On Lucy Snowe, or Confessions of a Bronte-phile

As I am reading St. Augustine's Confessions at the moment, excuse me if I get a little too into the spirit of revelation.

I was fortunate enough to spend a proportion of months living in London as one of those ubiquitous study-abroad-ers. Along with developing serious Anglo-philia, I also returned to the States as a card-carrying member of the Bronte society. My love of the Brontes began early and progressed at a fever pitch upon returning from England.

I can remember where I was when I first turned the pages of Jane Eyre: I must have been about 13, at my brother's soccer game. We frequently did this sort of trade-off (everyone would trek to my swim meets and sit sticky and chlorinated to watch me swim for about 3 cumulative minutes; I would hunker on cold metal bleachers with a book and a half-hearted scowl). I remember that is was warm, that the grass was itchy, that there was a leaf as a bookmark. I remember Jane and Mr. Rochester and crying and not knowing why it was that Jane's cries moved me so much.

I also remember the first time I read Wuthering Heights. It was summertime and I was a part-time lifeguard/ part-time participant of early early morning swim practices. We would be required to plunge into that cold pool well before daylight, swim through sunrise, and climb out when the lawnmowers had started up and the sun grew strong. On the days I didn't botch the pool readings so that the swimmers could be sent home, I would sit in the little pool office with Heathcliff and Cathy and Catherine, trying to understand a world I had never before imagined: passion, wild wild nature, cold that chilled your soul and emotions that cracked it open.

[Ruisdael: Landscape with Waterfall and Church]


I was prime for Bronte-philia when I arrived in London...and took a vivid and wonderful trip to Haworth to walk in the steps of my beloved family (as well as the hordes of Japanese tourists who had got there first).

Since those early experiences, I had re-read both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights multiple times, found some of the Juvenilia, picked up Shirley, discovered Anne's tales, and fallen in love with Villette. Villette is my great literary romance. Lucy Snowe is the great enigma of my reading past. I encounter the pages of this book with a Sortes Vergilianae sort of holy anticipation.

Lucy Snowe possesses some of my favorite lines in all literature. She is at turns retiring and shadowy, fierce and resilient, witty and sarcastic, highly suspicious, highly romantic, passionately pragmatic. She is the most complicated woman I have ever encountered. She exalts herself and defeats herself and in the end triumphs over her enemies in a way only she can see.

But all of this is a prelude to what I was intending to write. I could quote at length from Villette, I am fascinated by the supernatural aspects: the phantoms, the ghostly fiances, Mme Walravens, stormy disturbances, total annihilation of spirit.

But I am also fascniated by Lucy's interior battle of wanting to remain in shadow and wanting to be lit up in brilliance. Before Mme Beck's fete, the girls of the pensionerre at which she is a English maitresse assemble to be coiffed, dressed and arrayed. Lucy is swept up in their activities and offers these reflections:

In beholding this diaphanous and snowy mass, I well remember feeling myself to be a mere shadowy spot on a field of light; the courage was not in me to put on a transparent white dress: something thin I must wear - the weather and rooms being too hot to give substantial fabrics sufferance, so I had sought through a dozen shops till I lit upon a crape-like material of purple-gray - the colour, in short, of dun mist, lying on a moor in bloom. My tailleuse had kindly made it as well as she could: because, as she judiciously observed, it was 'si triste - si peu voyant', care in the fashion was the more imperative: it was well she took this view of the matter, for I had no flower, no jewel to relieve it: and, what was more, I had no natural rose of complexion.

We become oblivious of these deficiencies in the uniform routine of daily drudgery, but they will force upon us their unwelcome blank on those bright occasions when beauty should shine.

However, in this same gown of shadow, I felt at home and at ease; an advantage I should not have enjoyed in anything more brilliant or striking.


[Sargent: Venetian Interior]

Shadows will haunt Lucy throughtout this story. She is forever struggling to maintain her anonymity while asserting her brilliance. How is a woman of her strength of mind and steadfastness of conviction supposed to manage these warring tendencies? She is comfortable in her "gown of shadow" comfortable so long as it is of her own choice. She speaks much later of an offer made to her to be the companion of a much-loved young lady. She declines this offer saying:

I was no bright lady's shadow - not Miss de Bassompierre's. Overcast enough it was my nature often to be; of a subdued habit I was: but the dimness and depression must both be voluntary - such as kept me docile at my desk, in the midst of my now well-accustomed pupils in Madame Beck's first classe; or alone, at my own bedside, in her dormitory, or in the alley and seat which were called mine, in her garden: my qualifications were not convertible, nor adaptable; they could not be made the foil of any gem, the adjunct of any beauty, the appendage of any greatness in Christendom.


A shadowy nature imposed on her is repugnant. When Graham, the golden idol of her heart calls her an "inoffensive shadow," she remarks:

I smiled; but I also hushed a groan. Oh! - I just wished he would let me alone - cease allusion to me. These epithets - these attributes I put from me. His 'quiet Lucy Snowe,' his 'inoffensive shadow,' I gave him back; not with scorn, but with extreme weariness: theirs was the coldness and the pressure of lead: let him whelm me with no such weight.


[Sargent: Street in Venice]

Something interesting happens when Lucy dons a dress of not-so-misty color. Upon going to a concert with Graham and his mother she is given a new dress, a horrifyingly pink dress. She balks, turns stubborn, and finds herself bedecked in a "splendor" that terrifies her:

I thought I should not: I thought no human force should avail to put me into it. A pink dress! I knew it not. It knew not me. I had not proved it.

Without any force at all, I found myself led and influenced by another's will, unconsulted, unpersuaded, quietly over-ruled. In short, the pink dress went on, softened by some drapery of black lace. I was pronounced to be en grande ténue, and requested to look in the glass. I did so with some fear and trembling; with more fear and trembling, I turned away. Seven o'clock struck; Dr. Bretton was come; my godmother and I went down. She was clad in brown velvet; as I walked in her shadow, how I envied her those folds of grave, dark majesty!

Graham stood in the drawing-room doorway.

'I do hope he will not think I have been decking myself out to draw attention,' was my uneasy
aspiration.

'Here, Lucy, are some flowers,' said he, giving me a bouquet. He took no further notice of my dress than was conveyed in a kind smile and satisfied nod, which calmed at once my sense of shame and fear of ridicule. For the rest, the dress was made with extreme simplicity, guiltless of flounce or furbelow; it was but the light fabric and bright tint which scared me, and since Graham found in it nothing absurd, my own eye consented soon to become reconciled.

How scared she is! Yet so hopeful at the same time. She is comforted by the obscuring black lace but holds back with anticipation for Graham's response. She hates to be thought of as displaying her plumage, but Graham's approval allows her to see the dressas an acceptable garment and not a frightful costume.

Lucy's battle can be summed up in one heart-rending internal monolgue. She loves Graham but she is an orphan, a schoolteacher, without beauty, without fortune, without those charms which are a woman's only comfort. She yearns to hope for passion and feeling, she yearns to hope for a letter from Graham:

'If,' muttered Reason, 'if he should write, what then? Do you meditate pleasure in replying? Ah, fool! I warn you! Brief be 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 inter-communion. . . .'

'But,' I again broke in, 'where the bodily presence is weak and the speech contemptible, surely there cannot be error in making written language the medium of better utterance than faltering lips can achieve?'

Reason only answered, 'At your peril you cherish that idea, or suffer its influence to animate any writing of yours!'

But if I feel, may I never express?'

Never!' declared Reason.

I groaned under her bitter sternness. Never - never - oh, hard word! This hag, this Reason, would not let me look up, or smile, or hope: she could not rest unless I were altogether crushed, cowed, broken in and broken down.


I think it may be time to thumb these well-worn pages once again.