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Fables of Rebellion: Anti-Catholicism and the Structure of Villette

Author(s): Rosemary Clark-Beattie

Source: ELH, Vol. 53, No. 4 (Winter, 1986), pp. 821-847
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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Villette was written, as Robert Colby points out, at a time wh

religious antagonisms in England were intense.' The growing
number of defections from Puseyism to Rome and the reestablishment in 1850 of the Catholic hierarchy under Cardinal Wiseman
produced an anti-Papist backlash prominent in the minor literature of the day. Bront6's novel differs markedly from the standard
run of mid-century anti-Catholic fiction.2 For one thing, the conversion plot that forms the main narrative in many contemporary
works is compressed into a few chapters. More importantly,
Bront6's Catholic Church is a foreign institution, threatening only
the happiness of the heroine. In most novels the priest is an
enemy within the gates, a vampire-like figure who gains admittance to an English community through the weakness of one
member, then preys wantonly on the helpless victims exposed to
his wiles. Nevertheless, Villette has much in common, both in its
attitude towards Catholicism and in the narrative patterns through
which that attitude makes itself felt, with the novels of Kingsley,
Elizabeth Sewell, or Catherine Sinclair. Bronte's depiction of the
culture of La Bassecoure, her portrayal of Lucy Snowe's difference

from that culture, and her implicit understanding of the moral

issues raised by the conflict between the two, are all informed by
contemporary attitudes toward the power of the priesthood.

The importance of this historical context is the light it casts on

Lucy's voyage to Villette. The Catholic society of La Bassecoure
has been interpreted in a variety of ways-as symbolic of Lucy's
feelings of homelessness, as representing the world of imagination
she struggles to control, or even as having affinities with the unconscious.3 Few have emphasized the most prevalent image of Catholicism in the fiction of the period and, I will argue, in Villette,
its association with institutional tyranny.4 Indeed, in some of the
more hysterical portraits, the priest is recognizably the precursor
of Orwell's Big Brother. From the perspective of Victorian Protestantism, Lucy's flight to a foreign country is a flight to a culture

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distinguishable from her own chiefly in the way it understands the

individual's relation to social authority.
Moreover, Lucy's "non-sectarian Protestantism"5 is a creed that
gives special prominence to the tyranny of Rome. The explicit theology of Villette, if it may be said to have a theology, is that of the

Broad Church.6 For Lucy, as for F. D. Maurice, Christianity consists almost entirely in the-belief in an omnipotent and loving God
who will redeem all sinners:
a mercy beyond human compassions, a Love stronger than this
strong death ... a Pity which redeems worlds-nay, absolves

For her, differences of belief on matters that do not involve this

basic faith are simple differences of opinion:
Now, it happened that I had often secretly wondered at the
minute and unimportant character of the differences between
these three sects-at the unity and identity of their vital doctrines: I saw nothing to hinder them from being one day fused
into one grand Holy Alliance, and I respected them all, though
I thought that in each there were faults of form; incumbrances,
and trivialities.

For someone who accepts only a few doctrines as necessary articles of Christian belief, the evil of Rome lies not so much in the
falsity of its teaching-although Lucy finds more serious "faults of
form" in Catholicism than in any of the Protestant sects-as in the
unjustifiable tyranny of its claim to doctrinal authority.8 The
Church of Rome elevates what Lucy dismisses as "form" to the
status of dogma. In so doing, it imposes on its adherents beliefs
which, not being "vital doctrines," ought to be left a matter of
individual conscience. For Lucy, this insistence on uniformity of
belief is incomprehensible fanaticism: "Strange! I had no such feverish wish to turn him from the faith of his fathers" (607). More
important, it represents a blasphemous confusion between human
systems and divine law: "A thousand ways were opened with pain
. . .and all for what? That a Priesthood might march straight on"
In short, while distrust of ecclesiastical authority is common to
most nineteenth-century Protestant sects, Lucy's Broad Church
bias gives peculiar prominence to institutional tyranny. For her,

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the conflict with Rome is that described by George Henry Lewes

in an editorial Brontd applauded.9
The master-principle of Protestantism . . . is the liberty of private judgement. It is the protest of the free Soul against the
authority of man.... The great battle that is to be fought is
between Authority and Liberty, and men must declare themselves either for the Pope or for Free thought. ?

As we shall see, this tidy distinction between liberty and authority,

the Pope and the Protestant churches, is not one the novel can
sustain. Nevertheless, the identification of Catholicism with an institutional tyranny foreign to English society is crucial to our
reading of Lucy's experiences in La Bassecoure. Villette is
"perhaps the most moving and terrifying account of deprivation,"
of the experience of powerlessness, ever written." Lucy's exploration of powerlessness, however, takes place in the context of a
clash between two different forms of social power. In order to understand her deprivation, her difficulty in discovering a satisfactory relation to others in a world inimical to her needs, one must
first understand her insertion into the tension between two different relations between the individual and the other-Protestantism and Catholicism, England and La Bassecoure.
My focus in this essay will be on the novel's treatment of its
principal ecclesiastical symbol, the confessional. As has often been
noted, Villette manipulates the analogy between the sacrament of
confession and the secular act of self-revelation.'2 Lucy's relation
to Pere Silas at the time of her confession is emblematic of the
structure of her relation to the power of society as a whole. Briefly
speaking, she is cut off from all possibility of communion with
others by the fact that her inner life is, she believes, a forbidden
life. On the one hand, she is driven towards the confessional by
the constant strain of represssion and loneliness; while on the
other, she knows that should she reach out to others and reveal the
inner fires of her nature, she faces punishment and ostracization. 13
The strategy she adopts to meet the threat of punishment is a combination of resistance and flight. When possible, she resists the
impulse to confess and hides behind a mask of propriety. When
necessary, she speaks to preserve her sanity, then subverts the
dialogue speech threatens to create. She flees from the sanctified
ear in which she deposits her confession, just as she will later sup-




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press her letters to Dr. John. Indeed, the text of Villette is itself
arguably such a subverted confession, a letter addressed to all
readers and no reader, which speaks but does not have to hear a
reply. In any case, the drama of Lucy's relation to others is that of
an ongoing resistance both to the temptation of the confessional
and to the power embodied in the confessor.
What is not often noted is that Lucy's refusal to confess is an
explicitly Protestant act. In resisting the power of society, she is
simultaneously showing herself a worthy member of the English
community from which she has fled. Consider, for example, the
following passage:
These struggles with the natural character, the strong native

bent of the heart, may seem futile and fruitless, but in the end
they do good. They . .. make a difference in the general tenor
of a life, and enable it to be better regulated, more equable,
quieter on the surface; and it is on the surface only the common
gaze will fall. As to what lies below, leave that with God. Man,
your equal, weak as you, and not fit to be your judge, may be
shut out thence: take it to your Maker-show Him the secrets
'of the spirit He gave.

To a modern reader the passage is an expression of Lucy's refusal

to open herself to the community, a refusal supported, paradoxi-

cally, by her occasional acts of abortive self-revelation. "On the

surface" she adopts the "regulated," "equable" facade of the virtuous woman. That submission to others, in its turn, protects from
the "common gaze" "what lies below." As Judith Plotz puts it,
Lucy nurtures "potatoes in a cellar."''4 She assumes a mask of quiet
self-sufficiency in order to preserve inviolate an anarchic imagination society would condemn.
To a Victorian reader the passage would have a different resonance. The phrase "man, your equal, weak as you, and not fit to be

your judge," is an implicit rejection of the claims of the priesthood

to express God's judgement. To the Catholic, the priest, when he

hears confession and offers absolution, speaks on behalf of God.

Providing the confession is sincere, what he binds or looses will be
bound or loosed in Heaven. To the Protestant, the priest is just a
human being, "man, your equal," unfit as any human being must
be to judge issues of conscience for others. Thus Lucy urges

us-"take it to your Maker." Her phrasing expresses the Protestant alternative to the practice of confession: the doctrine of the
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priesthood of all believers, or the right of the believer to seek

God's forgiveness directly without intercession by priest or saint.
Lucy's reading of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers
is not one most Protestants would accept. The passage implies that
God licenses desires and needs mankind would condemn. Only if
Protestantism is fully identified with the "liberty of private judge-

ment" can one accept "shutting man out" as a license to indulge

forbidden thoughts. Nor, indeed, is this always Lucy's view of
prayer. Often, as we shall see, she adopts the more common position that Protestantism is morally superior to Catholicism because
it requires not only a "formal" or "trivial" virtue, but a genuine
cleansing of "what lies below." Yet even in this, one of her more
anarchic moments, Lucy visibly draws strength from the knowledge that her refusal to confess is sanctioned. Thus our understanding of the already complex tensions of Lucy's relation to society, to the possibility of communion with other people, must be
complicated by the recognition that her refusal to participate in
society stands her in two different relations to the two different
communities of the text. It is only from the perspective of Catholicism that her refusal constitutes a resistance to the will of the community. From the perspective of Protestantism "taking it to your
Maker" is an act of positive virtue.
Villette is structured by what might be called a colonialist impulse. Like many of her contemporaries, Lucy escapes her insignificance within English society by fleeing to a setting where her
adherence to the mores of the very culture she has fled sets her
apart, in her own mind, as superior. Her identity is formed by the
contradiction implicit in the phrase "Protestant in a Catholic
country," by a perverse attraction to a culture whose principal appeal is its perceived moral inferiority, on the one hand, and an
equally paradoxical rejection of a culture whose morals she fervently upholds, on the other. She escapes from a culture that explicitly espouses the cause of private judgement to a culture that,
from her perspective, opposes it, only to reassert her right and
ability as an Englishwoman to rise above the strictures of Catholic

Lucy is not, however, a Jos Sedley (the imperialist of Vanity

Fair), content only so long as she is isolated from her "equals" and
can exact homage from a people she views as innately inferior.

Rather, her contradictory role has value both as a narrative structure and as a psychological strategy, in that it makes visible the



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selfhood that English society at once forces on her and obliterates

from view. In order to understand this, we must explore Lucy's

status in the Protestant community with which she identifies.
As Terry Eagleton points out, Lucy's relation to her own culture
is itself fraught with contradiction. 15 Treated with a bland affection
that is in some ways more horrifying than actual cruelty, and reduced to the status of a serviceable body about the house, the
Lucy of the opening segments of the novel harbors a burning resentment of her fate. At the same time, she accepts fully the conventions that have made that fate possible. She believes with her
culture that a single woman of limited means should control her
feelings of loneliness, make no demands, either economic or emotional, on her community, and fend for herself without, as the
Comte de Bassompierre puts it, "burden[ing] . . . kith nor kin"
(409). What she resents, then, is not the system which oppresses
her, but the fact that she has been assigned a role within that
system so inappropriate either to her needs or to her deserts.
Because she accepts the judgements of the culture that oppresses her, Lucy is powerless to reveal the resentment she feels.
Her indignation at her status in English society grows out of her
conviction that her worthiness has been ignored. Her conviction
that she is worthy grows in part out of her knowledge that she has
behaved as a well brought up English lady ought to. She cannot
throw off the constraints imposed upon her by her acceptance of
society's right to expect a calm, "equable" facade and reveal the
anger and hunger that "lies below" without infringing against her
own sense of propriety and sacrificing the worthiness that is the
basis of her claim to have suffered unfairly.
While she is in England her contradictory feelings manifest
themselves in a role that carries the double burden of expressing
both rebellion or resentment and meritorious conformity, the role
of the tight-lipped, withdrawn narrator we encounter at the beginning of the novel. As Judith Plotz points out, this role is a mode of
rebellion.'6 Lucy expresses her sense of oppression through a
more intense withdrawal from a world already indifferent to her
needs. As a passive witness to Paulina's struggles, she imaginatively enacts the love of which she has been deprived, reveals her
own isolation from that love, and signifies her refusal to participate
actively in a world that offers her so little. The role is simultaneously an insistent identification with the norms of the society
she rebels against, a society that exhorts her to "take it to her
Maker." She fades into the woodwork at Bretton precisely because

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she is exactly what Lucy Snowe ought to be and from the vantage
point of unimpeachable virtue looks down with ill-disguised contempt on a community blind to her merits. The role English society creates for Lucy is that of rebellious martyr to the cause of
virtue-rebellious because despite the mysteriously imposed
burden of loneliness she refuses to give in to her culture and participate actively in the role of companion; martyr to the cause of
virtue because despite the temptation to degrade herself and confess her needs she remains self-contained.

The same culture, however, which creates this role for her, simultaneously obliterates it from view. The role of stoic martyr can
be enacted only for an audience that sees in the very circumstances against which the heroine struggles the pain and suffering
she nobly represses in her actions. One cannot perceive the rebellion implicit in Lucy's withdrawal, unless one first recognizes her
loneliness as a torment that threatens to reduce her to the unsatisfying dependency of her relation to Miss Marchmont. One cannot
perceive the strength of will implicit in her continued self-restraint
unless one first understands the temptation she feels to scream out
her anger'and need and degrade herself in the eyes both of herself
and of her culture. Lucy's society understands neither of these
forces. It accepts the loneliness, deprivation and self-sufficiency of
the single woman as a normal, possibly regrettable, but certainly
far from tragic state of affairs. For the Brettons, neither Lucy's
circumstances nor her response to those circumstances is exceptional.

Thus, paradoxically, because Lucy sustains the role of rebellious

martyr and hides her suffering, she precludes any understanding
of the heroism that gives that role meaning. Yet should she attempt to expose to view the torment of her isolation, she runs the
risk that her extraordinary pain will be attributed not to her circumstances but to some peculiar weakness of her own disposition.
If one accepts, as the Brettons clearly do, that the life of the impecunious spinster is one to which any normal person could adjust
with moderate cheerfulness, then it follows that the woman who
must struggle in such a situation simply to remain sane is a woman
peculiarly frantic for love. In the context of English society, Lucy
may appear as one who shows normal self-restraint in normal circumstances, or as one who suffers excessively from normal knocks
and blows, but never as one who shows abnormal strength of character in the face of extraordinary deprivation.
Lucy's colonialist fiction is a response to the difficulty of renRosemary Clark-Beattie 827

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dering in narrative form a tragedy that consists in the invisibility of

the heroine's anguish. What the foreign setting supplies, is, in the
first instance, what all foreign settings provide-a backdrop
against which the ordinary habits of the Englishwoman appear in
sudden relief. Set against the sloth and self-indulgence of the La
Bassecouriennes, Lucy's quiet, ladylike demeanor stands out.
More important, in the Catholic Church and its cultural manifestation, Mme. Beck's school, Lucy discovers an institutional power
opposed to her self-sufficiency, her "strange, self reliant, invulnerable creed" (605). Consequently, her loneliness is no longer the
normal course of events that so debilitated her in England. From
the time when Mme. Beck quietly shoos Lucy's students from her
side to the time when the secret junta intervenes to separate her
from M. Paul, Lucy's loneliness in Villette is the result of her for-

eignness.17 She is no longer just a spinster, but a woman unjustly

deprived of communal life, both by her, in her own mind, understandable refusal to mix with such people and by the equal and
more devastating desire of the school to isolate her. Moreover,
her loneliness is no longer a meaningless gesture on the part of

society, but an active attempt to break her will. The Catholic

Church tries to exploit the confession it has wrung from her suffering in order to force her to submit to its demands: "You were

made for our faith: depend upon it our faith alone could heal and
help you" (227). Lucy's very inactivity and distance from the com-

munity appear, then, as a gesture of denial.

Lucy's situation at the beginning of the novel is that described
by Matthew Arnold as one
in which the suffering finds no vent in action; in which a continuous state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope or resistance; in which there is everything to be
endured, nothing to be done. 18

In the absence of a visible oppressor there is no one against whom

to rebel, no one in conflict with whom her sufferings may vent

themselves in action. Catholicism supplies her with an antagonist.
The fiction of the Protestant preserving her virtue in the face of
Papist corruption satisfies Lucy's need for a theatre of action where
her deprivation may appear exceptional, and where her determination not to end that deprivation may appear simultaneously as an

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act of rebellion against the power of institutional tyranny and as an

act of heroic conformity with the ideals of English culture. The
novel has returned her to a world of Protestant fantasy where the
refusal to confess is a sign of holiness.

There is a second pattern in the novel. Indeed, were Villette

nothing more than a xenophobic fantasy about the sterling worth of
the plain English schoolmarm, criticism would not be so anxious to
look past the occasionally poisonous bigotry of the heroine. What
gives the novel its power is the extent to which it subverts its own
fictions of martyrdom and returns Lucy to the paralyzing indeterminacy of her relation to English culture. In the rhetoric of the
novel, subversion is apparent in the way Lucy's sufferings are expressed without reference to the events of the plot. Villette does
construct, as I hope to show, fictions of virtuous rebellion from
Lucy's role as Protestant heroine. It supplies Lucy with an "action," to use Arnold's term, through which both the nature of her
oppressor and her own response to that oppression may become
dramatically comprehensible. That action, however, is curiously
peripheral to the text. The language of what really happened never
achieves the ontological priority over figurative language that we
expect from realism. It is as though the text only half imagines the
dramatic circumstances that could make Lucy visible. Its fictions
are subverted by a language whose dependence on figures of
speech, on other possible enactments, returns her to the subterranean, unrealized horror of her life in England.
More important than rhetorical subversion are the shifts and
breaks in the symbolic framework of the novel. Lucy's projection
of the oppressor's role onto the Catholic Church collapses in the
face of the contradictions it was created to heal. Lewes's statement
that Protestantism is "the protest of the free Soul against the authority of man" hides the fact that Protestantism is simultaneously
a submission to the authority of God, and that the will of that authority is made known through an institutional system of beliefs.
This contradiction, common to all social systems based on individualism, is especially threatening in Lucy's case, because the selfhood imposed on her by her individualist culture resembles so
closely the selfhood that would be imposed on her by the supposedly authoritarian society she is resisting. Protestantism and Catholicism resemble each other not only in that each is a form of
social power, but also in that each places similar restrictions on




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female behavior. Thus Lucy's fiction of protest is subverted by the

nightmarish doubling characteristic of so many incidents in the
novel-Lucy's dress with the habit of the nun and with the dress

of Mme. Beck, the burial of her letters and her love with the
burial of the nun in the garden, the ugliness of her life with the
ugliness of "La Vie d'une Femme."
Beyond these nightmarish resemblances, there is the more terrifying difference between Protestant and Catholic culture. Lucy's
struggle for liberty makes sense only in the context of a society that
actively tries to thwart that liberty in the immoral cause of human
tyranny. The Protestants in the novel show no sign of trying to
tamper with Lucy's independence. Indeed, their constant care is
to restore her to quiet, calm self-sufficiency. One of the most
poignant scenes in the novel is the scene in the public gardens
where Lucy hovers behind the Brettons, hugging to herself the
irony that
little knew they the rack of pain which had driven Lucy almost
into fever, and brought her out, guideless and reckless, urged
and drugged to the brink of frenzy.

The fact is the Brettons have no desire to know. Unlike Pere Silas
they do not wish to plumb the depths of Lucy's soul. Lucy's drama
of non-confession does not place her in any relation to the Protestant society that has buried her. She is tilting at windmills. Her
impulse to rebel remains a pathetic fantasy of what she would do if
Dr. John tried to interfere with her privacy, which he will not.
I implied, by a sort of supplicatory gesture, that it was my

prayer to be let alone; after that, had he persisted, he would

perhaps have seen the spectacle of Lucy incensed.... He

looked, but he desisted. nor did he again turn or disturb

me by a glance.


Furthermore, the misery she suffers at the hands of Protestant

society is not attributable to human tyranny. The authority of a

community that visibly espouses the cause of liberty is the authority of God. God is the original cause of her isolation at the time
of her metaphorical shipwreck. God intervenes in a literal enact-

ment of the metaphor to rob her of M. Paul. God dispenses happiness to Paulina and misery to Lucy. Lucy's response to divine fiat

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is that of Job: "The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away;
blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21).
Thus, paradoxically, while the Villette sequences make visible
the sources of Lucy's oppression and the heroism of her resistance,
they fail to express the real horror of her circumstances- the invisibility of her oppressors and the impossibility of resistance. That
horror is expressed in the way the plot collapses on itself. Lucy's
anti-Catholic fictions have power only so long as they recreate the
hopelessness of her relation to English society and the inevitability
of her martyrdom. As long as Catholic society is responsible for
her misery she can rebel with impunity, confident that her sufferings are morally explicable. Each time her Catholic opponents
are defeated, on the other hand, when the convent-bred Ginevra
loses the love of Dr. John or when the secret junta is overcome,
Lucy returns to her original situation-a misery that can no longer
be attributed to the evil of Catholicism and against which, therefore, she is powerless to rebel.
Lucy's insertion into the Protestant-Catholic debate is complex.
In her relation to the Church of Rome, she takes her stand on the
synonymity of Protestantism and liberty. She opposes to the tyranny of a priesthood the right of the individual to self-determination. Her rebellion, however, is simultaneously an active conformity to the institutional strictures of Protestant society. The individualism she opposes to the Catholic practice of confession
sanctions the isolation of single women in English society; the selfrespect she opposes to Catholic degradation sanctions the self-effacement forced on her by English standards of ladylike behavior.
Anti-Catholic propaganda supplies Bronte with a narrative structure through which to represent her heroine's posture of resistance. The dissonance between the terms Protestantism and protest allows her to call into question the tidy pattern she herself has

created, unmasking the tyrannical God of Job hidden by the ideal

of self-sufficiency. In what remains of this essay, I would like to
explore Lucy's two anti-Catholic fictions, what I will call the rivalry plot and what I will call the conspiracy plot, and the way in
which those fictions are subverted.
The first fiction generated by Bront's view of the difference
between Protestantism and Catholicism is the simple moral fable
of Lucy's rivalry with Ginevra for the love of Dr. John. This is the
fiction by which the plain women of England were traditionally
comforted, the fiction which controls Camilla, Agnes Grey, Jane



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Eyre, and later Middlemarch. (Middlemarch is a variant form.

Dorothea is beautiful. The problem is simply that her adult beauty
is unappealing to men like Lydgate.) Lucy is the genuine lady,
whose refined manners and quiet self-sufficiency are a true sign,
however plain her features, of an inner purity even poverty cannot
destroy. Ginevra is the corrupt beauty, whose impropriety is a true
sign, whatever her loveliness, of degradation and vice. In the
crude sartorial symbolism of the novel, Lucy at her period of utmost destitution has underclothes that will bear the inspection of
Mme. Beck (94), while Ginevra at her most sylph-like has underclothes that are soiled and torn (118). The hero is faced with a
choice between the two. In the more conventional version of the
fable adopted by Fanny Burney, he is first deluded by the Duessa
figure of the corrupt beauty, then awakens to discover the sterling
worth of the pockmarked cripple. In the version adopted by
George Eliot, he marries the corrupt beauty and is punished for
his blindness. In each case, the hero's rejection of the heroine is a
mark of his vice, her failure to win his love, a sign of her virtue.
In Villette, the plot is associated by the prominence of Mine.
Beck's school throughout this phase of the narrative with the rivalry between Protestantism and Catholicism. Ginevra is not a
Catholic. Indeed, her insertion into the cultural tensions of the
novel is almost as complex as Lucy's. She fulfills the Catholic role
of beneficial tyrant-as M. Paul will later do, she goads Lucy into
rebellion. She also fulfills the Protestant role of truthfulness; thus
it is no coincidence that Ginevra, the only English girl in the
school, is also the only one of whom Lucy says: "There must be
good in you, Ginevra, to speak so honestly" (203). Furthermore,
she shares with Vashti the role of projecting Lucy's dreams of a
different sort of protest than the one she herself enacts, a protest
not on behalf of virtue but on behalf of anarchy. Thus the contrast
between Ginevra's English curls and the smooth heads of the La
Bassecouriennes (306) is a contrast not between Protestant independence and Catholic submission, but between English vitality
and La Bassecourienne sterility. Whatever the complexity of her
character, however, Ginevra's triumph over Lucy is visibly the
product of the corrupt atmosphere of the convent. We read Dr.
John's blindness to Lucy and his infatuation with Ginevra as the
natural moral result of a system that trains women to be charming
hypocrites. The text has reimagined the contrast between Paulina
and Lucy, so that the rivalry between the beauty and the plain

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heroine is simultaneously a contrast between the corruption of

Catholic education and the virtue of Protestant self-reliance.
What controls the contrast at this stage of the novel is not the
radical interpretation of Protestant freedom apparent in the con-

fession passage discussed above, but the view more commonly

held by Victorian Protestants that ecclesiastical authority stifles
the activity of conscience. Villette explains the hypocritical facade
of innocence Ginevra shares with the La Bassecouriennes as the
product of surveillance, a term used both for the practice of confession and for the methods of Mine. Beck. Suitably enough,
Mme. Beck summarizes the pecularities of the English by saying:
"Les Anglais ont des idees a eux.... Mais au moins il n'est pas
besoin de les surveiller" (420).
On the surface, Mine. Beck's disciplinary methods are the
product of a simple indifference to the moral development of her
charges. For her, virtue consists not in inner rectitude but in outward propriety. Providing her students act as they should, their
actual propensities are of no concern; discipline is a simple matter
of exerting external control.
Never once, I believe, did she tell her faithfully of her faults,
explain the evil of such habits, and show the results which must
thence ensue. Surveillance must work the whole cure.

Underlying that surface indifference, however, is a more sinister

system of moral exploitation. From the perspective of the Protestant, surveillance, and the ecclesiastical practice on which it is

based, confession, are ways not only of failing to cure error, but of
actively nurturing vice. The substitution of outward discipline for
the inner voice of conscience, characteristic of the discipline of the
convent school and, on a larger scale, of the discipline exercised by
the priesthood, actually stifles the development of self-restraint.
The penitent, lulled by the false security of an absolution in which
his conscience has no part, and taught to view repentence as the
empty performance of outward acts of contrition, is cut off from
the possibility of genuine reform.
In Margaret Percival, for example, the heroine, a budding Puseyite, permits her younger sister to keep a diary of her faults
which is shown nightly to Margaret. The purpose of the ritual is to
help the young girl reform. In practice, however, as Margaret discovers, the diary hampers moral development. The child, relieved



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of her feelings of guilt by the nightly act of confession, takes Margaret's forgiveness as a license to continue in her slothful ways.
Similarly, the student's at Mme. Beck's confess monthly "J'ai
menti plusiers fois," utterly "untroubled by the rebuke of conscience" (114). Confession and surveillance take the place of conscience, and ensure a permanent moral turpitude.
The scene in the picture gallery reveals the function from Lucy's
point of view of this system of moral suffocation. The Cleopatra is a
reflection of the placid, fleshy La Bassecouriennes Lucy encounters at the school. "La vie d'une femme" is an expression both
of the hypocritical facade imposed on them by external discipline,
and of the imprisonment towards which, despite the apparent license of their upbringing, they are being led like lambs to the
slaughter. The relation between the two pictures is that of surveillance to corruption. 19
To the Catholic men who view her, the vapid, sensuality of the
Cleopatra is appealing. Moreover, as M. Paul's insistence that only
married women be permitted to view the picture makes clear
(228), that sensuality is assumed to lie hidden in every female
breast. Virgins must not be exposed to the temptation of a vice
that the system of education to which they have been subjected
has carefully failed to correct. The ugliness of "La vie d'une
femme," then, is expressive both of the excess of external constraint necessary to control women whose Cleopatra-like vice has
never been cured, and of the way in which the very externality of
that restraint is exploited to nurture the inner corruption of the
male sensualist's dream.
The Protestant response to this system of exploitation is aptly
represented by Lucy's attitudes to the pictures. Armed with the
rectitude of conscience created by the Protestant church's emphasis on self-discipline, Lucy denies the putative identity between herself and the Cleopatra. She regards with mild contempt
a portrait of female sensuality so tempting to Catholic eyes that
only married women may see it. This demonstration that she has
been cured of vice frees her in turn to reject the surveillance sym-

bolized by "La vie d'une femme" as illegitimate tyranny. She

stands apart, immune alike to the inner corruption of the La Bassecouriennes and to the ecclesiastical authority that both nurtures
and restrains that corruption. To the Catholic M. Paul, her immunity is startling: "Astounding insular audacity! . . . Singulieres
femmes que ces Anglaises!" (287).
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Bront6's xenophobic version of the conflict between the corrupt

beauty and the genuine lady transforms the plain heroine of the
conventional plot into a rebel. The association of social success
with inner sloth is no longer seen, as it is in Jane Eyre, as the
result only of the manipulative worldliness of the corrupt beauty.
Rather, the beauty is herself the victim of exploitation by authority. Thus to the usual patterns of worldliness versus piety, selfishness versus devotion, shallowness versus emotional power, and
empty-headedness versus intelligence, we have added the unusual
contrast between submissiveness and audacious rebellion.
The Catholic setting also makes moral sense of Lucy's isolation.
Her deprivation, the fact that Ginevra and not she becomes the
heroine of the love story, is no longer the unfathomable mystery of
her experience in Bretton. Rather her loneliness appears as a resistance to a society that would reduce her to vapid sensuality. Her
isolation is a chosen isolation, a punishment she accepts rather
than submit to tyranny.
Paradoxically, the very capacity of Lucy's fiction to make sense
of her circumstances will ultimately rob it of its explanatory power.
Dr. John is an Englishman. The authority he represents is not the
priestly authority that informs the scene in the picture gallery, but
the Protestant authority with which Lucy has associated herself.
He, too, regards the Cleopatra with distaste (293). His temporary
acquiescence in Catholic corruption merely disguises the terrifying truth of Lucy's rejection at the hands of the virtuous.
The narrative expresses the collapse of Lucy's fiction through
the symbolic substitution of Paulina for Lucy in the struggle for
Dr. John's love. We begin with a classic unmasking scene at the
time of the concert, where Dr. John declares: "No woman . . .
who could give or receive such a glance, shall ever be sought in
marriage by me" (320). But the unmasking scene is not followed,
as it ought to be, by the hero's recognition of Lucy's superior
claims to his love. Instead, we get the genial friendliness of the
letters, a friendliness that looks past Lucy's claims to womanhood.
This new indifference cannot be explained as a moral insufficiency
in the hero. Thus the unmasking scene is answered by a new
theatre scene, in which Paulina rises from the fire of Vashti's, and
implicitly of Lucy's, anguish.
The reappearance of Paulina effectively dismantles the identity
Lucy has forged through her posture of rebellious individualism.
Despite her childishness, Paulina is, from the perspective of the
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distinction between priestly constraint and the self-imposed restraint of conscience, Lucy's alter-ego. Lucy describes her in the
following terms:
This was not an opaque vase, of material however costly, but a
lamp chastely lucent, guarding from extinction, yet not hiding
from worship, a flame vital and vestal.

Paulina does not need to hide behind the "opaque" surface of La
Bassecourienne hypocrisy. She need not hide her flame from worship. Rather her chastity is seen as "guarding from extinction"
what exposure to the leering eyes of the La Bassecouriens men

would corrupt. In the company of Paulina, Lucy disappears. The

very conformity to English standards of behaviour that made her a
figure of note for M. Paul obliterates her from view. It is almost as
though the scene in the gallery has been reimagined and Lucy is
now flanked by dozens of English ladies, each marked by the same
rectitude of conscience, each gazing with the same calm contempt
at the mountainous Cleopatra. Protestantism is no longer a sign of
Furthermore, loneliness is no longer a sign of virtue. Implicit in
the contempt for women who defer to surveillance that controls
the rivalry plot is the belief that were Lucy ready to submit, were
she willing to throw off her dun mist dress and assume the facade
of maidenly innocence of the La Bassecouriennes, she too might
enjoy the dubious privilege of "La vie d'une femme." Paulina's
triumph dissolves the semantic structure that makes this belief
possible. The solecism of Paulina's beauty undermines the assumption that plainness means virtue, loveliness corruption. The
solecism of Paulina's happiness undermines the assumption that
only those who submit to degradation can expect love and affection:
There are some human beings so born ... that no excessive
suffering penetrates their lot, and no tempestuous blackness
overcasts their journey. And often, these are not pampered,
selfish beings, but natures elect, harmonious, and benign.

Lucy's worthiness is thus no longer sufficient to explain her isolation. Her inability to find love appears not as the proper adjunct of

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her role as antagonist to the corrupt beauty, but as the mysterious

product of a morally inexplicable fate:
But it is not so for all. What then? His will be done, as done it
surely will be, whether we humble ourselves to resignation or

The Cinderella figure of Jane Eyre has split in two. The beautiful

Paulina goes on to marry the prince, and Lucy is left behind in the
kitchen, less able than ever to explain her drudgery.
The second anti-Catholic plot, the conspiracy plot, abandons the
covert assumption of the first that Lucy could submit to "La vie
d'une femme" if she wished, and expresses instead the nightmare
that has called that assumption into question since the first appear-

ance of the nun in the attic. This is the terror that her difference
from Paulina is predetermined, that should she confess, make visible her need for love and assume the robe rose of the woman
willing to be courted, she will be rewarded not with marriage, but
with rejection and imprisonment.
The structure of this second fiction is more complex than that of
the first. Once again we will find Lucy cast in the role of heroic
martyr, struggling to maintain her virtue at the cost of isolation
and suffering. Whereas the rivalry plot creates this role through
the simple expedient of situating Lucy in a society inimical to
virtue, the conspiracy plot also projects onto that society the
hidden tyranny of the English community with which the Lucy of
the rivalry plot identifies herself. In the context of the conspiracy
plot, the confessional becomes a mask for Protestant repression,
and Lucy's determination to "shut man out" a hidden rebellion
against the strictures of English society.
The scene in the picture gallery discovers a more troubling relation between Lucy's Protestant role and the foreign world against
which she sets her face than the opposition between virtue and
corruption already noted. There is a nightmarish resemblance between the Cleopatra and "La vie d'une femme" on the one hand,
and Lucy's own inner world of reason and imagination on the
other. This is not to say that the Cleopatra is a valid image of the
self Lucy restrains. Lucy's own metaphors for imagination suggest
a sexuality that transcends the mere physicality of the lady of the
portrait. The recurring image of fire, like the image of light im-




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plied by Lucy's name, is a sign of spiritual power. The garden

scenes, the pool (256) and the heavenly manna (328) are all
symbols of spiritual as well as emotional fulfillment. In the figure
of Vashti, as Mary Jacobus points out, Bronte creates a "daemonic
symbol of sexual energy."20
Instead the mountainous sensualist is a veiled threat: it is thus
that Lucy's passion will be read by a male world. In moving
beyond the "written language" (327) of her hidden confession to
the reader to the public language of "bodily presence" (327), Lucy
encounters a system of interpretation controlled by male-created
stereotypes. Any form through which she might physically enact
her daemonic energy is of necessity a form indistinguishable to a
male viewer from the forms of female sexuality she so abhors. The
way in which Lucy's clothing changes its meaning in accordance
with the preoccupations of her interlocutors is a sign in the novel
of the impossibility of her expressing a selfhood not comprehended
by the stereotypes of others. To reveal her inner world is to risk
being mistaken for a mindless courtesan.
Moreover, the veiled threat of confusion with the Cleopatra is
implicitly a threat of Protestant as well as Catholic punishment.
Dr. John's indifference to the painting and his willingness to let
Lucy view it do not merely indicate his innocence of the continental depravity of nurturing corruption: they also signify his distaste for all manifestations of female sexuality. Both Paulina and
Lucy recognise this fact in their letter-writing practices. Knowing
that Dr. John will not respect a woman who expresses passion directly, each self-consciously adopts the mask of cold self-restraint
that is for him the only valid sign of virtue.
Lucy's rebellion against Catholicism is simultaneously a submission to Protestant contempt for female sexuality. She throws off
surveillance by entering into an agreement to take over the activity of spying performed in Villette by a woman and a priest.
Conscience is a way of warding off the punishment that threatens
her should she fail to cure her own evil. Reason curbs the vices of
an imagination that Dr. John would view with disgust were it ever
made public.
Against the threat of Protestant punishment Lucy is powerless
to rebel. The conviction that underlies Dr. John's willingness to let
her view the Cleopatra, the Protestant conviction that true ladies
cure themselves of unlicensed passion, is ultimately more debilitating than the assumption of M. Paul and the Catholic spectators

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in the picture gallery that within every lady there lurks a coquette.
With M. Paul, Lucy can reveal her sexuality through symbols that
are, in her own culture, consistent with sexual purity-a lace
collar, a pale pink dress subdued by a black shawl. Thus when her
motives are misread as coquetry, she is still, in her own mind,
guiltless, and can resist the false accusation with all the fires of her

Dr. John never suspects Lucy of harboring sexual desires. His

Protestant faith in the genuine purity of the women he respects
entails a blindness to the sexual content of any gesture not overtly
lascivious. To use Lucy's own term, he is "unimpressible" (372).
Lucy cannot hope, then, to reveal to Dr. John her capacity for
passion through such subtle symbols as feminine attire. Neither,
since he never accuses her of coquetry, can she reveal both her
difference from the Cleopatra and her own Vashti-like fires
through fierce resistance to unjust suspicion. The only gestures
Dr. John will recognize as inconsistent with her sexless persona
are ones, like Ginevra's glance at Du Hamel, in which Lucy betrays herself into a resemblance to degraded stereotypes. In order
to penetrate his cheerful blindness, she must indulge in a display
of sexual need so direct she herself will be appalled.
At the same time, should she manage to overcome Dr. John's
obtuseness, she can expect not the goading she receives from M.
Paul but a "branding judgment" (372) and instant dismissal. The
very faith in feminine purity that blinds Dr. John to her fiery nature makes him that much more willing to judge harshly those
signs of sexuality he does recognize. A single look on Ginevra's
part is sufficient to destroy whatever feeling he might have had for
her. Lucy can expect a similar fate. If by "express" we mean not
only give vent to, but also make visible to others, Lucy cannot, in
the context of Protestant society, express her inner self without

degrading herself in her own eyes and being punished for her degradation with permanent rejection.
The novel makes visible the horror of Lucy's situation and frees
her temporarily from the paralysis it enforces, by projecting onto
the Catholic Church Dr. John's role as punisher. The structure of
the projection, as Donald D. Stone points out, is that of paranoia.2' Consider, for example, the incident in which, in the view of
psychoanalytic critics, Bronte confronts for the first time the psychological origin of her sufferings-Lucy's visit to the castle of
Malevola. According to Robert Keefe, Lucy's fear that she will be

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punished if she confesses her need for love can be traced to guilt
feelings created in Bront6 by the early death of her mother and
sisters.22 The guilt associated with the death of loved ones, he
argues, forces the child to repress both her feelings of rivalry with

the mother) and her anger at the rejection by the mother that
rivalry seems to have called down. The result is a paralyzing fear of
persecution, a fear that rejection will be repeated should the child
ever assert herself again.

In the house of Mine. Walravens, Bronte symbolically confronts

this repressed guilt and anger. Here the covering portrait of the
nun, or sibling rival, gives way to reveal the true enemy, Malevola, the child-devouring mother who punishes self-assertion with
desertion. Bronte stares in the face, as it were, the origin of her
fear of persecution. However, whereas Bront6 purportedly moves
from a belief that her persecutors are real to the symbolic recognition that their origin is psychological, Lucy moves from the fear
that her persecutors are illusory to the discovery that they are palpable fact. The nun of the attic, a symbol both of the supernatural
sibling rival who intervenes to destroy Lucy's happiness and of the
prison that awaits her should she, like the buried nun in the
garden, break her vow of passivity, is terrifying to Lucy precisely
to the degree to which it is unreal, the product of her own nightmare:

"You think then," I said, with secret horror, "she came out of
my brain, and is now gone in there, and may glide out again at
an hour and a day when I look not for her?"

Her "secret horror" is overcome when she discovers in the material world a figure who conforms to the symbolic demands of a
preconceived terror. Her nightmarish illusion is replaced by a real
rival, Justine Marie. In effect, Lucy's belief that she is persecuted
is justified by the appearance of the persecutor she feared. She has
always believed that she is being thwarted by "wicked things, not
human, which envy human bliss" (351). Dr. John and his twentieth-century counterparts see her fear as the product of hypochondria or neurosis. The event proves Lucy right. Her needs and
desires are being thwarted by a dead nun.
Just as Lucy's specific fear of the nun as rival is projected onto
Justine Marie, so the more nebulous fears of her relation to English society are projected onto the secret junta. 23 Thus the figure

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of Malevola, child-devourer and image of the punishment she expects at the hands of the Protestant community, gives way to reveal the machinations of Mme. Beck. Behind the smirking face of
the Dr. John who left her in the picture gallery to contemplate the
threatening Cleopatra, Lucy uncovers the more satisfying figure of
Pere Silas, who shows her pictures with the explicit intent of
thwarting and controlling her.
In order to understand Pere Silas's function in the novel and his
role as surrogate for the Protestant Dr. John, it is necessary to
examine an incident that has received little critical attention, the
priest's attempt to convert Lucy. As we would expect, Lucy's defeat of Pere Silas is symbolically a defeat of her mother-rival, Malevola. Helen Moglen points out that in resisting conversion, Lucy
resists a purely passive marital role, the role expressed by the relation of the believer to the mother-church, and the child to the
mother-tyrant.24 Yet the priest also represents a more devastating
threat than that of passive submission to mother or husband, the
threat that should Lucy convert, surrender her independence to
the power of the confessor, she will be rewarded not with marriage
but with imprisonment.
The chapter entitled "The Apple of Discord" is a ritual drama
controlled by the conventions of Victorian anti-Catholic literature.
Every phase of Pere Silas's struggle to "pervert" Lucy to Rome
from his attempt to seduce her affections with the seemingly innocent pamphlet (598-99), through his attacking her in the person of
M. Paul with the diabolical powers of Jesuit reasoning (606), to his
holding out the temptations of Rome, pomp (609), good works
(608), and the comfort of praying for souls in Purgatory (598)-has
its place in an oft-repeated pattern whose threatened end the Victorian reader would recognize. Conversion plots are seldom concerned solely with the danger of spiritual destruction; rather, Catholicism is seen as a threat to the natural, English, Protestant
fulfillment of marriage, children, and service to the community.
The priest converts in order to separate lovers, imprison them in
celibacy, and gain their wealth for the Church.
Father Eustace, in a plot which has suggestive affinities with the
situation of M. Paul, offers the most demonic version of this
drama. In Frances Trollope's novel, the Jesuit General sends Father Eustace to a wealthy young woman, and instructs him to convert her without revealing that he is a priest. The hope is that,
having already fallen in love with her spiritual director, she will



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have no choice but to enter a nunnery and leave her fortune to the
Church. Similarly, M. Paul's love for a dead nun has been kept
alive by Pere Silas so that he will lead a monastic life and devote
his wealth to the interests of the secret junta.
The danger Lucy faces should she succumb to the blandishments of the priest is that she herself describes when she first
exposes herself to the "surveillance of a sleepless eye" at the
"mystic lattice" (592) of the confessional:
Had I visited Numero 3, Rue des Mages, at the hour and day
appointed, I might just now, instead of writing this heretic narrative, be counting my beads in the cell of a certain Carmelite
convent on the Boulevard of Crecy in Villette.

The association of the power of the priesthood with sexual deprivation and imprisonment represents a revision in Lucy's apparent
understanding of the doctrinal quarrels between Catholicism and
Protestantism. Symbolically, this shift is most clearly revealed in
the difference between the Cleopatra and the painting of Justine
Marie. In the former scene, the pure English lady looks with disdain on a captive Catholic, enslaved by men through her failure to
restrain her own sinful nature. In the latter, the fiery Protestant
regards with contempt a placid Catholic enslaved by men through
her willingness to let others restrain her impulses. To put it in
doctrinal terms, in the former case the evil of the confessional is its
failure to restrain impulses conscience would condemn, in the
latter, its ability to restrain impulses conscience would approve. It
would be inaccurate to say that the novel reverses its understanding of confession half way through. From the beginning,
symbols like the saints' lives and the nun in the attic associate
Catholicism with sexual repression. In the latter stages of the
novel, the association of Catholicism with brutish sensuality persists. Indeed, the two views of the confessional are not mutally
exclusive. For Lucy, self-indulgence and imprisonment are associated images, as are self-control and the freedom to love. Nevertheless, there is a shift in emphasis. The rivalry plot turns on the
contrast between the righteous, if lonely, Protestant and the
slothful, if beloved, Catholics. The conspiracy plot turns on the
contrast between the free if lonely Protestant and the imprisoned,
more lonely Catholic.
This new relation to Catholicism, as I have suggested, is a pro-

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jection onto the Church of the hidden tensions of Lucy's relation

to Dr. John. The image of Lucy, invisible in her grey dress, resisting the imprisonment of the nun in her drab habit, is a powerful expression of the torment of the English spinster. If she

refuses to confess, she will win neither lover nor hatred; Pere Silas
will simply cut her off from M. Paul. If she confesses she will be
rewarded with permanent isolation.
The cultural displacement of the projection, however, transforms the paralysis enforced by the unimpressibility of Protestant
society into noble resistance. In part, this transformation is effected simply by making visible what is otherwise hidden. The
Lucy who curls herself into a ball to await the arrival of spring

(382) has existence only in metaphor, in written language. Her

physical form is that of the quiet Lucy Snowe so perversely approved by the Bretton family. By contrast, in the beleaguered
Protestant rejecting all community in order to save her soul, Lucy
discovers an image of active, living nobility. In part, the transformation depends on the unmasking of the oppressor described earlier. The projection of the role of persecutor onto the Catholic
Church replaces the inner voice of conscience or reason with an
external power. The externality of that power, in its turn, trans-

forms conscience from a source of conformity into a force for rebellion. The resemblance between Lucy and the nun of the portrait
expresses the resemblance between the view of feminine propriety that governs her actions and the view that controls the convent. The difference between the two reveals the existance of the
inner world that Lucy's Protestant liberty of conscience protects.

Thus in place of a Lucy passively accepting the duty of self-censorship imposed on her by standards of womanly behavior she shares
with Dr. John, we find a Lucy valiantly protecting her freedom of
imagination. The novel has restored her to her role of martyr to
the cause of virtue and liberty.

I have emphasised the paranoid structure of the conspiracy plot

not because I share the view of Dr. John and Robert Keefe that
Lucy's problems are simply psychological. Indeed, if Vashti is a
true revelation of the hidden potential of Lucy's volcanic nature,
then it seems to me she can expect punishment should she disclose her inner world. Rather, we must recognize the paranoid
structure of her fiction if we are to understand the difference between the external oppressor Lucy discovers with relief and the
hidden oppressor she never learns to face. Whether we view her




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prison in psychological, sociological or religious terms, a single

pattern characterizes Lucy's relation to Protestant society: a paralyzing identity between the figure whose approval she courts and
the figure whose wrath she risks should her need for approval become visible. In psychological terms, she cannot destroy the hated
mother-devourer without repeating the destruction of the loving
mother that she suffered in childhood. In sexual terms, she cannot
protest her rejection by Dr. John without inspiring contempt in
the very man whose love she seeks. In religious terms, she cannot
rebel against the God who has doomed her to misery without
abandoning her hope of salvation through his love.
The conspiracy plot dissolves this identity. M. Paul, the beloved, is now opposed to the secret junta that thwarts his love, and
the God of the Protestants is now on Lucy's side as she struggles
against the false God of Rome. But that dissolution of identity depends on the continued existence of her persecutor, on the presence of an external power whose visible evil explains Lucy's
misery. Once her "real" persecutor is defeated, her nightmare
reasserts its power, for she has returned to the moral position with
which she began: a loneliness she can neither explain nor overcome because the society that rejects her is one whose moral authority she dare not question.
The extent to which Lucy's power to rebel depends on her paranoid vision of the Catholic Church is apparent in the climactic
scene of the conspiracy plot, the scene in the park. This scene
enacts the psychological and cultural journey I have been describing. It begins with an encounter that reflects Lucy's position
in Protestant England. As she will subsequently do in her encounter with the secret junta, Lucy looks in from the outside on a
scene of family harmony from which she is cut off. Yet her isolation
is both fortuitous and insignificant. Mrs. Bretton misses Lucy and
wishes she were there (660); Dr. John is prepared to welcome her
(661). Lucy, in effect, just happens not to be loved as much as
Paulina. No one is at fault. There is no one she can fight.
Her encounter with the Brettons is followed by the fantasy of
persecution through which Lucy discovers the source of her unhappiness. The figure of Dr. John splits in two. M. Paul, the man
who ought to love Lucy, is seen, like Dr. John, devoting his attention to the wrong woman. The explanation for his betrayal of Lucy,
however, is not his own indifference, but the malign influence of a
second figure, Pere Silas. The lover and the persecutor have be844 Anti-Catholicism and Villette

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come distinct. Furthermore, the morally unimpeachable Paulina

has been replaced by Justine Marie, symbolically the dead nun,
whose own imprisonment is the result of a culpable submission to
tyranny, and whose power over M. Paul is the power of a Satanic
priesthood. Here Lucy's loneliness results from the triumph of
From this vision of her persecutors' triumph, Lucy gains the
strength necessary to rebel. She breaks free from self-repression
and declares her right to struggle for love: "The love born of

beauty was not mine; I had nothing in common with it [but] . . . in

this Love I had a vested interest" (678). She stares in the face both
the rival who thwarts her and the fate that threatens her should
she confess, and the monster that has haunted her dissolves. She
recognizes the nun of the bed as a nightmare and destroys it.
The vision that frees Lucy, however, is the delusion that M.
Paul will marry Justine Marie. The truth that she declares she will
embrace whatever the cost (677) is a falsehood, and a falsehood
that justifies the terror of persecution that has always imprisoned
her. She gains power to rebel, that is, from her conviction that the
secret junta has won and her rebellion is futile. The visibility of the
malign forces ranged against her and the certainty of her defeat are
what makes her self-assertion possible.
Not surprisingly, then, the ending of the conspiracy plot repeats
the pattern of the ending of the rivalry plot. In the visionary world
of the garden Lucy has found an action through which to vent her
angst, an objective correlative for the inner drama of crucifixion
that structures her relation to society. As an explanatory fiction,
however, the drama has power only so long as it can make visible
Lucy's deprivation. The discovery that the beloved could defeat
the forces of persecution if he wished returns Lucy to an isolation
that is inexplicable. Thus, once again, Lucy's triumph over her
rivals is followed by the brief respite of an interchange of letters
with her lover, before the God of storm and fire intervenes and her
happiness is destroyed. She ends by confronting the fate that
Reason, the voice of Protestant independence and self-restraint,
has always predicted would be hers (523), an unspectacular penury
that she must accept as her due.
One of the most common rhetorical figures in Villette is the negating of a metaphor that continues to exercise semantic power.
Keefe gives as an example the sentence: "No ghost stood beside
me, nor anything of spectral aspect" (88).25 The narrator's rational



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conviction that there are no ghosts controls the surface content of

the assertion; her inner belief that the school is haunted by supernatural power is expressed in the negated image that continues to

mean despite her denial. The collapsing form of Villette has an

analogous pattern. The novel's plot might be summarized by the
statement: "Lucy is no martyr to the institutional tyranny of the
Catholic Church." The negation implicit first in the reappearance
of Paulina and then in the death of M. Paul betrays the narrator's
knowledge that her life of "denial and privation" (523) is the will of

that God whose identification with the cause of individual liberty

puts Him beyond the reach of human protest. The continued
power of the negated fictions of martyrdom and rebellion reveals

her irrational conviction that the tyranny of the priesthood enacts a

truth that no reasoned acceptance of the structure of Protestant
society can quite obliterate.
University of Toronto

1 Robert A. Colby, Fiction with a Purpose (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press,

1967), 184.

2 Bronte's familiarity with most of the religious novels of the day is doubtful. She
certainly read Charles Kingsley's Yeast and The Saint's Tragedy, and Froude's Nemesis of Faith. See The Brontis: Their Lives, Friendships and Correspondence, eds.
Thomas J. Wise and John Alexander Symington (Oxford: Shakespeare Head Press,
1933), 3:268-69, 27. She mentions Dinah Marie Mulock, the author of Olive, which
Robert Lee Wolff describes as providing "perhaps the earliest example of loss of faith"
in the novel. See Correspondence, 3:284; Robert Lee Wolff, Gains and Losses (New
York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1977), 420. She asks Miss Margaret Wooler in a letter
whether she has read The Experience of Life by Elizabeth Sewell (Correspondence,
4:99). Miss Wooler was an intimate friend of the Sewells. See Clement Shorter, The
Brontes and their Circle (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., 1914), 241. It seems
possible, then, that Bronte may as well have been familiar with Sewell's Margaret
Percival. (The Experience of Life was not published until 1853). Despite the uncertainty as to what other novels Bronte might have read, my view of Brontb's anti-Catholicism depends heavily upon contemporary fiction, both because I believe Bront6's
religious thought has more in common with the theologically vague popular novels of
the day than with more philosophical discussions, and because the plot similarities
between Villette and contemporary works of fiction are too obvious to be ignored.
3 See Robert Bernard Martin, The Accents of Persuasion (London: Faber and Faber,
1966), 148; Nina Auerbach, "Charlotte Brontb: The Two Countries," University of
Toronto Quarterly 42 (1973): 336; Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), 405; and Robert Keefe,
Charlotte Bronte's World of Death (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1979), 162.
4 Gilbert and Gubar, 414.
5 Richard Offor, "The Brontes-Their Relations to the History and Politics of their
Time," Bronte' Society Transactions 10 (1943): 157.
6 Sarah Moore Putzell, "Rights, Reason and Redemption: Charlotte Bront6's Neo-

Platonism," Victorian Newsletter 55 (1979): 5. Not only did BrontO, as Putzell points

846 Anti-Catholicism and Villette

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out, express admiration for F D. Maurice, she also spoke favorably of other Broad
Church thinkers: Dr. Arnold, Kingsley, and Julius and Augustus Hare. See Correspondence, 3:177-79, 268-69, 20.
7Charlotte Brontie, Villette, eds. Herbert Rosengarten and Margaret Smith (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1984), 609. All subsequent references are to this edition. Compare
Bronte's statement with that by F. D. Maurice in "Waiting for Christ," Sermons in
Country Churches (London: Macmillan and Co., 1880), 33. "They found that there
was a love stronger than the evil that was in them, stronger than the evil that was in
their brethren-one which could convert the most rebellious to itself." For Maurice,
the Atonement was "the fact of the Gospel." See the Preface to the Second Edition, in
Theological Essays (Cambridge: Macmillan & Co., 1853), xxiii. Lucy seems more concerned with the idea of mercy than with Christ's Atonement. Nevertheless, the
common faith that she and M. Paul find underlying different Christian creeds is that
which Maurice considered central: "God be merciful to me, a sinner" (Villette, 611).

8 Lucy's term '"form" includes, I believe, more than liturgical practice. Implicit in
the distinction between "vital doctrines" and "faults of form" is the assumption that
the theological differences among the various denominations are differences of form.
9 Colby, 184.
10 George Henry Lewes, "The Pope, or Free Thought?" in The Leader, November
9, 1850.
11 Gilbert and Gubar, 400.

12 See Helen Moglen, Charlotte Brontfi: The Self Conceived (W W. Norton and
Co., Inc., 1976), 209; Judith A. Plotz, "Potatoes in a Cellar": Charlotte Bront6's Villette and the Feminized Imagination," Journal of Women's Studies in Literature 1
(1979): 83; and Gilbert and Gubar, 415.
13 Gilbert and Gubar, 423.
14 Plotz, 74.

15 Terry Eagleton, Myths of Power (London: The MacMillan Press, Ltd., 1975),
16 Plotz, 80.

17 In a letter to Ellen Nussey Bronte remarks, "The Protestant the Foreigner is a

solitary being." See Correspondence, 1:295.
18 Matthew Arnold, Preface to Poems, 1853, in Poetry and Criticism of Matthew
Arnold, ed. A. Dwight Culler (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1961), 204.
19 "Catholicism . . . permits sensual indulgence by way of counterpoise to jealous
spiritual restraint" (Gilbert and Gubar, 414).
20 Mary Jacobus, "The Buried Letter: Feminism and Romanticism in Villette,"
Women Writing and Writing about Women, ed. Mary Jacobus (New York: Barnes &
Noble Books, 1979), 47.
21 Donald D. Stone, The Romantic Impulse in Victorian Fiction (Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard Univ. Press, 1980), 126.

22 Keefe, xiii-xiv.
23 Eagleton, 90.
24 Moglen, 215-19.

25 Keefe, 162.




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