Acting Towards a “True” Identity: The Many (Muted) Roles of
Villette’s Lucy Snowe
- Author: Crider Ryan
- Publish: Feminist Studies in English Literature Volume 19, Issue1, p35~64, 30 Apr 2011
This paper examines the use of theatrical elements in Charlotte Bronte’s
Villette. I argue that only through a series of decidedly theatrical narrative “performances” within the novel is Lucy Snowe, as both spectator and participant, able to emerge psychologically from the repression that initially dominates her character. In addition, contextualizing my own analysis within and extending upon a generation of existing research into the theatricality of Villette, I demonstrate the extent to which these performances and the “role” of independence Lucy eventually assumes reveal a subversive, feminist impulse behind the novel’s construction. The novel’s theatricality becomes coded to a predominantly feminist sentiment as Lucy learns to wield her performative powers. However, one must avoid a simple dichotomy between repression and performance. As John Kucich writes of Lucy’s narration, in a Victorian sense “expression and repression cooperate and enhance each other by being identically opposed to direct self-revelation.” Kucich’s psychological approach to Lucy’s character and narrative performativity is fundamental to my argument. The works of other critics who have written specifically about theatricality in Brontë’s novels, including Joseph Litvak and Lisa Surridge, also help provide an important framework for my essay, particularly in the attention to prevailing Victorian attitudes toward the theatre.
Villette , Charlotte Bronte , theatricality , Victorian fiction , surveillance , feminist criticism
The character of Lucy Snowe in Charlotte Brontë’s
Villette(1853) stands as one of the most complex and often frustrating narrators in Victorian fiction. Initially resigned to a modest life of servitude, Lucy hovers on the periphery of proper society, seemingly content to observe rather than experience. Reconciled without complaint to her complete lack of prospects, Lucy sees in her future “no possibility of dependence on others; to myself alone could I look” (100). She begins her narrative without a proclaimed hope of anything except stability and a useful place in service to others, believing that family circumstances and misfortune have simply consigned her to this fate. More importantly, though, as John Kucich has discussed, Lucy’s tendency toward “self-negation”—which is as apt of phrase as any to describe her perspective in the novel–reflects a uniquely Victorian repression that also carries an eroticizing potential. Psychologically, self-negation “might become a goal of desire for its own sake, and might even invent what it sets out to destroy” (Kucich 16). In Villette, Lucy gradually manages to “invent” herself as a strong and even subversive character in spite of her outward attempts at repression. The process by which Lucy awakens to an awareness of her own potential strength, betraying this repression, consists of a series of confrontations with her own circumstances as she perceives them, which Judith Williams describes as potentially both “a self-protective and self-destructive illusion” (5). Using and extending on what Kucich has termed as “self-negation” in our century, we see that Lucy “negates” herself by seeking to conceal her emotional being, her sometimes conflicting hidden desires for independence, financial stability, and romantic love; but ultimately these emotions are veiled behind a series of performances that offer Lucy a means of subverting the social expectations that weigh upon her and breaking out of her own repression. The psychological richness of this process unfolds over the course of the novel as Lucy moves closer to an expressiveness that reflects her developing sensibilities and interpretive powers, even if this process is mediated by the ideologically loaded surveillance to which she is constantly subjected.
One of the most fundamental ways in which Brontë complicates Lucy’s character, taking full advantage of the slippage between “truth” and “illusion” and confronting psychological repression, is through her strategic use of theatricality. Throughout the novel, Brontë constructs “scenes” that feature the literal staging of plays or, just as significantly, theatrical terminology and the manipulation of performer-spectator relationships within Lucy’s narration. Lucy seems always aware of playing a role, or rather a series of roles, prompting her to note, “I seemed to hold two lives—the life of thought, and that of reality; and, provided the former was nourished with a sufficiency of the strange necromantic joys of fancy, the privileges of the latter might remain limited to daily bread, hourly work, and a roof of shelter” (142). She, in fact, tries on far more than two “lives” in the novel, and her narrative resists a simple dichotomy between truth and illusion at the same time that it depends largely on theatrical elements. Over the last thirty years, critics such as Gillian Beer, Joseph Litvak, and Lisa Surridge have explored the theatricality of
Villettefrom a number of perspectives, furthering the understanding of its function within the novel in their attempt to relate it to the broader social function of theatre in nineteenth-century England. Previous studies have invoked a staggering variety of criticisms, from biographical to feminist to Deconstructive, indicating the vast interpretive possibilities involved in reading in Villette.
These writers have greatly contributed to the critical discussion of theatricality in the novel. However, as closely concerned as they sometimes are with integrating into their own theoretical concerns this repression and self-negation, they sometimes overlook the psychological components of the narrative fragmentation and how this fragmentation reflects Lucy’s shifting sense of self. My intention in the following pages is twofold. First, I will argue that only through a series of decidedly theatrical narrative performances and instances of role-playing within the novel can Lucy, as both spectator and participant, emerge psychologically from the repression that initially dominates her character. Second, contextualizing my own analysis within and extending upon a generation of existing research into the theatricality of
Villette, I will demonstrate the extent to which these performances and the role Lucy eventually assumes (or, perhaps, fails to assume) reveal a subversive, complicated, implicitly feminist impulse behind the novel’s construction. This impulse is always mediated by the various forces of surveillance present in the text, the dynamics of which have been convincingly addressed by critics such as Sally Shuttleworth. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have found that “the movement of the novel suggests that escape from submission and silence becomes increasingly difficult as women internalize the destructive strictures of patriarchy” (400). While the process by which Lucy becomes aware of being watched and controlled by what Shuttleworth describes as “masculine figures of authority” (111) is indicative of this process of internalization, it does not prevent Lucy from forging a sense of identity within the slippage between the roles of performer and spectator. The novel’s theatricality does, indeed, become coded to a predominantly feminist sentiment as Lucy learns to wield her performative powers, even if Brontë resists clarifying for her readers precisely where these powers will lead her narrator. Villetteis far from unique amongst Victorian British novels in its narrative manipulation of theatrical elements. A full appreciation of the narrative use Brontë found for the theatre requires some understanding of its function in mid-nineteenth-century Britain and the social ramifications that typically accompanied participation in the theatre. In contrast to the fascination with drama and spectacle of earlier periods, the relationship between theatre and proper Victorian society is generally regarded as tenuous and subversive. However, many nineteenth-century novelists felt drawn to the theatre, and Brontë herself must be included in this grouping. In an oft-referenced incident during a visit to London, Brontë saw the great French actress Elisa Felix (also known as “Rachel”) perform on two different occasions. Brontë was spellbound by the power of her performances and yet discomforted, declaring “her soul was in it—and a strange soul she has—I shall not discuss it” (qtd. in Barker 677). This strange, exciting mix of fear and liberation typifies the response many writers had to the theatre at this time. A brief overview of the critical responses to this dynamic seems in order. My argument, though it deviates from some similar studies in focusing more heavily on the practical aspects of Lucy’s psychological development and Brontë’s omplication of Lucy’s dual function as both narrator and character, ultimately relies on a synthesis of recent criticism into Victorian theatricality and its influence on the novel form.
Studies of theatrical elements in Victorian fiction have generally developed around two main perspectives, indicating some difficulty in defining the very term “theatricality.” On one hand, it may refer to the explicit use of theatre in the subject matter of a work, such as moments when characters literally perform to the reader in stage scenes. This perspective is apparent in one of the most fundamental essays on the subject, Gillian Beer’s “‘Coming Wonders’: Uses of Theatre in the Victorian Novel.” Beer suggests that the period represents an important turning point in the development of narrative craft and a shifting awareness of how drama should and should not inform the novel. As she explains, “There was a tendency to align the theatre with what is spectacular, evanescent, illusioned, specious, to repudiate the long-established metaphor of our life as a play” (165). The “lives” considered suitable for depiction in the Victorian novel become far less overtly spectacular, beholden to the emerging aesthetic of literary realism. However, despite many novelists’ outward disavowal of the theatre, Beer demonstrates that many of these same writers ultimately betrayed their own antitheatrical pronouncements. While the form and subject matter of the Victorian novel typically represents a departure from the theatrical influence apparent in earlier fiction, the theatre often plays a far more psychologically complex role. The performative features of the theatre come to allow writers such as Brontë, whom Beer labels “the most introspective of all Victorian novelists,” a means of exploring otherwise unvoiced characteristics of their subjects (185).
More recent criticism, however, has attempted to extend this understanding of the psychological function of theatre to an examination of less overtly theatrical elements. In turn, these critics further problematize the use of these elements by reconsidering Victorian social perceptions toward the theatre, in particular the relationship of women to the stage. While the use of obvious “scenes” and theatrical settings are still a concern for such critics, of equal importance is the potential for social subversion present in any element of the work that may parallel the theatre’s relationship between actor and audience, actor and role, or performance and reality. “Theatricality” as I have elected to discuss it in the following pages refers to narrative strategies suggestive of theatrical elements and presupposes the potentially subversive context of the nineteenthcentury theatre. Any use of theatrical terminology also assumes the existence of a narrative audience, an admission essential to connecting
Villette’stheatrical elements to the related features of surveillance found within the novel.
Caught in the Act: Theatricality in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel, Joseph Litvak finds in the emergence of the realistic novel “a fall from the theatricality of eighteenth-century culture into the world of domesticity, subjectivity, and psychology” (ix). Like Beer, he reads nineteenth-century culture as rejecting spectacle and overt performance, and he finds in the period’s novels an overarching concern with the contrasting social phenomena of repression and surveillance. However, he challenges any clear dichotomy between repression and performance, suggesting the overbearing presence of “spectacles of surveillance” (xi). Litvak conceives of Victorian novelists as acutely aware of society’s everwatchful gaze and constant pre-judgments against the theatre, yet willing to employ various veiled strategies that demonstrate the potential of performance to both conceal and subvert. Therein lies his understanding of theatricality, which he identifies as “a set of shifting, contradictory energies […] directed not only against the coherent, stable subjectivity that the nineteenth-century novel supposedly secures for both its protagonists and its readers, but also against the domestic, domesticating closure […] in which that subjectivity supposedly discovers its ‘natural’ habitat” (xii). Such a view complicates the traditional conception of a typical Victorian novel’s subject matter and thematic concerns. Importantly, the “performative possibilities” in Brontë’s work, he claims, extend beyond literal “scenes” of theatrical stagecraft and indicate a gradual subversion beneath the narrative surface (32-33).
This subversion, Litvak suggests rather boldly, presages modern-day feminist criticism. But one such contemporary feminist critic, Lisa Surridge, offers a contrast to his argument. In “Representing the ‘Latent Vashti’: Theatricality in Charlotte Brontë’s
Villette,” Surridge’s textual focus settles almost exclusively on the novel’s “Vashti” chapter, in which Lucy and Dr. John Graham Bretton attend a performance that recalls Brontë’s own encounter with “Rachel.” Rather than examining theatricality as a narrative strategy or set of strategies, Surridge discusses Brontë’s “[use of] theatre to disrupt the social restrictions governing Lucy” and details the extent to which acting and spectatorship became culturally loaded to the Victorian mind, particularly in regard to women’s behavior (13). She concludes that “in the mid-Victorian period, the social anxieties concerning women, theatre, and transgression temporarily endowed the theatre with tremendous attractions and possibilities for feminist writers” (13). Brontë uses Lucy, she argues, to suggest how a Victorian woman may “claim her own subject position in theatrical performance and spectatorship” (13). In this view, Lucy’s gradual recognition of her own potential corresponds to her participation in and observation of theatrical scenes, which, I would suggest, in turn become coded to the Victorian attitudes towards theatre as discussed by Beer.
One final piece to this critical framework involves a consideration of surveillance, a recent focal point of Brontë studies. In her influential essay “
Villette: ‘The Surveillance of a Sleepless Eye’,” Sally Shuttleworth details three main sources of surveillance in the novel—Lucy herself as scrutinizing narrator, Madame Beck and the male figures of Dr. John and Monsieur Paul at her pensionnat, and the Roman Catholic church. These forces, as Shuttleworth demonstrates, all become entangled in traditional nineteenth-century conceptions of insanity, feminine behavior, and female sexuality—all of which were understood as interrelated. They provide a counter, it would seem, to the potential subversion inherent in the theatre as I have summarized those potentialities above. In Lucy’s obsession with surveillance, which is certainly explicit with the novel, Shuttleworth suggests that “Brontë both explores and interrogates contemporary theories of mental alienation” (108). This process of exploration and interrogation leads to the psychological complexities of Lucy’s narration, as she must negotiate through the various masculine interpretations of her identity and well-being presented to her by the novel’s various authority figures. In the end, Shuttleworth writes, “Lucy’s entire mode of self-articulation breaks down the hierarchy of outer and inner life upon which definitions of the ‘Real’ (and sanity) depend” (127).
I do not wish to refute any main points of Shuttleworth’s criticism; in fact, I find no reason to view it as incompatible with my own work, especially considering that Lucy’s burgeoning selfawareness of being watched and judged by the figures around her must lead, I would argue, to performative strategies designed to subvert this surveillance. However, there is an aspect to Shuttleworth’s argument that offers an important point of departure for my own interpretation. Of Monsieur Paul’s phrenological reading of Lucy on her arrival in Villette, Shuttleworth writes that it “inaugurates the system of surveillance into which Lucy has entered, and reinforces its underlying central code: if Lucy is to succeed, it must be by a process of
self-control, subduing her ‘evil’ propensities, and encouraging the good” (111). This brand of self-control is dependent on a “male-defined reality” that, Shuttleworth suggests, Lucy’s story succeeds in dissolving into an imaginary psychological landscape (121). Shuttleworth associates self-control purely with female repression and submission to patriarchy, seemingly without consideration that the moderation and psychological stability that Lucy eventually establishes for herself could, in fact, function instead within feminist terms of her own strategic choosing. In my view, as will become clear, the conflation or “dissolving” of the imagined and the real within the text indicates a highly feminist impulse towards self-control.
Surridge’s feminist view of the Victorian theatre as ideologically loaded and culturally empowering is essential to my own reading of
Villette. However, while the Vashti chapter and Lucy’s own overt performance in Monsieur Paul’s play certainly will demand close examination in the following pages, one must not neglect the less obvious instances of performativity and role-playing throughout the novel. A consideration of Brontë’s overall narrative strategy in her construction of Lucy demands equal attention. In addition, Litvak’s re-definition of theatricality will, I hope, prove quite useful as a tool to explore Lucy’s narration, which is full of “shifting, contradictory” strategies that evolve alongside and in conjunction with her own self-awareness. My own reading of the novel’s narrative strategies will thus attempt to imply a synthesis of these critics’ works and extend upon them by demonstrating that, for Lucy, self-control is only possible once she is able to establish a psychological balance that incorporates both performance and repression—on her own terms, couched as they are in a fledgling awareness of the surveillant figures that surround her. As I have noted above, this may also complicate current prevailing notions of the ultimate impact surveillance has on Lucy’s character.
When Lucy first arrives at Madame Beck’s school, she assumes a position consistent with the path she has long sensed her life must take—that of a governess, in service to the small children in the headmistress’s charge, with the added responsibility of attending to Madame Beck. However, she is quickly offered the opportunity to fill in for the school’s English master. At this point, poised between the quiet, unassuming job of caring for young children and the more exposed position of teaching adolescent and teenage girls, Lucy reveals the psychological repression at her character’s core. She suggests her contentment in the nursery, free from public responsibility, for “it seemed to me a great thing to be without heavy anxiety, and relieved from the intimate trials; the negation of severe suffering was the nearest approach to happiness that I expected to know” (142). Her comment exemplifies what Kucich has called “selfnegation” in the text, as Lucy clearly expresses a desire to suppress the emotional turmoil that, though vaguely identified, seems to have plagued her life. This must be considered alongside her following line, revealing the dichotomous belief in a “life of thought, and that of reality” (142). In seeking to establish a stable existence for herself, she would also accept complete emotional detachment from the world. As Williams remarks, Lucy possesses a “deep unspoken fear of the power of her emotions” (85). She seems to believe, however, that she can compensate for the loss of emotional connection through her own imaginative, illusory thinking. The passage, when read closely and aligned to Lucy’s psychological fear, implies that illusion, though not “real” in her separation of the terms, holds a consoling allure. She would, indeed, negate a part of herself by denying her emotional existence, yet embrace the liberating, “strange necromantic joys of fancy” in her imagination (142). Though divided through her perception into separate spheres, both reality and illusion are necessary to what little happiness she would allow herself. However, Madame Beck’s request that she teach the English class immediately challenges Lucy’s perceived dichotomy and brings forth perhaps the first clear intrusion of theatricality into the text.
First, Lucy’s description—as, importantly, an aged narrator looking back on her youthful experience—pointedly implies a means of framing her initiation into the classroom within a feminist discourse. She notes that she will be replacing a male instructor, and as Madame Beck literally drags her from the safety of her nursery, Lucy is made to “relinquish thimble and needle” (142). Then, when forced to choose either classroom or nursery, Lucy offers a description of Madame Beck that stresses the woman’s strength and intimidating presence. The recognition of this power greatly impresses Lucy, who claims, “I saw in her countenance a something that made me think twice ere I decided. At that instant, she did not wear a woman’s aspect, but rather a man’s. Power of a particular kind strongly limned itself in all her traits, and that power was not
mykind of power” (143). Yet, though Lucy cannot imagine herself exuding this type of power, she is struck by it, and retrospectively detailing this decidedly masculine strength she remembers in Madame Beck suggests that she felt empowered by it. She thereby abandons the more proper, domestic role of the Victorian woman, indicated by the nursery and the thimble and needle. In Lucy’s new, masculine-coded, and decidedly more powerful role as instructor, she will come to mimic or adapt many of Madame Beck’s own methods of self-empowerment and control. As Helene Moglen points out, this dynamic occurs a number of times throughout the novel, with the headmistress serving as a model. Moglen explains that “Madame Beck continually challenges Lucy to assume roles which express her capacity for leadership” (206). At this point in the novel, Lucy seems to be reacting to Madame Beck’s challenge on a purely emotional level, unable to fully comprehend what she must be internalizing from the exchange. The older Lucy narrating this passage, however, loading it with coded language, seems to understand perfectly well the full, feministic significance of the transition about to take place, and the role that Madame Beck plays as a model of empowerment.
As Lucy rises to Madame Beck’s challenge, she insists, in typically cool fashion, that she is “no more excited than [a] stone,” but her emotions are clearly inflamed (144). Having now chosen to enter the classroom, Lucy’s sudden emotionality threatens to become a liability. Here emerges another way in which the headmistress becomes a model for the observing Lucy. As Gilbert and Gubar explain, “Madame Beck is a symbol of repression, the projection and embodiment of Lucy’s commitment to self-control” (408). Madame Beck warns her of the danger of appearing timid in front of the students, and of the headmistress Lucy knows full well “that she never assisted a weak official to retain his place—that if he had not strength to fight, or tact to win his way—down he went” (145). Lucy knows that she must, then, project the same sort of strength and power she has observed in Madame Beck, and she does manage to suppress her anxieties and assert herself with remarkable selfconfidence in what becomes her first true performance within the text. In order to gain command over her raucous students, she temporarily abandons all thought of detachment. Though still maintaining a cool, even disposition, she theatrically rips apart a poorly written composition, then locks one student into a storage closet before calmly directing the day’s lesson. Her calmness, however, masks just the sort of emotional turmoil that Lucy has up until now foresworn, as she admits to coming out of class, “hot and a little exhausted” (147). In the classroom, performing her new role, she has rediscovered her emotions while at the same time learning to control and orchestrate them for the purpose of self-empowerment.
Litvak takes particular interest in
Villette’sscenes of instruction, both in and out of the classroom, arguing that “the novel’s thematics of acting and spectatorship overlap and merge continually with its thematics of teaching and governance” (83). The novel, he writes, attempts to establish an opposition between the disciplined activity of teaching and the emotional, flamboyant activity of acting, but its pedagogically oriented scenes consistently challenge such a conception (83). This is evident in the scene described above, which also clearly undermines Lucy’s related binary of reality and thought/imagination. Her success in the classroom, Litvak suggests, results from the merging of the theatrical with the real, and through teaching “she gains access not so much to ‘life and feeling’ in their unmediated form as to energies of enactmentthat the inscription of theatricality has had to keep under or keep down” (89). His argument may also be considered in relation to the theatrical terminology and exaggerated performances by Monsieur Paul that permeate many of the other instructional scenes within the novel, but it is most relevant here in its connection to the subversive treatment of gender roles and complications of femininity implicated in scenes such as that described above.
Though the classroom offers Lucy a figurative stage on which to perform her newfound blend of power and self-control, Brontë eventually places her narrator on the literal stage. As part of the school’s annual fete, Monsieur Paul organizes the performance of a play, which Lucy initially avoids. She still outwardly maintains her false dichotomy between reality and illusion, and the public nature of stage acting in its literal sense falls outside the role of spectator she has envisioned for herself. However, when Monsieur Paul loses one of his actresses to illness on the day of the play, he comes to Lucy and claims, “I read your skull, that night you came; I see your moyens [abilities]: play you can; play you must” (201). Lucy’s behavior in the earlier classroom scene might have already offered an astute reader the clue that she does, indeed, possess the ability to act. Now, presented with Monsieur Paul’s dependence on her to save his production, Lucy agrees to assume the sick student’s role, for reasons that are not entirely clear. In her narration, she merely recalls the sympathy she felt in seeing behind Monsieur Paul’s rigid expression “a sort of appeal” (202).
But Surridge surmises that she may already be awakening to the “indications that theatre will tap Lucy’s hitherto repressed emotions and imaginative potential” (5). Similarly, Gilbert and Gubar find in her sudden agreeability to perform “the principal sign of Lucy’s desire to exist actively” (413). This is a sign that functions at least partly due to the coy nature of Lucy as a narrator re-telling her own story. If one accepts interpretations like those of Surridge and Gilbert and Gubar, then it is impossible to believe that Lucy as a character has truly felt such ambivalence for or distrust of the theatre. Kucich argues that “Brontëan desire can best be defined as a kind of double movement—on the one hand, toward a secretive, even embattled self-concentration; on the other, toward the continual disruption of this concentrated self by an internal power greater than selfhood” (51). In this sense, passion and repression can become intertwined. In allowing for a performed expression, then, theatrical performance also may function as an element of further repression as performance also implies a level of self-control. This is a self-control that readers have already witnessed Lucy desiring and attempting to forge in the classroom. Given the close association Litvak finds in the overlapping between theatrical and instructional scenes (83), it seems reasonable to interpret Lucy’s sudden willingness to perform as further indication of an evolving awareness of theatricality’s potentially subversive power.
In taking on this new theatrical challenge, Lucy not only finds unexpected pleasure in her performance, but through it she also learns to be, as Anne W. Jackson claims, “quicker to discern frames and keys—and more skillful at directing them to her own ends” (128). This directing of frames and keys begins before the play itself has even begun. Of importance in understanding Lucy’s manipulation of the play is the content of its plot and the nature of her role in particular. She describes the play as “a mere trifle” focusing “on the efforts of a brace of rivals to gain the hand of a fair coquette” (202). Of these rivals, she is to depict the villain, “a butterfly, a talker, and traitor” (202). This conventional male-wooing plot serves not only to parody the rivalry in the novel between Dr. John and Colonel de Hamal for Ginevra Fanshawe’s affections, but also to mimic the tension in Lucy’s friendship with Ginevra and, as will become quite clear later on, her burgeoning love for Dr. John. In portraying a male figure full of “emptiness, frivolity and falsehood” (203-04), Lucy is expected to wear an appropriately male costume. However, she refuses to allow this, determined not to sacrifice her sex on the stage. She merely dons a few male accessories to enhance her own attire and announce her character as male. According to Gilbert and Gubar, this decision is not emotional but strategic, allowing Lucy to “make the role her own” even as the simple masculine identifiers she does choose allow her to liberate herself from her identity as Lucy Snowe for the purposes of the play (413). Thus, by getting into character, even to the extent of challenging Zelie St. Pierre to a duel after assuming her costume, she is enabled to overcome any repressions or misgivings she might feel about her participation in the theatre.
On stage, Lucy recalls, “When my tongue once got free, and my voice took its true pitch, and found its natural tone, I thought of nothing but the personage I represented” (209). This disarmingly simple line contains a great deal of complexity and connects to a number of critical perspectives on both Lucy’s repressions and Brontë’s use of the theatre. At first glance, it seems that Lucy has finally allowed herself to sink fully into the life of thought and illusion. This life of thought, one must remember, is understood by her to provide a release from the methodical realities of her daily existence, and she has earlier sought to dissociate these two spheres from each other. Now, it would appear that she recognizes the stage as a place where she may freely cast off the sphere of reality for that of illusion and gain temporary pleasure in doing so. What complicates this initial view, however, is Lucy’s clear assertion of having found her true, natural voice. Only in finding her own voice is she able to present her fictional character to the audience. This moment demonstrates the peculiar psychological truth behind Kucich’s observation that, most fundamentally, “expression and repression cooperate and enhance each other by being identically opposed to direct self-revelation” (47).
True expression for Lucy can only come from finding her voice, or from understanding her perceptions and acting upon them. The method through which she acts out from her newfound selfawareness speaks volumes about the subversive potential of performance, the feminist leanings of Lucy as both character and narrator, and the extent to which she is rapidly learning to direct “frames and keys.” Finding that Ginevra, in the role of the heroine, is performing directly at Dr. John, Lucy attempts to upstage her, conceiving of herself as the doctor. She transforms her role, apparently intent on mocking Dr. John’s earnest pursuit of Ginevra by granting her own character a sincerity that matches his. Gone is the caricature of the “fop,” replaced by a reconfigured suitor imbued with melodramatic pathos. As part of a fictional performance, her character’s sincerity is of course a façade, suggesting on a narrative level a commentary on love and courtship that seems more befitting of the cool, detached Lucy. Further, as Gilbert and Gubar point out, this performance must be connected to Lucy’s taunting of Dr. John after the play, constituting “an attempt to deflate the sentimental fictions he has created about Ginevra” (413). Importantly, in assuming an illusory, superficial, sentimentalized, and patriarchal role, she manages to deconstruct the sentiments behind that role in allegiance to the temperance and detachment of the “life of reality” with which she associates herself.
The character of Lucy, although evolving in self-awareness with the benefit of these recurring opportunities for performance, may not comprehend what has become apparent to the narrator–that in assuming these roles, her separate spheres of reality and thought are merging together. In fact, she seems frightened at the first sign of this phenomenon, stating, “Cold, reluctant, apprehensive, I had accepted a part to please another: ere long, warming, becoming interested, taking courage, I acted to please myself” (210). She still considers this pleasure illusory, however, and inappropriate and incompatible with her true life’s role. Lucy immediately swears off acting. Yet, she does acknowledge, marking a significant transition in the text, a theatrical element to her personality, recalling that “a keen relish for dramatic expression had revealed itself as part of my nature; to cherish and exercise this new-found faculty might gift me with a world of delight, but it would not do for a mere looker-on at life” (210). The narrator, looking back, claims that she has never again taken to the stage. But I would suggest this is merely one of the novel’s many instances of narrative selectivity and effacement. Regardless of whether Lucy technically takes to the stage ever again, she has already demonstrated an understanding of the strategic possibilities of theatricality; her awareness of the potential for performance to offer a means of overcoming her own repression, while fully evolved for the narrator, is still developing in the character of young Lucy.
From the classroom to the stage, I have thus far examined two locationally different but psychologically related performance spaces, and the interrelated, subversive roles that both spaces offer to Lucy. But perhaps the best-known theatrical scene in
Villettetakes Lucy out of the role of performer and into that of spectator, where her self-awareness and expressiveness continues to develop. First, however, one must consider a new suggestion of role-playing and audience awareness within the novel. At this point, buoyed by her performances and thus increasingly comfortable with her own emotions, Lucy has begun to picture for herself an entirely different role—that of would-be lover to Dr. John, now alternately and affectionately called “Graham.” With surprising suddenness, she announces, “a new creed […]—a belief in happiness” (323). This belief is purely emotional, connected to her feelings for Graham. An important indicator of Lucy’s attachment to the doctor is her reaction to the series of letters he writes her–she reads them in secret and eventually hides them. But just as important is her response to his letters and what they suggest about her insistence on separating the spheres of her life.
Lucy, clearly in love with Graham but fearful of impropriety, frets over how to answer the letters, “whether under the dry, stinting check of Reason, or according to the full, liberal impulse of Feeling” (324). Her solution to this problem is to write two letters to two different readers—one for Graham and one for herself. “Feeling and I,” she tells us, “turned Reason out of doors, drew against her bar and bolt, then we sat down, spread out paper, dipped in the ink an eager pen, and, with deep enjoyment, poured out our sincere heart” (324). This letter, however, would never be sent, for in the end “Reason would leap in, vigorous and revengeful, snatch the full sheets, read, sneer, erase, tear up, re-write, fold, seal, direct, and send a terse, curt missive of a page. She did right” (324). Patricia E. Johnson offers a variation on the dual spheres of life that Lucy has previously laid out for herself. While it may be tempting to use this passage as further evidence for Lucy’s repression, Johnson complicates this by pointing out that, on a narrative level, Lucy is perfectly aware that both her emotional and impersonal letters are being presented to an audience. Despite the apparent judgment of the older, narrating Lucy that “she did right,” Johnson finds that “this scene of writing is an emblem of Lucy’s entire narrative, of her attempt to be the author of herself. Both letters are symbolically present for the reader” (617). Given the unreliability of Lucy’s narration, one must always keep in mind that the reader, too, is an audience for Lucy, who by the time of her narration has internalized a great many theatrical strategies. Even the elusive elements of the narrative, Litvak reminds us, can be construed as elements of theatricality, such as the dramatically motivated concealment of Dr. John’s identity. In such instances, “the reader is made to perform as the narrator’s dupe” (86).
However, at the apex of Lucy’s emotionally charged role as potential love interest, Brontë places her in the position of spectator when Graham invites her to an unnamed play featuring the famous female actress known only in the text as “Vashti.” Her emotions already inflamed by her longing for Graham, Lucy describes herself as waiting in the theatre for the performance to begin “with strange curiosity, with feelings severe and austere, yet of riveted interest” (328). While Lucy manages to deftly suppress all outward signs of emotion—leading Graham to remark, even in the midst of the fire that eventually ends the performance, “Lucy will sit still, I know” (332)—her inner being is frenzied with anticipation of seeing this strange, exotic, subversive figure she has heard so much about. Vashti does not disappoint. Lucy initially claims of the performance, “It was a marvelous sight: a mighty revelation. It was a spectacle low, horrible, immoral” (328). To this end, Diane Long Hoeveler and Lisa Jadwin suggest that she “demonizes Vashti’s frank display of forbidden emotions because Lucy is struggling so hard to suppress her own” (124). Certainly, viewed especially in the context of Lucy’s struggle to suppress her feelings for Graham, this explains one aspect of her reaction to the play. However, within the actress’s demonic and subversive performance Lucy also identifies a potentiality that resonates within her. She cannot help but feel that, though Vashti may be wicked, “she is strong; and her strength has conquered Beauty, has overcome Grace, and bound both at her side, captives peerlessly fair, and docile as fair” (329). Through her audacity and unchecked emotionality, Vashti has conquered, in other words, the objectified patriarchal vision of women as fair, beautiful, domestic creatures—precisely the sorts of models Lucy has herself been unable to identify with throughout the novel. Her emphasis on Vashti’s strength also recalls Lucy’s description of Madame Beck when on the cusp of entering the classroom for the first time, suggesting that she may feel a genuine envy for the actress.
If Lucy still had any doubts at this point as to the potential power of theatre and performance, all such doubts are shattered in her observance of Vashti. She remarks:
This remarkable, poetic passage both affirms the emotional power of performance and brings it surprisingly closer to Lucy’s conception of her “life of reality.” The emotions stirred by Vashti are not the stuff of mere illusion—they actually imply a feeling that illusion can be transformed into reality. What’s more, this emotional catharsis carries with it one’s very “soul,” a core of identify that must, presumably, include both reason and imagination. Such a performance suggests not the repression or negation of the self, but its emergence.
Fascinated though she may be with Vashti, however, and as instructive as the performance certainly is to her understanding of theatricality, Lucy ultimately cannot live her own life in such a fiery, emotionally turbulent way without the accompanying cool detachment for which she prides herself. Neither of these extremes—outright repression or intemperate expressi—can be Lucy’s final objective. As Johnson suggests, within this scene Graham also becomes involved in the breaking down of such binary conceptions. She notes that “Graham, immovably rooted at one pole, punishes Vashti for her attempt at revelation by denying her power and by reinscribing her gender, her castration, on her” (625). For all her admiration of Graham, and the connection she feels to his calm rationality, Lucy also becomes painfully aware of his conventionality. Here, in the theatre, she struggles to comprehend his response to Vashti’s performance, noting that “in a few terse phrases he told me his opinion of, and feeling towards, the actress: he judged her as a woman, not an artist: it was a branding judgment” (331). Despite the tendency of most critics to understand Lucy’s own reaction to Vashti as one of fear, Graham’s disapproval, which seems to mask a submerged masculine fear, does not emerge on the same level. Now wholly aware of the theatre’s liberating potential for women, Lucy seems bitterly disappointed by Graham’s inability to embrace a “life of thought” and to see beyond social prescriptions. He does not, she finds, possess her own imaginative powers and theatrical tendencies.
While Lucy’s love for Graham is depicted as unrequited, with her emerging as heartbroken and resigned to loneliness, on a narrative level one must again consider the dramatic arrangement of the novel’s final 200 pages. Graham’s place as love interest is quickly superseded by that of Monsieur Paul, and one of the clearest ways of understanding Lucy’s relationship to both men is to consider their views on women and the theatre. Hoeveler and Jadwin suggest that Graham’s outright rejection of Vashti on the basis of sex alone must be contrasted with Monsieur Paul’s compliments on Lucy’s own acting (124). After the play at Madame Beck’s, he tells her with admiration, “Were you not gratified when you succeeded in that vaudeville? I watched you and saw a passionate ardour for triumph in your physiognomy. What fire shot into the glance!” (224). Monsieur Paul passes this comment off as a warning to himself to keep Lucy’s passion in check. However, the important distinction between him and Graham is that Graham would prefer Lucy continue to repress such emotions, burying them deep within herself, whereas Paul cultivates them, understanding as a theatrical man himself the value of histrionics and moderated emotionality. That Lucy eventually commits herself to Paul, then, indicates her growth as a strong-willed, emotionally centered, theatrical woman finally aware that she requires one single life that merges and obliterates the simple binaries of reality and thought, truth and illusion. Without this selfawareness, her final, cathartic act of expression, announcing that without Paul, “My heart will break!” would not be possible.
In the above reading, I have suggested that Lucy ultimately does not reject the concept of self-control but rather embraces it on her own terms, largely by way of incorporating the “imaginary” elements of theatricality with the “real” circumstances of her life. Returning to Shuttleworth, these terms are clearly couched within the mediating restrictions of theatrical judgment and obsessive surveillance she has felt throughout the novel. However, my reading does not equate the methods of self-control that Lucy ultimately establishes for herself with the controls that have been placed upon her throughout the novel. Indeed, essential as her work may be to any understanding of Lucy’s psychological fragmentation, I find somewhat troubling Shuttleworth’s suggestion that, at the end of
Villette, “Brontë finally, tentatively, asserts the claims of the realm of imagination, in opposition to the reason and control of the masculine world, with all its spurious offers of healing aid” (120-21). Recalling Shuttleworth’s own identification of Monsieur Paul as the figure who first introduced Lucy to the need for “ self-control,” it is interesting that Lucy’s first steps towards self-sufficiency with her own school are enabled by his now-hardly “spurious” aid. Further, the comfortable self-confidence Lucy feels around Monsieur Paul in the novel’s final pages does not suggest an abandonment of reason or even the privileging of the imaginative over the real. There is a controlled balance evident not only in Lucy’s own perceptions but also those of her beloved. Of Paul, Lucy observes that “he held both my hands, he consulted my eyes with a most piercing glance: there was something in his face which tended neither to calm nor to put me down; he forgot his own doctrine, he forsook his own system of repression when I most challenged its exercise” (563). Lucy, indeed, has altered Paul’s own sense of self-control, leading to the marriage proposal that follows. Villette’s conclusion famously resists dramatic closure. The reader has no way of determining, in the end, if Paul has perished in a shipwreck (a possibility hinted at but never confirmed by Lucy’s narration), or if he and Lucy are perhaps married. However, this outright rejection of the traditional narrative conventions may be understood as one final indication of Lucy’s development toward self-empowerment and tendency toward a veiled feminist subversion. Gilbert and Gubar suggest that Brontë, through the narrative persona of Lucy, intentionally obscures both her protagonist’s ultimate position in life and the clarity of Lucy’s narration. Considering the confusion between reality and illusion throughout the text and the constant presence of various performances, they argue that “Lucy cannot be contained by the roles available to her. But neither is she free of them, since all these women do represent aspects of herself” (419). Further, they conclude that “Lucy’s evasions as a narrator indicate how far she (and all women) have come from silent submission and also how far all must yet go in finding a voice” (419). The false ending, then, is Lucy’s final performance of a feminist sensibility, learned through a series of theatrical strategies in the novel. As a narrator, Lucy refuses to encapsulate the future years of her life because any attempt to do so would be refigured by her readers/spectators into a patriarchal dramatic role; the theatricality of her narration makes this a near certainty. I would suggest, however, that although this final instance of narrative theatricality may serve a subversive purpose in relation to the expectations of her contemporary readers, the final status of her relationship with Monsieur Paul does not suggest that Lucy could not abide by her feminist sensibilities in marriage to him.
Ultimately, as Ruth Parkin-Gounelas points out, the final “truth” in the novel, and the final defining characteristic of Lucy, is that of an independent woman whose livelihood will not depend on whether Paul does or does not return to her. While Lucy has gradually been “defined increasingly in relation to M. Paul,” his own role is ultimately to aid her toward full self-expression (50). At the same time, as I have detailed above, “full self-expression” tends to operate in the novel within theatrical strategies stressing performance and spectatorship that are always necessarily dependent on a measure of self-control. Lucy’s growth as a character and engagement with theatricality certainly demonstrate if nothing else that “truth,” so far as it can be expressed, is much more than a “life of reality.” Instead, her own self-expressed truths emerge through an implicitly feminist series of performances. Though her final “role” remains veiled and undefined, the various strains of Lucy’s burgeoning expressive independence—emotional, economic, professional, and matrimonial—are preserved intact.