Tag Archives: Victorian Era

That Goodly Mansion

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There is something truly wonderful about a very long book. And Charlotte Brontë’s Villette is indeed a very long book. With so much time to develop the characters the reader can sink deeply into the story no matter the pace at which they read it. Life, being what it is, forced me to renew this book at the library an embarrassing number of times. But this book, being what it is, will stay within me indefinitely.

“Do not let me think of them too often, too much, too fondly,” I implored. “let me be content with a temperate draught of this living stream: let me not run athirst, and apply passionately to its welcome waters: let me not imagine in them a sweeter taste than earth’s fountains know. Oh! Would to God I may be enabled to feel enough sustained by an occasional, amicable intercourse, rare, brief, engrossing and tranquil: quite tranquil!” (223)

Anyone familiar with one of my favorite books, Jane Eyre,  will be familiar with Brontë’s typical heroine. Both Jane and Lucy Snowe are sober, realistic, controlled but deeply feeling. They are orphans, not just in actual fact—but emotionally—they absorb the losses of their lives with equanimity to the point of capriciousness. This book, more than in Jane Eyre, deeply examines the English and Protestant underpinnings of that disposition. Set in Catholic France the cultural differences are pronounced by the added condition of expatria, and yet, what is truly wonderful about the book is the human feeling of loneliness and yearning for a true and intimate companionship that Brontë beautifully captures.

“As if one could let you alone, when you are so peculiar and so mysterious!”
“The mystery and peculiarity being entirely the conception of your own brain—maggots—neither more nor less, be so good as to keep them out of my sight.” (391)

Lucy can be a little sharp-tongued, but her honesty is refreshing and her wit is true and never malicious. Brontë’s characters are,to me, deeply appealing. Villette is not constructed like other novels of this genre. The plot takes time to get going, and the narrator’s relationship to the reader is fascinating.

Of course it was a particular style of the time for the narrator to address the reader—it is intimate—one becomes the special confidant and is subtly elevated to an active role. The famous closing remarks in Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him,” still warms my heart, but in Villette there is an oddity in that the Lucy’s reserve extends to the reader as well—she does not reveal some of her thoughts or reactions, and sometimes she even refers back to times in which she did not relate all that her heart felt. In a subtle manner her relationship to the reader is like her relationships to the other characters int he book. If you listen to her, and withhold judgment or projection, the fineness of her character comes through.

“Happiness is the cure—a cheerful mind the preventative: cultivate both.”
No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to
cultivate happiness. What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure” (315)

The novel takes place in the interior of Lucy Snowe’s mind. The brilliant thing that Brontë accomplishes with this mode of narration is that one understands that the mind is not the perfect narrator—there are things which we hide from ourselves before we even have a thought of hiding them from others. It is the complexity and isolation of the interior terrain of the mind that Brontë develops in a surprisingly avant-garde manner considering the pre-Freudian era it seems to have forecasted.

“If,” muttered she, “if he should write, what then: Do you mediate pleasure in replying? Ah, fool! I warn you! Brief in your answer. Hope no delight of heart—no indulgence of intellect: grant no expansion to feeling—give holiday to no single faculty: dally with no friendly exchange: foster no genial intercommunication” (287)

Ah, romance. Yes! of course it is a romance! One to swoon the heart at that. But it is the battle between the mind and heart that is Brontë’s specialty—and what I particularly love about her books. For all of Lucy’s quirks and stringent coping mechanism, Brontë makes clear that her heart’s raging passions are valued above all. And it is that estimation alone that makes her novels so deeply satisfying and pleasurable.

Villette. Everyman’s Library, 1909 edition.

*Title from pg 581: “I believe in that goodly mansion, his heart, he kept one little place under the skylights where Lucy might have entertainment, if she chose to call.”

**photo by Augustus Accardi

The Echo

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I was sitting at my desk yesterday with no work to do, so I did what I always do— picked up a book. The sort of job I have is the sort of job where a book such as Victorian Photographs of Famous Men & Fair Women by Julia Margaret Cameron with introductions by Virginia Woolf and Roger Fry is laying at arms reach. It’s quite wonderful.

It was impossible, they found, not to love that “genial, ardent, and generous” woman, who had “a power of loving which I have never seen exceeded and an equal determination to be loved”  (4).

Woolf’s introduction is a short biography of the fascinating character of Cameron. Born in India to “the biggest liar in India” as her father was called, and who eventually, spectacularly drank himself to death, and to a French mother who was the daughter of one of Marie Antoinette’s pages, Julia Margaret Cameron was a famously eccentric and lovable woman. Woolf tells a wonderful story of the perils of rejecting Cameron’s generosity: she was fond of giving shawls as gifts and if they were not wanted she would threaten to throw them in the fire, but if they were returned, she would sell them and use the money to purchase a an expensive invalid bed for the local hospital—donated in the name of the person who had rejected the shawl, naturally! much to the surprise of the bemused shawl-rejector cum donor. Better to “submit to the shawl,” as Woolf delightfully relates the tale.

She wrote letters till the postman left, and then began her postscripts. She sent the gardener after the postman, the gardener’s boy after the gardener, the donkey galloping all the way to Yarmouth after the gardener’s boy. Sitting at Wandsworth Station she wrote page after page to Alfred Tennyson until “as I was folding your letter came the screams of the train, and then the yells of the porters with the threat that the train would not wait for me,” so that she had to thrust the document into strange hands and run down the steps (4).

I’m sure I would have loved her as well. She didn’t begin to take photographs until her son gave her a camera when she was fifty years old—that is the sort of detail that always encourages me. And what beautiful photographs they were.

Sir Henry Taylor, Plate 12

Sir Henry Taylor, Plate 12

But it was “The Echo,” plate 21, that caught my heart in my throat. To think of Echo—who bore the brunt of Hera’s jealousy and was thereby helpless to do anything other than repeat the last words spoken to her causing her to tragically lose her love, Narcissus—and to see how Cameron’s photograph perfectly captures that muted love, is heartbreaking on a gray day such as this one.

As for Cameron, she seems to have had a happy life. Her marriage to the philosopher and jurist Charles Hay Cameron was of seeming felicity. I love everything about Woolf’s version of events and hope it was all true. Woolf ends the essay in such a way that I can hardly be in doubt:

The birds were fluttering in and out of the open door; the photographs were tumbling over the tables; and, lying before a large open window Mrs. Cameron saw the stars shining, breathed the one word “Beautiful,” and so died” (5).