‘AND THERE IS A CHARGE, A VERY LARGE CHARGE / FOR A WORD OR A TOUCH’: EXPLORING INTIMACY, THE SELF AND GHOSTLY FANTASTIES IN THE CONTEXT OF GENDER POLITICS AND SEXUALITY IN CHARLOTTE BRONTË’S VILLETTE

By Pooja Sanyal

Abstract
Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in “The Buried Life of Lucy Snowe: Villette”, introduce the concept of the “ghostly” intimate in Bronte’s text: “‘When We Dead Awaken,’ Adrienne Rich explains, ‘everything outside our skins is an image of this affliction.’” Indeed, within the passive, silent Lucy Snowe of Villette, the “dead awakens”, through a growing association with the supernatural. Is this an extension of her inert fantasies of attaining an independent selfhood? For Bronte, who was writing in an age of patriarchal dogmas, intimacy with this dark, mysterious “other” world is a direct suggestion of the breaking away tendencies rising within the initially cold and accepting exterior of women. As her heroine, Lucy, increasingly feels the supernatural penetrating her being, sometimes through the terrifying “hag-raven” body of Madame Walravens, sometimes through a sick, invalid cretin or sometimes through the nun “buried alive” in the garden, the whole experience becomes a fitful, nightmarish experience. Intimacy with the deathly becomes a way of raising her own “dead” self; of resurrecting her own voice and stifled desires. Her supernatural dreams are her very own, personal necromancy; achieved by an acute, sensitive connection with the depths of her soul. The question which this paper seeks to ask is, in what ways does Bronte use intimacy with the “ghostly” as a language for Lucy’s own death-in-life? Moreover, how does this intense, enigmatic and uncanny fantasy become a thought-provoking representation of gender politics, sexuality and the figure of the shrouded woman of that era?   


 

 

The Victorian era is a time when the Gothic world is still explored and experimented upon, although Gothic literature had already come into existence from the mid-eighteenth century when works like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto or Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Romance of the Forest were produced. Critics have questioned as to why the Gothic genre is studied so intensively in the Victorian age and also, to some extent, consciously, like never before.[1] Stephanie Craig identifies two major themes which led to the creation of Gothic literature: the supernatural and madness. A review of Gothic texts has shown that inexplicable events, ghosts, apparitions and eerie feelings are as much important as hallucinations, anxiety attacks and mental breakdowns.[2]

 

The question to be asked here is what are the cultural implications of the Gothic works that were being produced at this time? Also, how do they become voices of criticism against certain aspects of society? Written in an age when theories on psychoanalysis and the nature of the human mind were gradually coming into existence, works bearing intimate connections to the supernatural suggest something more, something beyond the apparent—the oppressed, domesticated condition of women—a state capable of inducing claustrophobia, suffocation, hallucination, insanity—all forms of desire to escape the reality in which they had been placed.[3] In this context, a text like Villette by Charlotte Brontë becomes important, in which the heroine, Lucy Snowe, struggling under the pressure of her own death-in-life existence, finds herself increasingly fascinated by the ‘other world.’ Her awareness of the supernatural around herself and sometimes, even within herself, is her own, personal resurrection; a tendency to cross the stifling boundaries of ‘this’ world by a movement into an ‘other’ realm of emancipation.

 

The narrative begins with Lucy at the home of the Brettons: a cold, detached, young girl, what she likes most about this house is its calm, settled exterior: ‘The large, peaceful rooms, the well-arranged furniture, the clear wide windows, the balcony outside, looking down on a fine antique street . . . so quiet was atmosphere, so clean it’s pavement –these things please me well.’[4] She is aware of silence, conscious of shadows; there lurks a deep desire to connect with the world which is not a part of daily, active life. It could be a sign of her melancholic disposition, dissociation from the external world of reality and a retreat into the self.[5] This kind of withdrawal was increasingly being noticed in women of that time, the cause of which was identified as a range of complex physiological processes; however, medical doctors would later begin to distinguish the causes separately as physiological and psychological.[6] Psychology becomes important here as the narrow world of household life to which women were subjected often resulted in mental breakdown; Lucy, in her melancholia, represents these women of her time, who, tired of an absence of active life, would wither away; would gradually die within themselves.

 

This silent revolt against all things rational leads to the formation of Lucy’s Gothic world, a world which represents everything ‘other’ than the present reality surrounding her. She can sense this dark, unknown realm she is about to enter from an early stage when she is living with the Brettons: ‘In the autumn of the year—I was staying at Bretton; my Godmother having come in person to claim me of the kinsfolk with whom was at that time fixed my permanent residence. I believe she plainly saw events coming, whose very shadow I scarcely guessed; yet of which the faint suspicion sufficed to impart unsettled sadness . . .’ This is perhaps, a foreboding not only of her moving away from the Brettons but also, perhaps, of the turns that her mind is about to take; towards hallucinations, away from the world of common sense as defined by the orthodox, patriarchal order of her time.[7] This surreal, Gothic world of her fantasies receives its most explicit, physical expression when she is journeying towards Villette and her voyage becomes a nightmarish blackness: ‘Black was the river, as a torrent of ink: lights glanced on it from piles of buildings round, ships rocked on its bosom . . . Down the sable flood we glided.’ Evoking the aura surrounding a Gothic fiction, Lucy’s trip builds the supernatural space in which her narrative will be situated; where the controlled roots of her reality will drown under the irrepressible supernatural world unleashed within her.

 

After this misty, enigmatic journey, Lucy steps into the darkness of a new city; her imaginary Gothic now thickens as she comes across dark alleyways, unknown faces and an unknown language; in short, for Lucy, it is like a phase between death and eternity; she does not know whether this strange place where she is trapped is heaven or hell. Wandering like an invisible apparition, she arrives at the gate of Villette; a large house with ‘light burning over the door’ and with a brass plate over it, a Gothic mansion full of dark secrets and also, perhaps the ideal home for Lucy’s other-worldly imagination. Why create such a strong and tangible supernatural realm for Lucy? Is Brontë, then experimenting with her heroine’s imaginative power? Imagination, in the Victorian context, has a socio-political significance: the female mind and its imaginative capacities were considered as dangerous to social order.[8] Therefore, clearly, Brontë is challenging this notion; her heroine’s imagination can reach any extent. It can defy conventions and enter a world of ghosts, witches and hags, all of which were considered subversive aspects of a woman’s identity.

 

In ‘The Buried Life of Lucy Snowe,’ Gilbert and Gubar talk about how the different female characters represent Lucy’s buried self.[9] Out of all these characters, the two most interesting representations are probably that of Vashti and Madame Walravens or Malevola: both symbols of violence, rage, disorder and destruction. Vashti, in her fiery performance, represents the seething fury within the suppressed female mind, evident from Lucy’s description of her: ‘I found something upon her neither of woman nor of man: in each of her eyes sat a devil. These evil forces bore her through the tragedy, kept up her feeble strength . . . Hate and Murder and Madness incarnate, she stood.’ Lucy can immediately connect her own desires and longings to this radical figure of the Biblical queen. Walravens, however, is the old witch figure evoking a sense of the terrifying in Lucy: ‘She might be three feet high, but she had no shape; her skinny hands rested upon each other . . . Her face was large set, not upon her shoulders, but before her breast; she seemed to have no neck: I should have said there were a hundred years in her features. And more perhaps in her eyes—her malign, unfriendly eyes, with thick gray brows above and livid lids all round.’ The striking feature of two female figures is that they inspire an overwhelming horror, best expressed, perhaps, in her vivid observation of the revolutionary zeal of the actress portraying Vashti: ‘. . . she rends her woes, shivers them in convulsed abhorrence . . . Wicked, perhaps, she is, but also she is strong . . . Fallen, insurgent, banished, she remembers the heaven where she rebelled. Heaven’s light, piercing its confines, and discloses their forlorn remoteness.’ This horror is a figment of the dark world within Lucy; her own ghost; rising from her suppressed anger, desires and passions.

 

Throughout the narrative, Lucy describes other characters; however, she never describes herself; never gives the reader an insight into her thoughts. ‘Who are you?’ Ginevra Fanshawe asks her, and reflecting upon the question, she realizes that she herself does not know who she is: ‘Who am I indeed? Perhaps a personage in disguise.’ What lies underneath this disguise is a mystery; her true self is one which is never unmasked. Perhaps, the ghostliness she experiences, the hallucinatory phases she passes through are parts of her uncanny, puzzling inner self: when she looks at herself in the mirror, it is as if she is glancing at the reflection of a stranger, as if the mirror is a gateway for her to reach out to some other world where her soul is trapped. Therefore, although she lives her life through other women around her, they are not her path to freedom; in fact, they may just be yet another disguise for her.  Lucy’s soul, imprisoned in a netherworld, can only be freed when she is raised from her death-in-life existence; when the nun, buried alive in the garden and inside her, is finally released.

 

With the passage of time, the supernatural starts moving from the outside to the body of Lucy; it is observed when she feels disgust and fear towards the body of an invalid with whom she is left during the holidays; the room becomes a death-bed for her: ‘The coronal of each became a deathshead, huge and sun-bleached—dead dreams of an earlier world and mightier race lay frozen in their wide gaping eyeholes.’ This is her own death that she visualises: while still alive, she imagines herself as a dead body, filled with stench, gloom and an awful stillness. In an age when women were turned into vessels of chastity, when their sexuality was curbed in the name of religion, when their desires faded away into the walls of domesticity, they perished under the burden of their physical non-existence; much like Lucy, they were living, walking dead bodies.[10] The body becomes a site of agony, privation and oppression; the world of Lucy’s horror is now a part of her body, as it were, ‘crushing’ her like the ‘slab of a tomb.’

 

What is the mode of Lucy’s exorcism? Will she ever rise to life again from her prolonged death? She herself seems hopeful: ‘I believe in some blending of hope and sunshine sweetening the worst lot . . . I believe while I tremble, I trust while I weep.’ However, the death of her old ghost and the birth of her new self, her re-incarnation, are not in romantic love for a man as was the expected destiny of a woman at that time.[11] Her love for Dr. John Bretton is a lost cause; she buries his letters, lays her love to rest and realises that she was never ready to be a part of this ‘love drama’ since she feels that in lovers, ‘there is a certain infatuation of egotism.’ Her resurrection would not be into a conventional domestic role but rather into freedom, as she says: ‘I believe that this life is not all; neither the beginning, nor the end.’ She desires a space beyond the ordinary space reserved for women of her time; her rebirth requires a larger realm, away from social dogmas, into infinite possibilities, manifested best in her inner supernatural – the unknown territory of her dreams.

 

The narrative does provide a romantic resolution in the life of Lucy through her engagement to Paul Emmanuel, but if she is a Gothic heroine of the ‘other’ world, she could have an alternative ending to her story. This hint of ending is hidden in the text, not given as the final episode but present towards the finale: this is, the scene at the park where Lucy, under the effect of a sleeping potion, has a hallucinatory vision of the world around her: ‘every shape was wavering, every movement floating, every voice echo-like—half-mocking, half-uncertain.’ It is almost like a night of conjuring for her, when every character, every image rises like the dead before her: ‘the whole conjuration . . . they outnumbered me and I was worsted and under their feet; but, as yet, I was not dead.’ Although it is a strange world for Lucy, she does not want to return to the narrow spaces of her real life: ‘Surely the spirit of restlessness was by this time appeased? Had I not enough of adventure? Did I not begin to flag, quail, and wish for safety under a roof? Not so. I still loathed my bed in the school dormitory more than words can express: I clung to whatever could distract thought.’ Roused from her dead self not into reality but into yet another hallucination, she has been transported from the frightening world of death to one of lively enchantment: ‘In the land of enchantment, a garden most gorgeous, a plain sprinkled with coloured meteors, a forest with sparks of purple and ruby and golden fire gemming the foliage.’

 

Interestingly, Lucy’s fantasy, starting with that of the dark ghostly world, has ended up with that of a happier fairy realm. Here, Brontë is testing the stretches of female imagination which was a forbidden forest for conservative Victorians; if Lucy Snowe’s narrative had ended here, the narrative would have become an open rebellion against women’s status in contemporary society. Lucy’s life would have been a cycle of un-reality formed by her unhindered fancies. However, a reason behind not ending the novel with this fantasy realm could be that this desired world has not yet been created in the author’s time. By keeping it submerged as a possible ending but not the real one, Brontë suggests that maybe not at present, but in future, the female mind will become free – soaring high with its fantasies and desires – as foreseen by the half-asleep half-awake Lucy at the moonlit park: ‘Somehow I felt, that the night’s drama was but begun, that the prologue was scarce spoken: throughout this woody and turfy theatre reigned a shadow of mystery; actors and incidents unlooked for, waited behind the scenes: I thought so foreboding told me much.’

 

 

 

 

 

NOTES

[1] Stephanie F. Craig, Ghosts of the Mind: The Supernatural and Madness in Victorian Gothic Literature (Honours Theses, The University of Southern Mississippi, 2012), p. 7.

 

[2] Ibid., p. 8.

 

[3] Julianne E. Fleenor, The Female Gothic (Montreal: Eden Press, 1983), p. 15.

 

[4]Charlotte Brontë, Villette (London: Penguin Books, 2004), p. 7.

 

[5]Sigmund Freud, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology  and Other Works, trans. James Strachey, Anna Freud, Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson, vol. XIV, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1914-1916), p. 244.

 

[6] Andrew Smith and Diana Wallace, ‘The Female Gothic: Then and Now’ (University of Glamorgan, 2004), pp. 1-2.

 

[7] Ibid., p. 4.

 

[8] Craig, Ghosts of the Mind, p. 3.

 

[9] Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, ‘The Buried Life of Lucy Snowe,’ The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 400.

 

[10] Smith and Wallace, ‘The Female Gothic: Then and Now,’ p. 5.

 

[11] Ibid., p. 5.

 

 


Pooja Sanyal is currently in the second year of her Masters in English Literature from the Department of English, Jadavpur University. Her interest area spans nineteenth century literature, gender studies, post colonialism and popular culture. Her specific interest lies in the field of Victorianism and gender and how the two have interacted throughout history; gender politics, sexuality and subversions in nineteenth century literature. She is interested in looking at women writers of the period, the construction of “modernities” through their works, and a comparison of Oriental women characters with that of the overarching Victorian New Woman. She is also interested in studying gender from the perspective of popular culture, mainly cinema; her focus broadly lies upon Indian films and the field of performativity and gender.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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