Tuesday 1 May 2007

Readings from Villette

Our Brontë day on 21 April ended with a selection of dialogues between Lucy and M. Paul read by Selina Busch and Brian Speak. The commentary below is by Maureen Peeck, who selected and introduced the passages.

After our meal on Saturday night it was time for some more Villette; during our walks Derek Blyth, our excellent guide, had arranged for Val to read appropriate passages highlighting once again how closely the setting of the novel reflected aspects of Charlotte Brontë’s stay in Brussels. This was an excellent idea and indeed turned out to enhance the theme chosen for the evening readings.

This theme was the growth of the relationship between Lucy Snowe and Paul Emanuel. Selina Busch and Brian Speak were the readers and they rose to the occasion. I introduced the passages and linked them together. In such a long novel it is difficult to keep track of everything, so it’s interesting to follow one strand and see how it fits into the whole pattern.

We started at the beginning and our last passage was very nearly at the end.

In the first passage M Paul is asked by Mme Beck to read Lucy’s face in lieu of a job reference, as he is known for his knowledge of physiognomy. He recommends that Lucy be employed even though he does not divulge any of the “many things” he says he has seen.

The next passage was when M Paul requires Lucy to take part at short notice in the school play. He knows she will be able to cope because he has “read her skull” (so he was also a phrenologist).

Margaret McCarthy told us that Charlotte had been to a physiognomist/phrenologist with George Smith in London and that the report she received is kept in Haworth. It turned out to be an uncannily accurate analysis of what we know of her personality.

Then there was a bit of light relief with the ‘Cleopatra passages’. These refer to the painting of the scantily clad Cleopatra which M Paul forbids Lucy to look at, though as Lucy coyly points out, he spends quite a lot of time studying it himself. Lucy has to content herself with the four boring paintings of “La Vie d'une Femme”.

On our walk Derek had shown us a copy of a picture which Charlotte probably saw at an exhibition in Brussels which was obviously the model for her Cleopatra.

Our next reading was much later in the novel when M Paul explains how he studies human nature by spying on the girls playing in the garden from his room in the boys’ school, sometimes using a glass! Lucy is shocked. She sees it as an aspect of his jesuitical tendencies. And it even turns out that both he and Mme, independently of one another, have been keeping an eye on Lucy when she thought she was alone in the garden.

It is clear that from the start M Paul has been extremely interested in Lucy, and he now tells her how close the affinity is between them, despite their differing religious beliefs. Lucy hears that he believed they were born under the same star and that their destinies were linked. He had also seen the ghostly nun and was convinced it had something to do with them both. The passage ends with the two of them seeing the apparition.

Our final passage (three pages from the end) was when Paul had asked Lucy to be his wife and they return from the Faubourg Clotilde to the Pensionnat. I quote: “At this hour, in this house, eighteen months since, had this man at my side, bent before me, looked into my face and eyes, and arbitered my destiny.”

Maureen Peeck

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