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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