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  • Lucy Snowe, a Material Girl?Phrenology, Surveillance, and the Sociology of Interiority
  • Leila S. May (bio)

Charlotte Brontë has long been considered one of the nineteenth century's foremost psychologists of inner spiritual being. Accordingly, she is viewed as a staunch defender of the need for privacy in the personal worlds in which she places her protagonists. Such a view of Brontë's metaphysics was attacked forcefully by Sally Shuttleworth in her influential work Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology (1996), where Shuttleworth attributes to Brontë a materialistic psychology derived from Brontë's interest in new advancements in the psychology and physiology of her day, and especially from her commitment to phrenology. In this essay, I will defend a version of the more traditional view of Villette (1853) and develop it by showing its philosophical similarity to the dualistic ontology generated by Cartesian metaphysics in the seventeenth century. Opposing Shuttleworth's provocative view, according to which Brontë is depicted as struggling toward a materialistic conception of the self, I will argue that Brontë is clearly a dualist, and that her dualism is both as radical as Descartes's and very similar to it, not only in content but functionally, each having as their goal the defense of inner selfhood against its occupation and erasure by the new sciences of their times. But to show that Brontë's view is not as antiquated as Descartes's in all respects, I will also discuss Villette in terms of the sociology of Georg Simmel and his erstwhile disciple, Erving Goffman,1 whose theories offer some surprising support for Lucy Snowe's otherwise solipsistic-seeming conception of selfhood.

To establish my claim about Brontë's metaphysics, I will be obliged to formulate a refutation of Shuttleworth's argument as it applies to Villette. I will end my discussion with a rather radical reversal, however, arguing that Brontë herself not only fails to defend her dualism against monistic materialism but undermines her own philosophy of secrecy by bequeathing powerful detective skills to her heroine, Lucy Snowe, and to the other most important characters in the novel, Madame Modeste Beck [End Page 43] and Monsieur Paul Emanuel, Lucy's superiors at the Pensionnat de Demoiselles. These Sherlockian powers dismantle the inner/outer distinction required for Brontë's kind of spiritualistic dualism—and do so with no help needed from phrenology. This is to say that Brontë's depiction of Lucy Snowe's interiority makes a strong case for radical dualism, but this dualism nonetheless ultimately collapses due to Lucy's ambivalence about self-revelation, her curiosity about the interiority of others, and the powerful detective skills she shares with her colleagues, Mme Beck and M. Paul, at the Pensionnat.

The aspect of Georg Simmel's (1858-1918) sociology that is most pertinent to my argument is found in his work The Secret and the Secret Society, written in 1908.2 The key idea is his claim that sociality and selfhood as we know them would be impossible without secrecy. All social relationships "presuppose . . . a measure of mutual concealment."3 Simmel suggests that "under otherwise identical circumstances, human collective life requires a certain measure of secrecy which merely changes its topics: while leaving one of them, social life seizes upon another, and in all this alternation it preserves an unchanged quantity of secrecy."4 The idea here seems to be that secrecy is an ever-present protean cipher of absence—a zero or an X—in any social relation at any time. Secrecy's content is determined historically: "We simply cannot," says Simmel, "imagine any interaction or social arrangement or society which are not based on this teleologically determined non-knowledge of each other."5 In addition, subjectivity itself requires secrecy; without it, the individual would be open to ridicule and abuse; she would be at the mercy of the malevolence of others. One must be able to restrict the amount and kind of knowledge about oneself obtained by the other.6 Indeed, Simmel claims that secrecy is the precondition of the consciousness of selfhood, and that therefore "[t]he secret . . . is one of man's greatest achievements."7 In one of its many creative expressions, the secret...


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