Lucy Snowe’s Tiny Universe
February 10, 2009 § Leave a comment
Just finished: Villette.
Reading next: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, by Daniel Paul Schreber.
Moving on now, but a few more quick thoughts before we leave Lucy Snowe’s world behind:
-I never did really say anything about three of my favorite scenes: the play in chapter 14, in which Lucy is talked by M. Paul into playing a foppish man but refuses to dress entirely as a man, then goes off book and acts out a scene of wooing Ginevra for Dr. John’s benefit (this chapter should just be called “Grad Student’s Paradise,” for gosh sakes); chapter 19, “The Cleopatra,” in which Lucy hates Rubensesque female portraits and M. Paul begins to tease Lucy for being a scandalous sexpot (but does he really actually have her pegged?); and the amazing “Vashti” episode, in which Lucy attends the theatre with Dr. John and the combined passions of Lucy and the actress Vashti seem to start an actual fire which leads to Paulina’s salvation by Dr. John (I like to think Vashti is actually playing Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, but probably not).
These are all high points in the novel, not just as dissertation-fodder but as brilliant examples of the craft of writing and of character development. The introduction in my Modern Library edition by A.S. Byatt and Ignes Sodre is really great on these scenes. It’s actually one of the best introductions I can remember, although, like most introductions, it’s best saved until the end. (I never read introductions first. Seriously, why are these not afterwords? Must be something with marketing.)
-The Vashti episode leads me to another point: Lucy’s is a very concentrated, condensed, even claustrophobic universe. Everyone shows up over and over; somehow everyone she knew in England moves to Labassecour. It is a funny thing to do in a book so much about Lucy’s loneliness and her longing for a companion to surround her with a de facto family she can’t seem to shake. I think partly it was simply demanded of the novel of Brontë’s time to have a cast that worked like this, appearing in each of the three volumes; but the coincidences and reappearances also work against the grain of Lucy’s narration. People do care about her; she is never alone, never isolated, for better and for worse, and the one time she reaches out from a deep isolation and depression she finds someone (Pere Silas) intimately connected to those she already knew.
-What I’m left with from this book, most of all, is Lucy Snowe’s voice, her narration, her insistence on telling things her way. She is tricky, indeed. The ending is, I think, brilliant, and perfectly like Lucy, and perhaps a marvelous unraveling of the mystery of the shipwreck-metaphor I talked about a couple posts back.
In a perfect coincidence of my own, I read Ander Monson’s essay “The Guilty I” in The Believer while in the thick of Villette. It was perfect for thinking about Lucy: the infuriating way you sometimes know you’re not getting the whole story, the difficulty or impossibility of burrowing back into former manifestations of yoursel — of bearing eyewitness to the “I.” What we end up with when we dig deeply into our memories are often fictions, constructs based on life experiences. Just like Lucy; just like Charlotte.