Wednesday 27 April 2016

“Solitude in the midst of numbers” –on loneliness in Brussels

Among the obscure, plain heroines created by Charlotte Brontë, none is as autobiographical as Lucy Snowe of Villette, and none is as utterly lonely. Reserved and secretive, she deliberately keeps her distance both as a narrator and character in her own story, as if she wanted to prevent anyone getting a glimpse of her true feelings. Much like Charlotte during her second stay in Brussels, she is a solitary figure in Mme Beck’s pensionnat, rejecting the company of teachers and pupils, but at the same time longing for true friendship, one that provides a sense of safety and belonging. Both Lucy and Charlotte would be eventually overpowered by the loneliness in Villette / Brussels, but what makes their common story so extraordinary is that they would not let it destroy them completely: they would reclaim their lives and turn their time in the city into something fruitful.

Charlotte’s real-life relationship with loneliness seems ambiguous at best. As a young teacher at the Roe Head school, she would deliberately drift off into a solitary state, closing her eyes on the reality crowded with pupils, and step over to an imaginary world. She wrote most of Jane Eyre in isolation, too, overseeing her father’s recovery from surgery in half-darkness. In those instances, calm and solitude would usher in creativity. But there is also a different, hostile kind of loneliness resulting from a painful conviction of being different and misunderstood. The worst kind of loneliness, possibly, which cannot be remedied in company, but could even be exacerbated if the people present are of the alien kind. For the most part of her life, Charlotte would complain about not being like others, referring to the passionate storms tearing at her soul and thunderous ambition pushing her beyond the prescribed domestic existence. This forcible alienation and lack of understanding  were difficult in themselves, but also carried another threat, possibly the most feared by Charlotte – monotony and inaction, characteristic of the passive life of old maids in her novels. This dichotomy of solitudes is expressed in the first letter to Monsieur Héger from Haworth. In the relative seclusion of the Parsonage, she writes, “one’s brain is always active – one longs to be busy”, which is why she draws up plans for setting up the Brontë school for young ladies and envisages writing a great novel to impress her Master. But later in the same letter, she confesses that she “fear[s] nothing so much as idleness – lack of employment – inertia – lethargy of the faculties – when the body is idle, the spirit suffers cruelly” (Selected Letters 51).

The oppressive, frustrating loneliness seems to have followed Charlotte in all her teaching engagements. She collapsed in spirit and health at Roe Head over Easter break of 1838, later reminiscing about that episode in most disturbing words: “I can never forget the concentrated anguish of certain insufferable moments and the heavy gloom of many long hours, besides the preternatural horrors which seemed to clothe existence, and nature which made life a continual walking nightmare” (Barker 336). She parted with both families where she served as governess when the monotony of that shadow life and lack of common ground with her employers became impossible to bear any further. Finally, and perhaps most acutely, she suffered from misunderstood loneliness in Brussels, her Promised Land.

In the early days at the pensionnat shared with Emily, she claimed to be happy, constantly occupied, and referring to Brussels as a beautiful city. And yet, in the first letter to her best friend Ellen Nussey she complained that “the difference in country and religion makes a broad line of demarcation between us and all the rest, we are completely isolated in the midst of numbers (Selected Letters 36)”. That feeling of alienation in a crowd would remain with her throughout, accompanied by occasional pangs of homesickness, eventually growing unbearable. During her second, independent visit, she continued proudly estranged from the phlegmatic, Catholic pupils and teachers, but the isolation lost most of its haughty self-sufficiency. Charlotte was there without Emily at her side, with Monsieur’s friendship dwindling, and her English acquaintances in the city moving away or travelling, and she found herself more and more alone. She referred to her life at the school as an “easeful, stagnant, silent life”, which would prompt her to retreat into the musings of Angria (Selected Letters 41-2), the first sign of incumbent atrophy of spirit.

In the summer vacation on 1843, already in low spirits, she found herself completely alone not only on school premises, but in the entire populous city of Brussels. To escape the empty, stuffy schoolrooms, she would spend hours walking along the narrow streets, through the broad boulevards and out into the surrounding countryside, accompanied only by her own thoughts. In those thoughts, she would reach back towards Haworth, relating to Ellen Nussey: “It is a curious position to be so utterly solitary in the midst of numbers – sometimes this solitude oppresses me to an excess” (Selected Letters 45). It is in this desolate frame of mind that she yielded to the call of church bells and strayed into Catholic confession. That estival solitude proved unbearable, and the situation did not seem to promise any improvement, she eventually left the school and the city for good at the end of the same year. The disappointment and estrangement from her professor kept her despondent and heartbroken for a while, but back in the familiarity of Haworth, close to her friends and family, she managed to muster enough willpower to turn them into productivity, yielding The Professor and, later, Jane Eyre. However, the pangs of depression and hypochondria would accompany her like faithful followers, and they came back with new vigor right about the time when Charlotte was working on Villette.

The period between publishing Shirley in 1849 and marrying Arthur Bell Nicholls in 1854 was allegedly one of the most miserable in her life, still plagued with bereavement and loneliness after losing her siblings (which made writing the last novel especially painful, with no one to turn to for opinion and support), disappointed in George Smith’s shallow, platonic interests and unsure of the future. This is when she wrote to Ellen Nussey: “The evils that now and then wring a groan from my heart – lie in position – not that I am a single woman and likely to remain a single woman – but because I am a lonely woman and likely to be lonely” (Selected Letters 207). Lyndall Gordon suggests that this prolonged period of low spirits inspired not only the return to the memories of depression and psychosomatic illness in Brussels, but informed the entire conception of Villette as a story of a woman growing out of passivity through the survival of budding desires and maturing heartbreak (253).

Indeed, Lucy Snowe’s decline during her first summer vacation in the deserted school seems to reflect the experiences from the Pensionnat Héger faithfully. While Charlotte was able to turn to her understanding siblings and friends through letters, and finally gather her things and come back to the familiar land, her orphaned heroine is deprived of any support system, and consequently descends into a malignant fever. She spends eight weeks of summer turbulently shifting into fall trapped in the ghostly corridors, dwelling on “miserable longings” in the “vast and void” house, with a servant and a “crétin” student for only company. Without the sustenance of daily occupations, however tedious, she has to feel trapped in the stagnant air of the walled-up school. In this fragile state even the change in the weather weighs heavily on her shoulders, with rains and tempests amplifying the strain and oppression of her situation in a truly gothic manner. She describes tearful outbursts, depressive inertia, bouts of desperate praying and even thoughts of death haunting these lonely hours.

Perhaps an even more crippling effect is brought on by the perpetuity of Lucy’s condition: to a young woman of no fortune, no friends or no particular accomplishments at that time in history, visions of the future cannot offer any solace or promise of a delayed reward, and she forms a conviction that hers is to be a life of perpetual suffering. Always severe with herself, Lucy seems to willingly discard any comforting thoughts for fear of entertaining foolish daydreams. She prefers crushing her spirit rather than indulging in escapism even for a moment: she “dared not give such guests lodging, so mortally did [she] fear the sin and weakness of presumption” (Villette 183).  She seems to lose not only hope and health, but as a consequence, also some of the self-inflicted detachment, revealing to the readers the depths of the lonely pain she has been carrying around with growing difficulty.

Once the student left in her care is removed from the pensionnat, Lucy proceeds to mortify not only her soul, but also the flesh: she ventures further and further into the city, driven by a feverish restlessness and search for occupation and companionship, even that of chance passersby. She forgoes nourishment in her endless walks, in a morbid parallel to the spiritual starvation that consumes her. She walks aimlessly, for hours on end, nurturing visions of that happiness experienced by other inmates of the pensionnat with their friends and families, sheltered from loneliness and free to enjoy life’s wonders, while she is left wishing to cure the inconsolable hollowness of existence through death. Eventually she makes herself physically ill, inducing a psychosomatic delirium. She becomes a prisoner of her own bed “in a strange fever of the nerves and blood” (186), going back and forth between fretful insomnia and draining nightmares. At the end she also strays into a Catholic confessional, without any guilty secret to divulge, or conscience to appease, but with a thirst for human contact which she thus quenches: “the mere pouring out of some portion of (…) pain (…) had done me good. I was already solaced” (Villette 189). Having relieved her soul, she walks out into a stormy night and yields to bodily weakness, fainting into a black abyss.

With this crisis of faith and health Lucy concludes her narration in Volume 1 of the novel, as if drawing a curtain over the solitary part of her life, spent friendless and miserable, still oblivious of her true capacity and strength.  From that moment on, she recovers gradually in the warm attention of old friends from Bretton, and moves closer to self-assertion, through the rise and fall of love for Dr. John and the evolving friendship with Monsieur Paul Emmanuel.

In all fairness, being prone to melancholy and isolation, Charlotte and Lucy probably brought their respective crises onto themselves, indulging these propensities long enough to cross the thin line between the comfort of introverted solitude and the strain of depressive loneliness. But the quiet and still rooms of the Pensionnat Héger or the school at Roe Head were not the only forlorn places at that time: they were just a bleak mirror for Charlotte’s and Lucy’s spiritual landscapes, arrested in hopelessness and stagnation with no signs for change in the foreseeable future. The passages of desolation and despair undoubtedly confirm how close Charlotte’s characters were to herself in character and experience, and how vividly she was able to convey real-life emotions and events. But even more importantly, they contribute to the overall conclusion that Lucy, like the other heroine and like Charlotte herself, did not conform to the pattern of feminine passivity and resignation. Instead, they all resisted and persevered. They faltered under the burden of adversity, undermined by physical weakness, slowed down by despondency, limited by social conventions and heavily tried by ruthless Providence, but always endured in the end and resumed their journeys towards growth and action. Heartbroken and bereaved, Charlotte rose from depression into creative activity many times in her life, and infused Lucy with the same strength to recover from her real or imagined illness with the support of the Bretton friendship and move on to greater things: loving a great man and running her own school. They both lived on and grew, survivors and women in progress.

Aleksandra Podstawka

Works Cited:
Barker, Juliet. The Brontës. London: Abacus, 2010. Print. 
Brontë, Charlotte. Villette. London: Penguin Books (Penguin English Library), 2012. Print. 
Brontë, Charlotte, and Margaret Smith.Selected Letters of Charlotte Brontë. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.
Gordon, Lyndall. Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life. London: Vintage Random House, 1995. Print.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written and inspiring!