Haunted Childhood in Charlotte Bronte's Villette

By Armitt, Lucie | Yearbook of English Studies, Annual 2002 | Go to article overview

Haunted Childhood in Charlotte Bronte's Villette


Armitt, Lucie, Yearbook of English Studies


Ghosts are a phenomenon necessarily borne out of uncertainty: Do they exist? Whence do they come? In contrast, children are relatively easy to understand. We certainly know where they come from and their noise, coupled with the fact that they are often under one's feet, testifies to their empirical existence. Despite the fact, however, that we have all been children, what they have in common with ghosts is that we insist on treating them as `other': foreign, different, to some extent unknowable. James R. Kincaid, in his controversial but influential study, Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture, addresses the problematic issue of setting fully defined limits for childhood. For him, it is the relationship between subjectivity and conscious or unconscious projections of childhood that applies: `My "child" [...] is not defined or controlled by age limits, since it seems to me that anyone between the ages of one day and 25 years or even beyond might, in different contexts, play that role.' (1)

Two of the more complex issues explored in Charlotte Bronte's Villette (1853) are what it is, precisely, that constitutes childhood and what makes children uncanny. As the central protagonist, Lucy Snowe, finds on facing little Polly in Chapter 2, `When I say child I use an inappropriate and undescriptive term--a term suggesting any picture rather than that of the demure little person in a mourning frock and white chemisette, that might just have fitted a good-sized doll.' (2) This sense of the projection of uncanniness on to Polly, however, also works as an early piece of mirror identification, for though Lucy is several years older than Polly and, by the end of the book, Lucy is in her mid-twenties where Polly is in her late teens, Polly's main narrative function is to cast reflected light upon Lucy's past. In actuality, Lucy's frequently voiced criticism of Polly for her determination to hold on to childish ways, reminds us that Lucy's own partially erased family history leaves her, too, stranded in the role of abandoned child. Hence, in a second face-to-face encounter, this time with an `adult' apparition, she considers, `[Was] that strange thing [...] of this world, or of a realm beyond the grave; or [was it ...] only the child of malady, and I of that malady the prey[?]' (p. 333). As the phrase `child of malady' implies, Lucy's own relationship to her past has become in some sense sickened, pathological, perhaps even `haunted'.

It is important to stress here that, unlike many Victorian representations of ghosts, Bronte's depictions of actual phantoms in Villette, from the legend of the young nun buried alive for committing an act in breach of her vows, to the various manifestations of ghostly nuns elsewhere, these spirits (though they disturb and frighten Lucy) never come even close to scaring us. Right from the start, we recognize them as the work of an imposter, the various visitations conveying fakeness rather than fear. In effect, Bronte's ghosts are narrative decoys, distractions deflecting attention from something else and, in a variety of contexts, this `something else' corresponds to a `shadowing' of the other. Madame Beck, the proprietress of the establishment in which Lucy is given the role of teacher, is a spy who hides behind the role of the phantom, `glid[ing] ghost-like through the house' (p. 136) in order to snoop through her employees' possessions. On one of the many occasions on which Lucy spies on Madame Beck spying on her, the latter enters Lucy's chamber after dark in a scene that closely mirrors that of Chapter 25 of Bronte's earlier novel Jane Eyre (1847). In that novel, Bertha Mason enters Jane's chamber on the eve of her marriage to Rochester, illuminating her supposedly sleeping face with a lighted candle. Peering closely at Jane's marriage trousseau, she lifts the veil from where it is hanging in the closet and, placing it over her own face, stares at her reflection in the glass before tearing the veil in two. …

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