So, as a part of the Victorians course I foolishly decided to be examined in at the end of this year (aka in a month’s time), we had to read Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. It’s the first book by her I’ve ever read, and it’s not bad. It’s actually pretty good! Lucy Snowe is the best protagonist I’ve ever seen in a Victorian novel, just because she’s so god damned savage and brutal, it’s a delight.
What’s not a delight though? M. Paul Emanuel. He’s the worst. He’s the absolute worst. He is absolute 100% trash. My friends said that he’s nice, that he’s sympathetic, but I beg to differ. He is literally the devil in disguise. Every time he speaks, I feel disgusted to the core of my being. What Lucy ever saw in him I will never understand. To get a proper grasp of why M. Paul Emanuel is the worst man to have ever existed in a Victorian novel, I will have to summarise it for you, so here it is! Warning: It’s really long. The novel itself is stupidly long, and the plot at points makes no sense. Why? Why not, I guess.
tl;dr: Lucy Snowe is a conflicted misanthrope who has a shitty life and becomes an English teacher in France, and through a series of unlikely coincidences, is reunited with old acquaintances and has to deal with the love of the worst man in the world. There is no privacy because the lady in charge of the school and her stalker boyfriend are always going through her stuff, so she lives under constant watch and tbh she doesn’t care. She ends up living a lonely life, and she’s perfectly content about it, because you don’t need superficial friends to find happiness. All these people didn’t change her, because Lucy’s a constant in all their lives, and she remains the independent enigma that she is proud to be. Also it’s Anti-Catholic.
The Novel begins in Bretton when Lucy was young and would stay with her godmother, Mrs Bretton, and the son, Graham. One fine day this fella rocks up, named Mr Home, and drops off his porcelain doll– I mean his daughter Polly before diddling off on a holiday to deal with his grief. Polly is literally a doll, she’s described constantly as like the tiniest thing, like a freakin’ teapot kitten. Oh, did I mention they also refer to her as a kitten? Talk about literally objectifying a young girl and turning her into an object for the pleasure of men– oh, but we’ll get to that theme later.
Blissful childhood is nice, right? It focuses on Graham and Polly’s growing relationship, and sometimes you forget that Lucy’s writing this. And then it ends, because all good things must come to an end. Shit happens to Lucy and she ends up penniless and working for Miss Marchmont, and ageing old lady with what seems to be Alzheimers. And then old lady tells Lucy about LOVE and then she dies. So Lucy decides to TURN A NEW LEAF (hah, get it, it’s almost like the title of the chapter– okay I’ll go now) and gets money, travels to London, then gets on a boat and meets an annoying young lady called Ginevra Fanshawe.
Ginevra Fanshawe is like that annoying friend that you put up with even though they’re a pain in the arse mostly because you know, deep down, they really do care about you. Ginevra is all like, “Yo you should come to Madame Beck’s, it’d be nice!” and Lucy’s like, “Tch, whatever.” Basically, they reach ???? (and I call it that, because it’s very vague) and they take her trunk, and annoying stuff happens, and some nice guy who happens to be English helps her out in this country that only speaks French. He’s like “It’s dangerous to go alone, take this!” and by this I mean he walks her down the park because it’s dead late at night and this is like 1800s ya feel? And she’s like “thanks dude” and when he leaves, she gets stalked by these two men and then runs away, only to find herself at a place called ‘Madame Becks’. IT’S FATE!!!!!
So she gets hired as a bit of a caretaker for Madame Beck’s children, because if I were a headmistress I would hire some foreign lass off the streets who didn’t speak my language, it’s perfect. So then she gets turned into a teacher and because this is the Kingdom of Labassecour (cough cough, Belgium) and the town of Villette (also not real), students are very very rude, and so to prove herself Lucy literally shoves a student into a book closet and locks her in. Savage. You see why Lucy’s the best? She don’t take shit from nobody.
Then Ginevra starts telling Lucy about how she has so many admirers, especially some dude called Isidore. The conversations always go a bit like this “People love me!!” “Whatever Ginny” “You’re such a crab!!!!!!” “yes.” Gems include:
“How do I look- how do I look to-night?” she demanded.
“As usual,” said I- “preposterously vain”
Lucy Snowe knows no chill. ANYWAY, kids fall sick, the usual doctor is out of town, so new handsome Dr John turns up an Madame Beck is like “This is fine, you know, this is fine” (because he’s handsome). So new character am I right? Handsome man? Love interest? WHO KNOWS?
Lucy goes out for a nice walk in this nice secluded area, only to be assaulted by a box that falls by her feet. She’s like, wtf is this? And when she opens the box she finds a letter ( on pink paper ) and it basically is from some dude to someone else, only it INSULTS Lucy and she doesn’t seem it, but she is pretty hurt. She feels lonely and bullied, poor gal.
And then it’s The Fête, a big party with a play. And then the asshole shows up, M. Paul Emanuel. Oh dear lord. Okay, so here it begins. He forces her to play the role of a main guy because the actress is too ill to play. So she agrees, and he locks her up in a grimey attic for hours while people are enjoying their festivities. And then she refuses to act in a suit because she appreciates her femininity, and she finds out she can act! And she does what everyone does when they find a new talent: she decides she will never act again lest she indulge herself with something she enjoys for she believes she must live a life of suffering…… Dude, why? But yes, M. Paul is a bit of a dick. Ginevra talks about her love life with two guys, and Lucy confronts Dr John, poking at his fragile male ego to make him realise that Ginevra’s not just a coquette, she’s a total player.
Lucy’s left alone during the holidays, and she gets ill. And during a night filled of hysteria, she runs out and goes to the Catholic church and makes a confession, even though she’s a Protestant. She doesn’t tell us anything she says, but hey, that’s Lucy for ya. And then she passes out. She wakes up in a MYSTERIOUS place that looks almost EXACTLY like a place she used to know: Bretton. An old lady comes to help her out and she’s like, oh, this must be Mrs Bretton. Her thoughts are only solidified when Graham enters. Who’s Graham, you ask? It’s none other than Dr John. Lucy just goes “I’m not surprised tbh I knew a while” and it’s like “you didn’t tell us before m8?” And then it’s all AHHH happy cute reunions, and their friendship only grows stronger, and they even have the world’s tiniest little quarrel over Ginevra and then they make up.
Then the racism begins. Lucy goes to an art gallery and sees The Cleopatra and she’s calling her ‘very much butcher’s meat’, aka, being really cruel because she’s not skinny. You’ll see a lot that Lucy hates people who are fat, finding people small and petite like Polly a lot more attractive (maybe that’s why she likes Paul? Because he’s small and a pest?). So she is giving off all this judgement, hating this idea of exoticism, thinking it’s disgusting, ironic because she’s the foreigner here. And then this guy randomly drags her away from the painting saying it’s inappropriate for a woman, and that guy is none other than M. Paul Emanuel. He’s all like “LOOK AT THESE PAINTINGS OF MONASTIC LIFE, AREN’T THEY GREAT?” and she’s like “dw I don’t even like the Cleopatra lol” and he’s like “YOU SHOULDN”T EVEN LOOK AT IT WOMAN!!!” and so they part.
Then there’s a concert that Dr John and Mrs Bretton force Lucy to go to, and it is there she sees Ginevra chilling with some high class ladies. Ginevra from across the way makes side glances at Mrs Bretton and laughs, and Graham is infuriated, because Graham is a mummy’s boy, and he decides that THIS IS ENOUGH and thus very quickly he decides he cannot be in love with someone who would even DARE be mean to his mother. And then friendship grow with himself and Lucy, aw. And then Lucy sees a nun in the attic– wait what? yes. A demon nun. God this book gets weirder every moment.
And then Lucy goes to another concert, where she watched some person called Vashti, and she’s really racist too. There’s a lot of imperialist language going on that makes me uncomfortable, and I think it’s meant to be a critique of how people eroticise these ‘exotic’ bodies, especially of women. THEN THERE’S A FIRE!!! OH SHIT!!! and John’s like “babe, sit tight” and she submissively goes “of course bb.” And then some small girl falls over, and John RUSHES over to pick her up, and they rush out and save her!! Who’s this? The de Bassompierre family, aka Ginevra’s uncle that funds her schooling, aka Paulina Mary de Bassompierre and Mr Home.
Yes, the coincidences never end. They talk and have fun and they reminisce on the good times. Polly’s a little doll. She acts like she’s 5, she seems to look like she’s 5, and yet she’s 17 or 18. She is nothing but a little doll that bends to the whims of the people she’s around, Lucy even saying ‘She had different moods for different people’. ‘The child of seven was in the girl of seventeen’ it’s said, and it’s too often that she acts so much younger than she is. Why? Because Polly’s the perfect young lady, beautiful, petite, mouldable, perfect for any men. She’s sickly sweet and absolutely insufferable. At least Ginevra has a personality. And it only gets worse.
There’s a bit where she buries some letters of Grahams, saying that she’d receive no more, but doesn’t elaborate. And then she sees the nun again in her time of madness. Yeah, and then she and Polly hatch a plot to undermine Ginevra, wow.
They host a tiny little party type dinner thing, and Ginevra and Polly are basically subtly fighting each other over who’s the best lady. I think they’re both hella superficial. Lucy is there having a nice chat with Graham, just having a good time like old childhood friends do, and then this asshole suddenly just slides up right behind Lucy and starts hissing (literally hissing), “Wow you’re such a coquette, you’re such a whore! You are the worst! A faker!!!!” and that person is none other than M. Paul Emanuel. Yes, he got so jealous he basically bullied her into tears. And THEN when they see each other again, you know what he says? ‘”But what did I say?” he pursued; “tell me. I was angry. I have forgotten my words. What were they?”‘ YEAH. talk about not taking responsibility for his actions, he just acts like he never said those things, because he’s a little shit. And then he all but forces her to call him her friend and forgive him. Lucy, why?! He’s so mean to you!
And then later all the ladies are chilling doing their work, and Lucy is working away at something, and when Paul gets up close and personal and asks her who it’s for, “For a gentleman- one of my friends” she replied, and he gets MAD. And he’s calling her a detestable woman, and someone he found ‘consummately unpleasant’ and basically goes on a RAMPAGE. What a dick. He basically gets so gosh diddly darned jealous he takes it out on Lucy. What a Nice Guy™ to be honest, thinking he’s entitled to her attention. UGH.
IT GETS WORSE. What? Yes! On his birthday, everyone’s giving him flowers, except Lucy. And he asks “Est-ce là tout?” several times, basically waiting for Lucy. Why? Because he’s an entitled little shit who expects presents from her and thinks that he’s in the right to demand it. Lucy gives himnothing, and then he got SO MAD that he starts badmouthing the English, basically saying how they were all useless and ugly and disgusting, and it pisses Lucy off so she finally gets angry and leaves. Yes girl, stand up for yourself. This guy doesn’t DESERVE your attention, seeing as all he cares about is himself and he thinks the best way to win a girl’s affection is to rail on her and her nation.
IT GETS WORSE. She heads off and goes to her office after a nap, only to find the door ajar. Someone broke in? Was it Madame Beck? Nope, it’s M. Paul Emanuel caught red handed with his hands rifling through her papers. Yes, he’s been breaking into her office area and going through all her stuff because he doesn’t believe in privacy, and Lucy said she’s known it all this time, but why? Why Paul? Why are you going through a lady’s stuff? And he leaves the office in a tip afterwards to show that he’s been there! Yeah! What an asshole, and he BREATHES his cigar smoke everywhere, knowing full well that Lucy HATES the smell. Why? Because he wants to spite her. It’s like pig-tail pulling, but worse, because it’s a grown man on a young lady. And he’s all like “Why can’t we be friends?” and just… kill me, just kill me I hate this guy so much he is the worst. He’s a misogynist, despotic, raging, cruel, angry little man. WHY?
And then for some reason it’s All G. You know? Who cares if he’s stalking me and going through my stuff and shouting at me and bullying me, he’s my friend! That’s some first rate abuse psychology right here. He starts trying to teach Lucy, and she’s like cool, but then when she gets a lil too smart, he starts bullying her again, because women shouldn’t be too smart, just smart enough, and he just wants to embarrass her and humiliate her. Lucy stands her ground, though. She’s a smart lass. Then something happens, she’s chatting about how she wants to live her future, and they talk about the spoopy nun. So it’s not madness, she realises, it’s real?!
Polly, sickly sweet Polly, receives a love letter from John, who’d’ve thought!!!!! And she consults Lucy, and she’s like m8 do what you want, but don’t keep this from your dad too long he’ll die from sadness tbh. And Polly’s like SURE and goes off on her merry perfect life to love John, and Lucy’s just like, rolls eyes emoji.
There’s a cute picnic, aw. Then Madame Beck is like, Lucy run this errand, go into this spooky gothic side of town to deliver this, yes, Red Riding Hood Style. And then she learns this sad sob story about two lovers who could never be together because of class, and how this guy comes along and still takes care of the family. Who’s that guy? It’s M. Paul Emanuel. God DAMMIT Brontë, you had to freaking make his backstory tragic. I refuse to accept him as a good person just because of his stupid tragic backstory. He’s a psychopath.
And then she’s forced to sit a god damned trivia test, because M. Paul forces her to and probably wants to humiliate her and make her feel inadequate. Why? He’s has a superiority complex. And then, with so much coincidence (SO MANY COINCIDENCES), the two men testing her are the men who stalked her at the beginning of the novel. She writes an epic little allegory on Human Justice, and then walks out, Deal With It style. And then she chats with Paul about his past, and it’s like, welp, whatever.
Then Paul’s like, dude, Lucy, convert to Catholicism. She’s like no way m8, all you Catholics are assholes, expecting me to bend to your will, forcing me to be who you wanna be. I’m an independent Protestant! And so they can never be together, thank the lord. NGL, Lucy is savage towards Catholicism, stating that ‘God is not with Rome’. Wow, harsh.
Then it’s back to the god damned subplot of Polly and John. Lucy tries to break it to M. de Bassompierre, who’s all needy and absolutely pathetic. He’s all like, “No!!! Not my baby girl!! She’s 12!!!! I can’t give her away she’s mine mine mine!” because Polly, in all reality, is just an object. That’s what she is, an object, a doll for these men to play around with and give about. She has no personality except what is ascribed to her. She is an allegory of how the patriarchal society moulds women to try and be all these different things with no personality. SHe is the perfect girl, but as a result she has nothing to truly call her own. She is just the subject of whichever man owns her. John and Polly get married, and yay, off they go! Yuck!
Then Lucy finds out M. Paul Emanuel is leaving for Guadalupe, thank gosh, goodbye! And she’s sad and conflicted, because much like a Korean Drama, it’s only when one of the characters is forced to leave that the other has to truly and deeply consider their own feelings. Ugh, this entire novel just disintegrates into the world’s worst rom com and I hate it. It was SO GOOD, but the ending is a let down. What do you mean, Pretentious Eng Lit student, how is it a let down? WELL…
Lucy goes on a drugged up escapade through the town when she’s distraught and drugged, and she sees a fun fête that she wasn’t really invited to, and then she finds the ‘nun’ on her bed, and then she finds out Ginevra has eloped off with de Hamal, another of her suitors who’s really just a rich Count with a gambling problem. Ginevra sends a cheeky letter to Lucy detailing her plot, stating how Hamal was the nun the entire time and that she doesn’t care if she’s underage but she’s marrying this dude. Talk about a bad life decision. Paul heads off to wherever, and they have a nice touching goodbye, but it doesn’t discount the fact that he basically got Lucy to like him by forcing himself onto her and by watching and keeping her under close surveillance, insulting her constantly to make his nicer moments seem nicer than they really are. And then everyone lives happily ever after, Lucy opens up her school, gets a sudden random amount of money that lets her expand it, and then it’s heavily implied M. Paul Emanuel dies in a shipwreck. Good.
And thus, ends the summary of Villette. A long, tedious, very Victorian in its windiness, book. Read it, it’ll be an adventure.