The Uncanny Doll-Child

January 22, 2009 § 6 Comments

Now reading: Villette, by Charlotte Brontë.

Dolls are creepy; homunculi are creepy; children, in fact, are often creepy, and not just in horror movies.  All are much creepier if they’re Victorian.

It takes all of four pages for us to meet a very strange child, who seems something like a doll, something like a homunculus (homuncula?), something like a dream.  Paulina Mary, step right up: you are a first-ballot admission to the Creepy Victorian Children Hall of Fame.

I’m just baffled by this character.  When we first meet Paulina she’s bundled up like a baby, but she says, “Put me down, please, and take off this shawl.”  We learn that “she appeared exceedingly tiny;  but was a neat, completely-fashioned little figure, light, slight, and straight.”  In other words, not a dwarf or midget, but a kind of miniature adult.

She seems somehow an utter failure as a depiction of a child but strangely convincing as one, too.  While she domineers and speaks in her polite English gentlewomanly way, and sews like a little housewife, she also clings desperately to her father when he visits, and dotes on him in creepy-Victorian-child ways.  And when her father leaves again, she is disconsolate, as any child would be; Graham, Mrs. Bretton’s son (who earlier, in a surrealistic touch, “caught her up with one hand, and with that one hand held her poised aloft above his head”; I imagine her indignantly standing on the palm of his hand), picks her up in his arms one night and soothes her.  She transfers her doting to him, instantly, and is horribly conflicted when the call comes for her to rejoin her father on the continent.  (The exchange between Lucy and Polly before her departure, on p. 35-36 of this Modern Library edition, is fantastic.)

This all seems very wrapped up in the fact that Polly’s mother has just died; and that seems wrapped up in Brontë’s biography, and her own strange childhood.  Perhaps more will be made of Paulina later in the book — although it seems that perhaps it will not be; that she wanders into the first 30 pages and then right back out — again, like a dream.

These early chapters, incidentally, also do a great job of establishing Lucy’s distinctive voice and character.  My favorite paragraph so far, I think, is this, after Paulina’s father has left.  The last line just kills me; what a way to reveal the narrator’s name!

It was low and long; a sort of “Why hast thou forsaken me?”  During an ensuing space of some minutes, I perceived she endured agony.  She went through, in that brief interval of her infant life, emotions such as some never feel; it was in her constitution: she would have more of such instants if she lived.  Nobody spoke.  Mrs. Bretton, being a mother, shed a tear or two.  Graham, who was writing, lifted up his eyes and gazed at her.  I, Lucy Snowe, was calm.

What a line!  Lucy Snowe, indeed!

(An interesting connection: just a couple of chapters later, Lucy, criticizing Madame Beck’s lack of mercy,  says of her, “Not the agony of Gethsemane, not the death on Calvary, could have wrung from her eyes one tear.”  Like you didn’t cry when Paulina felt as forsaken by her father as Christ did, Lucy?  What a strange, duplicitous narrator Lucy promises to be!)

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§ 6 Responses to The Uncanny Doll-Child

  • jaime says:

    But do you believe that Lucy is calm in that instant? I believe she appears calm. I also believe that she lies to us about her true feelings. Although she’s stingy with details about her own situation, I suspect that Lucy may be a motherless child at this point, too. I suspect that she feels Paulina’s pain of loneliness and separation very well. I think that little Lucy (or maybe just older Lucy looking back) often, in her 19th century Protestant way, equated her own sufferings with Christ, and she projects that image upon this strange child at this moment.

    w/r/t to the Paulina Mary character: I think of her as a refugee from childish fairy tales, intruding upon reality. The perfect little girl with the loving father and dead mother. (Did Charlotte read Hans Christian Andersen, I wonder? Thumbelina?) I wonder if Polly isn’t, in part, Bronte’s version of fantasy childhood (again, wish I knew more about Angria)? Lucy’s childhood seems so bereft of childish things, I wonder if she projects her excess imagination upon Polly a bit.

    • willhansen2 says:

      I agree that there’s some duplicity going on with Lucy’s reaction to Paulina’s despair; but this early in the book, knowing so little about her, I think it’s hard to know why she chooses to introduce herself with these words. Is it that she’s really in turmoil and sympathizing with Paulina, but denying her own feelings to promote an image of herself to the reader (of the level-headed outsider)? Or is it that she’s trying to promote an image of herself as calm and level-headed, but really showing herself to be cold, distant, unfeeling, and even callous? Is she looking for sympathy or respect, here? Is she shielding herself and us from her emotions, or just deluded about how she appears and presents herself to us? (The name, Lucy Snowe, is so brilliantly ambiguous! Is she chilly? Pure? A blank slate?)

      Her refusal to say anything much about her family is fascinating; her visiting her godmother did make me think that she could be an orphan.

  • jaime says:

    I think that throughout the book Lucy believes she has perfect control of how others see her (the reader included), which is not true. So in that sense, yes, she’s a bit deluded. I’ll have more to say about this once you’ve finished the book.

  • jaime says:

    Now that you’re a bit further. . .have you recovered from Paulina Mary’s reappearance on the scene, still over-devoted to her father, still looking like a child, still lisping? The elfin dance by the fireside! The fairy child drinking from a golden cup!

    The fairy tale element crops up again. She’s so doted upon, but still sweet. She makes me think of all the girls in fairy tales (in my mind after Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber”) who selflessly sacrifice themselves for their loving fathers. Like Beauty in “Beauty and the Beast.”

    Of course, Paulina has to repress her sexuality almost as much as Lucy does, though for opposite reasons. I guess Ginevra is the only one who gets to enjoy herself, romantically.

    Oh, and the point I was thinking about in the above post: isn’t it interesting how older Polly refers to her past relationship with Lucy? As if they had been much closer than Lucy lets on to us. (They are only four or five years apart in age, which was a little shocking to me, on the first read.) Lucy’s sober posturing about those early days is slightly undone.

    • willhansen2 says:

      You know, there are strange things going on with Paulina. At times it almost seems that Lucy sees Paulina as a kind of other self, nearly opposite to her yet kindred. When you compare how Lucy presents her own personality and the course of her life as compared to Paulina’s, there’s this strange way in which they have affection for each other, and both feel abandoned and crave acceptance and love as children, and seem to understand and appreciate each other; yet Paulina simply insists that she must dote on Graham, and receive his affection (or at least attention), and her father reclaims her and they become the center of each other’s universe, while Lucy seems to back away from possibilities for relationships like these, even when they present themselves to her: with Graham, with M. Paul. Paulina lives to be dependent; something in Lucy insists on her independence, even when it seems perverse or self-loathing.

  • [...] 2.  Villette, by Charlotte Brontë.  Just a fascinating work on every level, including its treatment of genres and its status as a post-Gothic feminist work.  Lucy Snowe is one of the great Victorian characters and one of the great Victorian narrators.  (See five posts beginning here.) [...]

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