Secretive Women, Part III


'Ah! I am not pleasant to look at.'

I could not help saying this; the words came unbidden. I never remember a time when I had not a haunting dread of what might be the degree of my outward deficiency; this dread pressed me at the moment with special force.

A great softness came upon his countenance; his violet eyes grew suffused and glistening under their deep Spanish lashes. He started up. 'Let us walk on.'

'Do I displease your eyes much?' I took courage to urge. The point had its vital import for me.

He stopped, and gave me a short, strong answer -- an answer which silenced, subdued, yet profoundly satisfied. Ever after that I knew what I was for him; and what I might be for the rest of the world I ceased painfully to care. Was it weak to lay so much stress on an opinion about appearance? I fear it might be, I fear it was; but in that case I must avow no light share of weakness. I must own a great fear of displeasing, a strong wish moderately to please M. Paul.


This last passage that I have recalled is not so simple -- in fact I think it is much more than the sentiments expressed by the speakers of Bachmann and Dickinson. It is Lucy Snowe speaking of her love for M. Paul -- she has struggled fiercely, just as Jane Eyre struggled -- struggled to maintain her independence, to hold fast to her spirit, her passion, her abilities. And still she loves -- to the point of distraction. But the reunion between Jane and Mr. Rochester was contrived -- Mr. Rochester had to be weakened (he becomes blind and crippled, his force dimmed after the fire, Jane had to be empowered (independently wealthy, no longer required to work). In Villette there is no artifice, no contrivance.

Lucy works hard, she becomes independent, she loves and challenges. She despairs, she rages, she rebels. And she is rewarded. In the chapter from which I quoted, M. Paul reveals a secret to Lucy, a secret project upon which he has been working for weeks -- working so diligently that she has felt abandoned and lost and forgotten. He reveals to Lucy that he has purchased a small schoolroom where she can take pupils independently, working and saving and awaiting his return from abroad. When this gift is revealed, she is overwhelmed:

I hardly knew what to do. I first caressed the soft velvet on his cuff, then I stroked the hand it surrounded. It was his foresight, his goodness -- his silent, strong, effective goodness -- that overpowered me by their proved reality. It was the assurance of his sleepless interest which broke on me like a light from heaven; it was his -- I will dare to say it -- his fond, tender look which now shook me indescribably.

[...]

I promised to do all he told me. I promised to work hard and willingly. "I will be your faithful steward,' I said; 'I trust at your coming the account will be ready. Monsieur, monsieur, you are too good!'

In such inadequate language my feelings struggled for expression. They could not get it. Speech, brittle and unmalleable, and cold as ice, dissolved or shivered in the effort. He watched me still; he gently raised his hand to stroke my hair; it touched my lips in passing; I pressed it close, I paid it tribute. He was my king. Royal for me had been that hand's bounty; to offer homage was both a joy and a duty.

-- There is more, of course -- this is one of the finest love stories ever written. Lucy is one of the finest women I've ever read of -- and yet there is this rhetoric -- it is slight here, it is different here -- it makes me wonder whether the words we must use are foolish -- whether they're the real trouble. How else to describe these sacrifices? How else to describe these beautiful moments of generosity and acceptance and gratitude?