Bronte’s earlier novels – Jane Eyre.  The central figure in Villette, Lucy Snowe, encourages sympathy bittersweet, and this is in a person who has little joy or consoling.  As in Jane Eyre, Lucy has a detailed yearning for affection in her sincerity, and loyalty to her daily tasks.  Yet there is a lack of the inner strength that made Jane Eyre’s chores a form of reward for the affection which Lucy was deprived of.[4]

Thesis of the Book “VILLETTE”

No. 44: Same reference as above: i.e. no. 44: unsigned review 12 February 1853 (in “The Spectator”).

This novel, Villette, even more than Jane Eyre, appears as a bitter grievance against the fate of those ladies whose situation is diminished to a level where they must pursue the occupation of teaching in order to survive.  In this instance, they are deprived from experiencing these affections which are certainly the basis of a woman’s happiness.  Yet the difficulty here, is that it is unrealistic and unwise to make these factors essential to experiencing a happy life and an earnest and constructive employment of it.[5]

The morbid sensibility which is seen by some is incompatible with the qualities of the author’s writing.  Here what needs to be pointed out is Charlotte Bronte’s strong character, courageous determination, and wise judgement, which complements this fact.  Even less significant, is a quality concerning a continuous torturing self-concern.  This is evidenced in the characters and their intentions.  This makes Lucy Snowe’s autobiography an enjoyable reading.[6]  The critic(s) in “The Spectator” on the 12th February, 1853 states the following:

But for this one fault in the central character – and even this may be true to nature, though to that exceptional nature which would prevent many persons from recognising its truth – we have nothing but praise to bestow upon the characterisation of this book… Mrs. Bretton and her son Dr. John, Madame Beck the mistress of the pensionnat at Brussels, M. Paul Emmanuel professor of belles lettres, M. Home de Bassompierre and his charming little daughter, worthless pretty Ginevra, Fanshawe – we shall henceforth know them as if we had lived among them; and, bad or good, they are people worth knowing, for the skill of the painter if not for their own qualities.[7]

Yet the peculiar thing is, that the morbid element so emphasised by the author, the yearning of affection by her heart is not predominant in the other characters.  They are specifically drawn, as if the writer was at peace with the world and herself, and was sympathetic towards them.  It may therefore be considered that Lucy Snowe, in writing the book, had altered the ideas which she thought, as the scenes depicted did likewise.[8]

Therefore, the tormented heart of Lucy Snowe had eased to some extent, and through experience and faith was gratified unlike the previous days.[9]

Anne Mozley, from an unsigned review in “Christian Remembrancer”, in April 1853 states that the author, Charlotte Bronte fails to recognise the peculiarity of the teaching profession.  As the novel is an autobiography, the author established herself in the book as having an attitude influenced by her occupation.  The sense of being undervalued as a woman is seen through a number of points.  Namely, the desire for independence, and for someone to show concern for her.[10]

The protagonist in the novel is not considered as being Lucy Snowe, by Anne Mozley, but M.  Paul Emmanuel.  For he is seen as educated and in this sense a hero but less so as an object of interest to the opposite sex.  For this is only evident in the big female gatherings such as schools, monasteries, or coteries for single women.  These add up to few factors which constitute a true hero.[11]

Also, according to Anne Mozley, Madame Beck’s organisation is based on the form of surveillance which some consider essential for a proper education.  Here she is entirely, mistress, ruling as a tyrant.  However, Charlotte Bronte describes such action as deriving from Roman Catholicism, in the countries where it is the norm.[12]  In the above critics opinion, according to Charlotte Bronte, girls, are perceived as not being expected to gather in big groups together.  For here, their qualities such as gentleness and magic under such circumstances, are abolished.  With this exterior there is a parallel of such an opinion in heart and principle.  Not all people agree with such a claim.  It can be argued that the author provides a naive opinion which is biased, and in favour of her Protestant beliefs.[13]

This can be seen on page 100 of the novel.  Bronte states:

To do all parties justice, the honest aboriginal Labassecouriennes had a hypocrisy of their own too; but it was of a coarse order, such as could deceive few.  Whenever a lie was necessary for their occasions, they brought it out with a careless ease and breadth altogether untroubled by the rebuke of conscience.  Not a soul in Madame Beck’s house, from the scullion to the directress herself, but was above being ashamed of a lie; they thought nothing of it: to invent might not be precisely a virtue, but it was the most venial of faults.  “J’ai menti plusieurs fois” formed an item of every girl’s and woman’s monthly confession: the priest heard unshocked, and absolved unreluctant.  If they had missed going to mass, or read a chapter of a novel, that was another thing: these were crimes whereof rebuke and penance were the unfailing meed.[14]


According to the critics, Villette was a distinguished text.  Although it possessed some faults on the author’s behalf, this was not the case overall.  We must do justice to Charlotte Bronte as she presented to the reader an emotional struggle faced by Lucy Snowe through the circumstances present.  Yet, our protagonist’s personal abilities and likewise those of the author, make it evident that Lucy’s weaknesses are a form of strength to the circulating characters of the novel and therefore provide a rewarding and stimulating experience for the reader, to some extent.


1.   Allott, Miriam, The Brontes:  The Critical Heritage, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1974.

2.   Bronte, Charlotte, Villette, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998.


[1]     Miriam Allott, The Brontes: the Critical Heritage, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, 1974, p.175.

[2]     Ibid.

[3]     Allott, op.cit., p.176.

[4]     Allott, op.cit., p.182.

[5]     Allott, op.cit., p.182.

[6]     Ibid.

[7]     Ibid.

[8]     Ibid.

[9]     Allott, op.cit., p.183.

[10]    Allott, op.cit., p.204.

[11]    Ibid.

[12]    Allott, op.cit., p.205.

[13]    Ibid.

[14]    Charlotte Bronte, Villette, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998, p.100.