Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Charlotte Bronte's 'Villette': Forgeries of Sex and Self

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Charlotte Bronte's 'Villette': Forgeries of Sex and Self

Article excerpt

FORGE: vb [ME, fr. OF, fr. L fabrica, fr. fabr-, faber] to form or bring into being esp. by an expenditure of effort; to make or imitate falsely esp. with intent to defraud: COUNTERFEIT

She cannot think in a beard

Sydney Dobell on "Currer Bell"(1)

In an early review of Villette (1853), Charlotte Bronte's fourth and final completed novel before her death at the age of thirty-eight, one mid-century critic announces: "In the next edition of Villette we should like very much to see the last page altered, and to find all the apostrophes expunged ... the omission of such passages ... would be extremely easy, and would save readers the pains of skipping them."(2) While, of course, no such changes were forthcoming, the task of assimilating Villette smoothly and unproblematically into a single critical framework--"apostrophes" and all--has proved difficult at best. Twentieth-century feminist critics like Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have enthusiastically adopted the response to this problem posed by a different yet equally frustrated nineteenth-century reviewer by "skipping" over what can only be, in the context of their reading in The Madwoman in the Attic, a rather curious series of apostrophes.(3) Gilbert and Gubar ignore the craftiness of gender in Villette in order to claim Bronte's text as a powerful literary assertion of female identity. It will be my argument here, however, that rather than formulating a stable and coherent narrative of female identity to which the interests of a certain twentieth-century feminism can smoothly attach themselves, Bronte forges a subject marked by the misbehavior of Victorian fictions of sex and self.

The dupticity of the verb "to forge," which suggests that to bring into being is also somehow "to counterfeit," aids in revealing Brontd's literary venture as a double operation in which nineteenth-century narratives of domestic womanhood are both invented and counterfeited. Bronte reinvents popular Victorian fictions of female development by exposing the forged nature of the subjects whose development these narratives endeavor to trace.(4) She takes up the tension between the act of bringing into being and the act of counterfeiting in order to redescribe the Victorian terrain in which "authentic" women are produced, policed, and refigured. In Villette, Bronte plays with the idea that all women are the forgers of a counterfeit figure that is bought and sold with varying degrees of success in the cultural marketplace. Her exposure of Victorian womanhood-as-forgery recasts the value of the gendered figures that make up the currency of the Victorian novel and transforms the "female Bildungsroman" into aD artful fiction whose intrigues prevent Villette from settling the questions of gender and identity that it poses.(5) The authentic male and female subjects exalted by the Bildungsroman in the nineteenth century are, consequently, the objects of intense suspicion for Bronte. In Villette, Bronte refuses the essentialist plots available to her and embraces in their place the renegade tales of Lucy Snowe, Villette's unreliable narrator.(6)

Lucy's account of her wanderings from an appropriately indeterminate origin in England, where she is soon left orphaned and homeless, to Madame Beck's "pensionnat de demoiselles" across the Channel in Villette, where she is employed first as a nanny and then as an English teacher, provides the basic landscape for the forgeries committed over the course of Bronte's novel. Lucy is a self in translation as well as in transition in Villette, delighting in and encouraging the narrative confusions for which "Currer Bell," Villette's pseudonymous author, was notorious.(7) Yet Lucy is also attracted, like the proper Victorian women she mocks, to the domestic plots whose implicit faith in natural women and female nature goes against the grain of her eccentric narrative. Lucy ultimately adopts the feminine role whose authenticity she had earlier ridiculed and deliberately associates herself with a feminine drama that, by volume 3 of Villette, Bronte has already left largely bankrupt. …

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