- Gothic Desire in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette
A letter of 16 June 1854 reads as follows: “My dear Ellen, Can you come next Wednesday or Thursday? I am afraid circumstances will compel me to agree to an earlier day than I wished. I sadly wished to defer it till the 2nd week in July, but I fear it must be sooner, the 1st week in July, possibly the last week in June . . . This gives rise to much trouble and many difficulties as you may imagine, and papa’s whole anxiety now is to get the business over. Mr. Nicholls with his usual trustworthiness takes all the trouble of providing substitutes on his own shoulders.” 1
Despite the language of reluctance and regret, Charlotte Brontë was facing neither surgery nor the firing squad. Rather, the “it” she refers to in this letter to her friend, Ellen Nussey, is her long-deferred marriage. Admittedly, this letter carries biographical and psychological interest. But I am more interested in the way her characterization of Arthur Nicholls as “providing substitutes” announces a theme and dominant trope crucial to understanding Brontë’s literary maneuverings. 2 Like her future husband, Brontë works a series of substitutions in her novels.
Much light has been shed by critics who have focused on these doublings, displacements, repressions, and subversions. 3 Despite their varying theoretical backgrounds, consensus that Brontë employed these strategies as a critique of Victorian culture has gradually coalesced. To that end, identities, bodies, gender, and genre have all been said to migrate; and, indeed, all of these emigrants wash up on the shores of Belgium’s Villette. Yet less attention has been paid to an even more significant aspect of Brontë’s work: her reterritorialization of migratory texts. Pondering Brontë’s substitutions for possible relocations yields insights about her professionalism as well as her literary products. [End Page 733]
After all, Villette is Brontë’s reworking of her first novel, The Professor. Her initial efforts to publish it had provoked continual rebuffs from publishers; after the encouragement of George Smith had produced the success of Jane Eyre, Brontë’s repeated suggestions that he next publish The Professor prompted gentle rebukes. Part of the objection to The Professor was its size, two volumes, a distinctly anomalous commodity. 4 Charlotte wrote Smith on 5 February 1851, withdrawing her offer of her “martyrized M.S.” to one “who might ‘use it to light an occasional cigar.’” In her letter, Charlotte ironically suggests that she should be locked up in prison for twelve months, at the end of which time she would come out either “with a 3 vol. M.S. in my hand, or else with a condition of intellect that would exempt me ever after from literary efforts and expectations.” 5 In September, Smith placed additional pressure on her by repeating the firm’s post-Jane Eyre suggestion that she write a novel in serial form. Charlotte refused. 6
Although little credit is given to Charlotte as a business-woman, we can see her awareness of literary marketing from the very beginnings of her career as a novelist, a transition motivated by financial pragmatics after the failure of the sisters’ volume of poems, for whose publication they had been forced to pay. 7 When she finally revised The Professor, her remodeling entailed more than a narrative elaboration and a narratorial shift from the third into the first person. Brontë also carved emphatically Gothic features onto what had been principally a double bildungsroman. Those Gothic features bear a canny resemblance to one of the most scandalous Gothic texts of the previous century, Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796).
A tale of substitutions and possession, The Monk’s relics in Villette speak to Brontë’s struggle to gain possession of herself as a woman, as an author, and as an heir to literary conventions. As Luce Irigaray imagines the dilemma: “How find a voice, make a choice, strong enough to cut through these layers of ornamental style, that decorative sepulchre, where even her breath is lost. Stifled under all those airs.” 8 But the voice that Charlotte Brontë finds by tunneling out from within the tomb of the Gothic...