Russian formalist critics distinguish between fabula and sjuzet, often translated as story and plot — story stuff, in effect, and plot as relation of stuff — I’ll use stuff and plot. Stuff of Villette is simple — Lucy Snowe, apparently without fortune or family, hardly with friends, leaves England after death of her employer, becomes a helper, then a teacher in a school in Villette, falls in love with and is finally proposed to by M. Paul Emmanuel, despite opposition of his Catholic friends. He settles her in a school, travels for three years, and (as far as we can tell) dies on his return journey. Lucy remains unmarried.

So real issue in Villette is the plot: Lucy’s relation of the stuff. We note that this is not what it might have been, a Bildungsroman. (i) Lucy does not develop in relation to her society — she hardly seems to change at all — the statement that she is ‘guiltless of that curse, an overheated imagination’, is as true, or as false, of the white-haired narrator as it is of the young Lucy — and (ii) the society hardly exists — we know little more of Villette than that it is alien to Lucy, in its religion, its social style and customs, and its language, and we perceive even these aspects mainly as ways of marking her difficulties in orientating herself, not as ways of entering into a deeper understanding of the place itself, in and through Lucy’s encounters with it. London, just before Lucy leaves for the continent, is equally strange.

This is a ‘small town’ — most of the action takes places inside rooms and houses, or inside Lucy’s head (which is often likened to a house/room: the mind/house metaphor is recurrent in the novel). The rooms themselves often contain spaces within the room — such as the cupboard in the schoolrom into which Lucy pushes the troublemaker on her first day as a teacher, but also numerous drawers and cabinets, places of concealment; and much of the novel follows attempts to spy into these smaller spaces — through keyholes, around doors, from windows and lattices overlooking gardens and houses, into drawers and letters. To keep them safe, letters have to be hidden in spaces within spaces — packaged and buried. It is in other respects too a small world, which recycles its characters — Polly returns to become Paulina, Graham to become Dr John . When we meet elements or persons who are outside Lucy’s range, they become objects of her gaze and speculation, and lead us back into the world within, of her mind — for example, her recognition in the King at the theatre of her own experiences of what the novel calls hypochondria, but we might call neurosis.

Sense of smallness intensified by paucity of action — and even these only hinted at, like the blow M. Paul strikes on Mme Beck’s face (‘it did not seem violent . . . he gave his hand; it scarce touched her, I thought’), or the kiss we detect taking place at the end of chapter 41 (‘the one deep spell of peace’) — Objects are few, often themselves tiny, but loom large because made to carry an emotional intensity — the handkerchief Polly prepares for her father, the pens M. Paul sharpens for Lucy, the watchguard she makes for him — We feel discrepancy between external event (minor) and inner response — the emotional language of the novel is highly charged (the recurrent imagery of shipwreck and storm, the language of torture — ‘I invoked Conviction to nail upon me the certainty . . . to fix it with the strongest spikes her strongest strokes could drive . . .’).

Smallness also enforced by surveillance theme — novel of spies, of spies spied upon (Mme Beck looking through Lucy’s clothes, Lucy watching her do so) — which often turn inwards, into passages of self-scrutiny (during the festal night, Lucy spies on the ‘secret junta’ aligned against the possibility of her marriage to M. Paul, and then turns to advise herself to look at and face the ‘TRUTH’ she now feels has been disclosed to her — wrongly, as we learn), or into concealment for concealment’s sake — as when Lucy recognises Dr John but prefers to remain in effect unseen by him, not recognised as English, hardly even noticed as a person, regarded instead as an old piece of furniture.

All these elements — smallness of town, absence or at least minimisation of sense of social structures, recycling of charcaters, paucity of events, the criss-crossing of gazes rather than the meeting of eyes — throw us back onto the plot, the sense of this as a novel about Lucy as a self, a self without society. So many of the events, and most of the characters, come to seem like images of, projections of Lucy — as if she lives in a giant hall of distorting mirors, representing possibilities for her, feared or desired, or both together.

We see this in the first part of the novel. We don’t know anything of Lucy’s back-ground — we are asked to imagine a shipwreck — but we do see her, even before the crisis has taken place, at her godmother’s house, where we meet little Polly. It becomes a house of women — the widowed Mrs Bretton waiting for and on her son, the tiny Polly waiting first for and on her father and then on Graham; but if they are waiting for, Lucy is as it were waiting absolutely, not for anyone but because she has chosen this as her stance before life. Polly’s needs and responses seem to provide an emblem of a way Lucy is seeking to avoid — Lucy disclaims an overheated imagination, but she longs for Polly to utter an emotional cry so that she, Lucy, can feel some relief from the child’s unhappiness, and she feels the room in which she and Polly sleep is ‘haunted’, because of her sense of Polly’s pain, — emotional pain, as she tries to acept her father’s absence, physical pain in the blood-spotted handkerchief she sews for him, emotional pain again as Graham is indifferent to or forgetful of her feelings, at one point spurning her with his foot as she lies caressing it– Polly is identified by Lucy as one who must ‘live, move, and have her being in another’, in the best Victorian manner transferring herself dutifully from father to her future husband — her self lived and felt as a kind of life elsewhere. She resents Graham for casually lifting her one-handed above his head, not longer after he has declared himself her slave, but later the adult equivalent of this kind of mastery — his rescue of her in the theatre — will help seal the relationship between them. We note that when Polly reappears as a young lady, she wears a white dress ‘sprinkled slightly with drops of scarlet’, which recalls the blood-stained handkerchief. Lucy admits a kind of charm in this way of life — it is the way described in Ruskin’s lecture ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’ (1864, published in his Sesame and Lilies in 1865) — but our memory of Polly is of someone in pain — and it is easy to see why Lucy seeks to avoid such exposure.

The Miss Marchmont episode repeats this existence with variations. In agreeing to work for her Lucy accepts a consciously ‘narrowed . . . lot’ — ‘a whole life of privation and small pain’ adopted in order to avoid the greater agonies which would await her if she moved out of the two small close rooms of the invalid’s house. But we learn that Miss Marchmont is a kind of prisoner of just such an agony — the Frank episode. Her life is all in the past tense — ‘While I loved, and was loved, what an existence I enjoyed’ — after his death she has learned to suffer and endure, but ceased to live. Thirty years of sorrow have been followed by twenty years of pain. Lucy resolves against the kind of surrender of self implied in Polly’s wish to live through others, but her own position, we realise later, will be much that of Miss Marchmont, folowing another storm on another man’s journey. Her three years of being loved, and loving, before Paul’s death are the three happiest years of her life; her life after that period does not offer stuff enough to generate a plot, and the novel ends — Lucy falls silent: though there is, as I shall suggest later, another way to read the ending.

The novel thus seems to introduce us to what we might call woman’s lot in the 19th century, but it doesn’t obviously declare a feminist agenda — in this it is a less urgent text than Jane Eyre, which puts more explicit emphasis on the role of women. Arnold saw the novel as full of ‘hunger, rebellion and rage’, but Lucy herself doesn’t express much rebellion. This is not to say that there is no rage in the novel, but that it is displaced from Lucy onto others — especially Vashti, whose hunger and rage almost literally ignite the theatre. Lucy is constrained by sex and economic need to stay within the bounds of her society — she is offered roles as mother-substitute (by Mme Beck), or as lady’s companion and quasi-maid, to Miss Marchmont and later to Paulina. But Vashti is a kind of female Satanic rebel, whose life and character Lucy can reject, but who is nonetheless described in terms which recall those used of Lucy — e.g. ‘scarcely a substance herself, she grapples to conflict with abstractions’, while Lucy is a ‘colourless shadow’ (by her own choice), who grapples with such abstract words as conscience, passion, reason. Unlike Dr John, who looks on with detachment, Lucy enters into Vashti’s tragic role: ‘her throes, her gaspings, breathing yet of mutiny, panting still defiance’. Vashti’s acting affects him only with curiosity — ‘his heart had no chord for enthusiasm’ (Lucy sees him as impressionable, not impressible — that is, alert, but not, finally, deeply moved)– and it is appropriate that at the theatre we rediscover Polly/Paulina: Dr John is obviously no match for Lucy– he, we are told, ‘judged [Vashti] as a woman, not an artist; it was a branding judgement’ — and his willingness to brand the woman is a judgement on him. Lucy sees the woman behind the artist, and responds differently. It’s also appropriate that Dr John rescues Paulina from this fiery theatre world, escorting her to calm and safety (she is again, we notice, in pain, this time with a dislocated shoulder); when he reaches out to ‘save’ the part-delirious Lucy at the night-festival, she turns away because she feels ‘my identity would have been grasped between his never tyrannical but always poweful hands’ — the capable hands of the doctor, but also the assertive hands of the male.

Lucy’s own experience as an actress is very different. It allows her to develop an aspect of her character which is new to her, as well as one which is familiar — What is new is the way she contrives to become a rival to Dr John, acting the part of the fop who will win Ginevra, thus exploring an element of her nature which chooses to be seen and admired rather than to hide in the shadows: and in this she acts out a kind of hostility to the way he is drawn to the external beauty of the shallow (but engaging) Ginevra, a beauty which Lucy lacks and knows she lacks. But Lucy only part-changes her costume; she wears the waistcoat, but keeps her woman’s clothes too — and in this role she remains an observer of what happens, noting and identifying ‘Isidore’ and de Hamal in the audience. While she renounces acting for the future, despite her ‘keen relish for dramatic expression’, since it won’t do for someone who is resolved to be ‘a mere looker-on at life’, she in fact combines performing with looking, and both with her habitual concealment of self. When she says that ‘I acted to please myself’ we know how she finds this acting pleasing, because she has always acted, usually acting the part of the spectator, performing in order not to be seen.

Ginevra herself is one of the few women who seems to pose no serious threat to Lucy. Lucy oddly treats her with a kind of crusty affection, as if seeing in her not a threat to her self-sufficiency but an entirely different being from herself. The emphasis in the novel falls on Ginevra’s substantiality; as Lucy notes when after her marriage she triumphantly exclaims ‘I have my portion’, there is an element of the trade-minded bourgeoise in Ginevra. We hear of her physical weight on Lucy’s arm, her delight in food, her obsession with clothes and jewels — She belongs, as her language suggests, to a world of things — ‘chose’, ‘thing’, is her usual resource when a word or a name escapes her. Lucy is at ease playing her shadow, since she can be dismissed at will. Ginevra exposes herself tothe world’s gaze, is large and solid; Lucy shrinks from it, is small and shadow-like: but Ginevra is lost in the world, absorbed by it (if we are less kind, sold out to it), while Lucy has that within which passes show. Ginevra confirms Lucy in her choice of silence and concealment. But Ginevra also acts out some of Lucy’s wishes — for example, to dominate over John Graham, as Lucy manages to do briefly at the play, and to ignore his attempts to mould her into something she is not, which Lucy fears she would be unable to do if Graham put his energy into shaping her (only the burial of the letters relieves her of this kind of fear). Both at school and during her married life Ginevra succeeds in avoiding suffering, we are told, because (in effect) she has never known how to feel.

The role of Mme Beck in the novel is more complicated. She too in some respects acts out Lucy’s feelings and desires. Lucy distinguishes her self from Mme Beck by finding her in some ways ‘masculine’: Lucy acknowledges the value of feminine qualities of sympathy and tenderness, but those ascribed to Mme Beck are other — she is stern, has a capacity for benevolence but rather to classes than to individuals, and those who appeal to her heart offend her because they remind her that she has no heart to be touched. But Lucy admires her. Her system of surveillance is effective, and while Lucy asserts that it is appropriate only because the girls at the school are not English, she herself uses similar means to organise her life. Mme Beck has authority, is the directress of her school, and when struck by pain is able to resist — she doesn’t mope when she knows that John Graham is not for her, partly because (unlike Lucy at this stage) she has a real avocation, serious business with which to fill her days. Lucy even thinks in terms of her ‘adopting’ him as a husband, taking him to her home and endowing him with her savings — all signs of a strength that Lucy admits. Mme Beck would and should have swayed nations, not only her school. But Lucy — or CB? — seems to feel uneasy about her independence. Mme Beck is also cold towards her children, dealing with the broken arm with a coolness which bespeaks a lack, in Lucy’s mind. One of the awkwardnesses in the novel is the way she has to be somewhat re-invented to become the villain of the last part of the novel; perhaps because at this moment Lucy is about to enter into a similar role, and therefore it is all the more necessary that any bad aspects of that role whould be displaced and rejected, before they contaminate Lucy’s view of herself. Mme Beck lacks, fatally, the quality of ‘expanse’ which Lucy knows in herself; when she thinks that there might be a little room marked ‘Lucy’ in John Graham’s mind (the mind/house image again) she realises that she carries inside herself a space for him which she likens to a magical tent, with an ‘innate capacity for expanse’. To expose this part of herself to the outside world would be to threaten her self-sufficiency; so she needs to keep it alive, concealed, within herself. But she can imagine no answering quality in Mme Beck.

We do however see one other aspect of Mme Beck’s role which is worth noting. It is part of Lucy’s nature to keep herself hidden, inoffensive as a shadow, but she also needs to feel the capacity for expanse within her. It thus follows that Lucy is paradoxically dependent on others, whom she needs to stir her into life — and the fact that she Mme Beck as a ‘rival’, implicitly for John Graham and explicitly for M. Paul, helps this process. Other characters, or events, are needed to trigger Lucy into expanse, however concealed. She thinks at one point, ‘How I pity those who mental pain stuns instead of rousing’. Storm and pain, resistance and emergency, are Lucy’s route back into life: part of the attraction to her of Paul Emmanel is that he creates discords, challenges, which rouse her energy in this way.

The redeployment of characters under modified names is clearly enough not a realistic device. In a novel where everything seems to relate to Lucy’s mind, impinging on her or echoing her, realism is not what we expect. The novel plays with this expectation in the matter of the nun. The realist explanation (Ginevra’s lover’s disguise) is so extravagant as to invite a couter-explanation. It seems to suggest Lucy’s capacity for repression — the image of a nun walled up for a forbidden love — and therefore also a starved love. John Graham diagnoses ‘a case of spectral illusion’: i.e., Lucy has dreamed the ghost. Lucy responds by thinking that doctors are too committed to ‘dry, materialist views’ — Our first thought is that the doctor must be right; it turns out that both are — i.e., it does have a materialist explanation, but there was an apparition. The nun, like everything else, exists at the level of plot, as well as at the level of stuff. The first appearance seems to be called up by Lucy’s love for John Graham , since it follows her plunge into the attic to enjoy his letter (which she then loses); the next full appearance when she buries the letters, and her love, under the pear tree — a mournful figure, ‘sable-robed, snowy-veiled’. The third is provoked by M. Paul’s claim of an affinity betweeen him and Lucy, a quasi-declaration of love: this time the figure is both ‘solid’ and passes by with ‘a sort of angry rush’, ‘fierce of gesture’ — and seems to bring about a change in the weather (‘the whole night seemed to feel her’).

The final appearance shows Lucy grappling with the nun-like element in herself, as she tries to convince herself that M.Paul is committed to marrying his ward, Justine-Marie — here Lucy falls on a bundle of clothes, mockingly left to her by Ginevra and de Hamal because of her repressed and repressing nature — but the movement and energy this time is Lucy’s, who dismantles the costume rather than wearing it. That she does so speaks of another aspect of herself, one whch rejects repression. When she confronts M. Paul and Mme Beck a little later, she is for once moved to speak: to tell him her heart is breaking. The self-repression is broken for a moment, and the two come together as potential lovers. The nun is both spectral, an image of Lucy’s mind, and a comic element in the plot: the play or uncertainty between the two is CB’s delight in the game of fiction. We may see in the play an echo of another element in the novel, the lingering power of Justine-Marie, who didn’t (as Lucy does) have the courage to hold to her lover — a ghostly figure who still exercises a degree of control of M. Paul’s actions — and the young Justine-Marie who materialises not as his wife-to-be but simply as his ward — healthy, cheerful, a ‘bourgeois belle’. At one level this disowns the fears and anxieties which have run riot in Lucy’s drugged mind; at another, we see behind the literally present Justine-Marie the spectral figure who lives as much in Lucy’s mind as she does in the memory of M. Paul.

The ending of the novel inevitably attracts comment. CB’s father objected to novels with sad endings, and asked her to provide an upbeat one. She refused but did compromise with the offer to us to imagine as we wish. M. Paul is not offered unequivocally as Lucy’s ideal partner; ‘royal to me was that bounty’, Lucy reflects, kissing his hand like a servant, and his thoughts about Lucy’s ‘little cot’ ought to remnd us of the dangers of diminution (Polly was little , too) — he triggers her life and passion, but he also threatens to repress her — except at the last, with his invitation to her to trust to God and herself — good Protestant counsel, no doubt, but not entirely consistent with the man who ordered her to gaze at the pictures from a woman’s life in the gallery, and who saw her — in her pink dress, looking at the Cleoptra — as a kind of scarlet woman. Neither hero nor heroine are present simply to our admiration (CB said that he was lucky to have escaped living with someone so ‘morbid’ as Lucy). But it might be that the ending of the novel really does represent a wish-fulfilment: Lucy is loved, but at the same time set free of love by M. Paul’s death? This might suggest that CB seeks to reconcile or compromise between two competing ideologies: the liberal ideology of ‘conduct’ as the means to autonomy and independence, a way to advance (‘en avant’, says Lucy, when Mme Beck challenges her to teach) morally and economically, and a conservative ideology where respect is granted rather than earned, in deference to class or rank, or to marital status. But we are also likely to remember Miss Marchmont (that Lucy receives a bequest from her heir may be intended to so remind us). This is, genuinely, an open ending?