“Jane Eyre never pulled this kind of crap,” the reader petulantly exclaims as they close Charlotte Bronte’s Villette. They have just discovered that Lucy has once again evaded the full truth by omitting a clear explanation of the ending. Does Paul survive? What happens to Lucy? And why won’t she tell us? Lucy, meanwhile, almost seems to hug herself with delight at the fact that she has transgressed the almost sacred, unwritten bond of trust between narrator and reader (as far as nineteenth-century writing goes, in any case). To to reader, this seems an unwarranted hostility. The nineteenth century first person  narrator is meant to treat the audience as a confidante. In Jane Eyre, the reader is well aware of every flutter of Jane’s lovesick heart as she encounters Rochester on the stairs. They share her desolation and exile as she contemplates her perpetual estrangement from Rochester. They, along with Jane, are revolted at the prospect of “endur[ing] all forms of love” as the possible future wife of the sexless and repressed St John Rivers. They then share her triumph and sigh contentedly when she declares in no uncertain terms, “Reader, I married him” . Villette, however, though brilliant in its emotional intensity, does not give us that same sense of closure and satisfaction.

Endings are crucial to the way we read novels: they are the means by which we can ascertain the moral framework that the author has created. The rewarding of the good and the punishment of the wicked is more or less the expectation that a reader, not unreasonably, might expect of the nineteenth century novel. The extent to which deviation from this is considered controversial is nowhere more apparent than the responses to George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, in which the heroine Maggie Tulliver perishes along with her brother in a flood (which more than one critical reading has found to be an odd contrivance of plot, and hardly in keeping with the generic conventions of realism). That Maggie does not deserve to die instills in the reader a sense of moral outrage. They fume at the society that virtually condemns Maggie to death (or something like it at least) because of her complete contravention of societal norms. She is the proverbial large fish in a small pond. But her death reveals something else about the ‘accepted’ ending and the nineteenth century heroine: there is no choice but marriage or death.

The status of marriage in the novel as a reward is troubling to say the least. Law and social custom dictated that women upon marriage were no longer independent (to the extent that you could call a single woman in a patriarchal society independent). Thus, in claiming that marriage is a reward, the conventional nineteenth century novel seems to suggest that ‘good’ women who obey the social constraints that control their movements will be rewarded by even more restriction as wives and later mothers. Property rights and right to children were immediately removed upon marriage, and application for divorce was an expensive series of legal hoops requiring an Act of Parliament. The unenviable position of women in marriage is summarised by Sarah Stickney Ellis, which argued that married women should “suffer and be silent”. The significance of this context becomes all the greater as we consider the constraints of genre.

But what genre does Villette actually belong to? We have touches of the Bildungsroman, the Gothic, and the Problem Novel, not to mention numerous references to the Woman Question, which might even situate Villette as a proto-feminist polemical novel. The most obvious problem with the application of any kind of generic label is of course that Bronte probably never sat down and said, “Today I will write a realist novel” or “I feel a Bildungsroman coming on”. These are all critical terms which we apply after the fact. Very few novels will fulfil all of the  ‘criteria’ for any given genre, and that is because most ideas of genre are collections of conventions common across a number of works. Genre is only useful as a category up to a point, and nowhere is this more telling than in Villette.

Having said this, it is possible to read into Villette a kind of metafictional critique of genre. Despite the fact that Villette stubbornly avoids any straightforward interpretations of genre, it does consciously refer to the deep-rooted problem of the ‘happy’ ending for the heroine in a patriarchal society. The Bildungsroman, as the ‘novel of development’ is most frequently the genre which focuses on the maturation and development of an individual, usually closing with the protagonist’s marriage or professional success. This is obviously more problematic with a Bildungsroman when the central protagonist is a woman. If the Bildungsroman is defined in terms of rites of passage experienced by men, then how can such a generic label apply to women? The reward at the end of a woman’s development into adulthood is marriage, not professional success; Jane Eyre is successful because she no longer has to earn her living through work. Maggie Tulliver cannot marry, and must therefore die. There is no room in society for women who do neither of these things.

If the male Bildungsroman concerns itself with the voyage out, the female Bildungsroman is considered a “voyage in”. Where the male protagonist must leave the home and venture out into the commercial world and gain sexual experience, a woman is castigated for doing so. When men are rewarded for being active, women are encouraged to be passive. Villette takes this dichotomy to its logical conclusion by exploring the division between action and inaction where woman is concerned. What women ‘do’ is better described as what they don’t do.

The earliest picture we get of this action versus inaction is in the opening chapter of Villette, where Lucy narrates the cosy domestic life of the Brettons and the entry of Polly, whose surname, appropriately, is Home. And,  as Boumelha notes, “Polly does indeed put the kettle on”. What we see in Polly is a perfect encapsulation of what it means to be a nineteenth century wife. When, as an eight year old girl, Polly imitates the manner and activities of a grown housewife, it is not so much endearing as disturbing. Quite apart from the fact that there is a hint of sexual attraction between the adolescent Graham Bretton and the little girl, the relationship between the two see-saws between her role as “mother” and his as “master”. He doesn’t seem disturbed at all by her mannerisms, and in fact seems to casually accept them without much thought. Where she fusses about saving a piece of seed-cake for Graham for tea, he casually kicks her out of the way when he tires of her. The relationship is later to be replicated as the adult Paulina and Graham, now known as Dr John, marry. Bronte’s representation of the relationship at the beginning of the novel seems to suggest two things: firstly, the socialisation of young girls into wives is not only instituted early, but encouraged. Secondly, the role of ‘wife’ is, quite literally a role. Polly puts on this performance for Graham, not Mrs Bretton. The literal use of ‘actor’ as a means of exploring the roles of women is later made more explicit in the course of the novel.

Meanwhile, in the interim between marriage and death, Bronte positions the character of Miss Marchmont. Miss Marchmont, we are informed, is an invalid. Lucy, employed as her carer, is confined to the close, hot and almost feverish rooms of her patient. Stifling as it is, Lucy claims that she almost becomes used to it, and can almost imagine that there is no outside world beyond the steamed-up lattice panes on the windows. Miss Marchmont, whose finacee Frank tragically dies, is alone and perpetually single. Her paralysis is a literal manifestation of her situation: she is doomed to the stasis of re-living the night of Frank’s death in memory until her own passing. Like Dickens’ Miss Havisham, she remains shackled to her past and her development is arrested by the loss of the man she was to marry. One cannot help but sense that Bronte is drawing attention to this problem because of its later significance to Lucy’s future. Like Polly, she could subsume her own identity in deference to a husband, or she could die, after prolonged paralysis, like Miss Marchmont. Either way, the ‘action’ allowed to Lucy is both limited and limiting.

Lucy’s own position as active or inactive is one which deserves close attention, primarily because we expect that as the protagonist, Lucy will be an actor of some description. To an extent, she is. She leaves England to become a teacher or governess in a foreign country where she doesn’t speak the language. Yet no sooner are we certain that now the plot will ‘really’ begin, than Lucy becomes something not unlike a film extra in the lives of others. Her narration hints at this when at the beginning, the voice sounds convincingly like third person omniscient narration until the second chapter, where Lucy finally makes her first reference to herself as another character in the story. On arrival in Labasscour, Lucy becomes a nursemaid to Madame Beck’s children. When the children become ill, they and Madame Beck are the centre of attention and Dr John barely notices her presence until it becomes known to him that she, like him, is English. Meanwhile, Lucy’s friendship with Ginevra Fanshawe sees her less as a primary actor in Ginevra’s courtships with Dr John and Count de Hamal, and more as a foil to Ginevra. Ginevra makes this obvious enough when she compares herself to Lucy and concludes that Lucy is a mere “nobody”, given her lack of social connections, wealth, beauty or youth. As a nobody, she is cannot be expected to mean anything to anyone, and therefore her actions can have no particular value.

Lucy’s position as actor, however, is complicated when she is Shanghaied into participating in a Vaudeville to be performed by the students at the Pensionnat on Madame Beck’s fete-day. Lucy, has already described that she must be forced into action. Bronte’s play with the multiple meanings of ‘actor’ becomes apparent when Paul Emmanuel tells her that “play you must” and forces her to rehearse for the role of the fop. Lucy is locked in the attic (shades of Jane Eyre?) and more or less starved as she rehearses her lines. Her confinement not only in terms of her sphere of action and the kind of role she is expected to play harks back to Polly’s performance of the ‘wife’: like the fop, the wife is reduced to a lifeless, soulless caricature. Lucy, unable to stomach such a a part, decides to interpret the role in order to make him at least sympathetic. Paul, though disgusted with her deviation from the script, nevertheless allows her to make her performance. In an even stranger twist, Ginevra is playing the part of the Coquette (a part which she plays to a tee, according to Lucy). On stage, Lucy ‘makes love’  to Ginevra, in place of Dr John who is attempting to win her heart off-stage. Lucy’s own feelings for Dr John tangle matters further: she is simulating a courtship which he should be undertaking with Ginevra, whilst simultaneously yearning to do so with him.

The next encounter Lucy has with Dr John and the theatre is a performance by the famed actress Vashti. Lucy is transfixed by the emotional intensity and the energy generated by the actress, whilst Dr John is cool and unemotional. When asking him why he was so unmoved, Lucy discovers that Dr John has a moral disapproval for women as actresses. The double meaning of “actor” in this case is intensified by the link between the female actress and creativity. This has a metafictional aspect as well, since Bronte was well aware of the paradoxical attitude that men had toward female creativity. She recounted, for example, how in London she was introduced by William Makepeace Thakeray to his mother as “Jane Eyre”. Bronte, irate, said that she knew no such person to exist in life. Her anger that she should simply be equated with one of her characters suggests how easily men in particular assumed that women lacked the creative genius to conceive original characters and plots. Like Thackeray, Dr John does not recognise the creative genius of woman as anything of value. The irony of this is revealed by the double-reading of “actor”, because it implies that Dr John cannot see the domestic roles of wife and mother as mere performance, instead assuming that they are perfectly natural.

This idea of woman’s ‘natural’ action is explored further in Lucy’s visit to the gallery. There she sees Cleopatra, painted as a veritable giantess of thirteen stone, reclining indolently on a sofa. Lucy’s commentary on the painting betrays her scorn. Rather than seeing it as a representation of a powerful woman conscious of her own beauty, Lucy sees the voluptuous woman in the painting as nothing more than a passive object of a male gaze. Paul Emmanuel tries to dissuade her from looking at the picture, believing that the image will corrupt her with its explicit portrayal of Cleopatra’s sexuality. Instead, he directs her attention to a set of four images of womanhood, which Lucy describes as insipid, saccharine daubs. For Lucy, there is no satisfactory representation of women: they are all images created by men in the interests of maintaining their authoritative position in the patriarchal order. And in both cases, the women are not actors in the sense that they are active in countering patriarchal assumptions. Cleopatra is a wet dream and the Life of the Young Woman is dominated by woman’s supposed dependence on men.   

Even the passivity of courtship and marriage for women is made apparent. Lucy can never act as she does in the play in real life. Social convention prevents her from making direct overtures to Dr John, regardless of the sincerity or depth of her feelings for him. She undergoes the private, largely unseen psychological anguish of her unrequited desire alone. Later, to make matters worse, she is forced to  sit on the sidelines as an intermediary and chaperone in order to facilitate the relationship between Paulina and Dr John. Significantly, the most violent act Lucy commits is in her own imagination. Undergoing a nervous breakdown whilst staying alone at the Pensionnat over the summer vacation, Lucy envisions herself killing her desire for sexual fulfilment as driving a tent-peg into her own brain. The only relief she has is in telling her experience in a Catholic confessional to the sympathetic ear of the priest.   

It is in telling or not telling that Lucy is the primary actor in Villette. We have already seen that in terms of external plot, Lucy is on the periphery rather than the centre. It is her psychological experience where she places herself most at the centre of the narrative, and even then, she focuses on abnegation of the desires she cannot act upon. But more importantly, what we understand of the plot is communicated directly through Lucy. We cannot see anything unless it is through the lens of her own experiences and her not inconsiderable prejudices. She chooses to tell us that she knew that Dr John and Graham are the same person, and yet only reveals this to the reader three chapters after the fact. Later, in a drugged haze, she spies on what she calls the “secret junta” in the park during a fete, which she believes is conspiring to separate her from Paul. The extent to which this is true is rendered all the more confused by the fact that Lucy is not even fully conscious at the time. Lucy’s sole power, therefore, despite her circumscribed status as a poor, single, middle-class working woman, is derived from her power as the narrator.

In choosing not to divulge her ending, Lucy is actively resisting the problem of the woman’s plot in nineteenth century fiction. Like the shipwreck that marks her adolescence, the shipwreck Lucy describes at the end might be either literal or figurative; either way, she refuses to confirm to the reader which one it is. The readers themselves must glean everything they know about Lucy and her attitudes to fate and happiness in particular in order to decide whether Paul returns to marry Lucy or not. Lucy’s oscillation between married and unmarried at the end of Villette elides the accepted convention of marriage as the only action available to women and therefore saves Lucy from the inevitable confinement of marriage which would ultimately doom her to a life spent in the performance of concealing her own subjectivity, which is acting in one sense at least, but is hardly action. Successfully running her own school, living alone and awaiting her future with Paul, she exists somewhere on the knife-edge between marriage and death, and sublimates both.