- Metonymic Chains:Shipwreck, Slavery, and Networks in Villette
"Great pains were taken to hide chains with flowers"—Villette (127)
At 8:00 p.m. on 14 April 1816, signal fires flared to life in the corn and cane fields along the southeastern plantations of Barbados, a colony of the British West Indies. The slave revolt had begun. Six days later, a baby girl was born thousands of miles away, in Yorkshire, England: Charlotte Brontë.
More than mere chronological coincidence is at play here. Multiple moments in Brontë's canon speak of a fundamental connection to circum-Atlantic slavery.1 The most obvious (or, at least, the most popular) example is Jane Eyre (1847), which, as many critics have shown, features explicit metaphors and imagery of slavery and the infamous Creole madwoman in the attic. Overt metaphors of slavery also appear in Brontë's The Professor (1846), Shirley (1849), and her unfinished Emma (1853) (Meyer 60–63). We might also look to her juvenilia: her Roe Head journal (1831–32) features a wild storm that "evokes … the vision of Africans in revolution against white British colonists" (Meyer 61n2). Similarly, her work in Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846) repeatedly employs the language of slavery (Avery 267). Beyond the canon, we can look to Brontë's ties to slavery through her life in Yorkshire. Several critics chart how Brontë's social milieu—family, neighbours, employers, local libraries, lecture tours, and so on—rendered slavery an inescapable part of her life in northeastern England.
To this list I would like to add Villette (1853), Brontë's final completed novel. Even though it appeared after the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, Villette possesses an intrinsic relationship to the horrors of circum-Atlantic slavery. On the surface of the text, we find several short, scattered references to slavery, but these are mostly abstract metaphors—simple stylistic signals of inequality—rather than specific historical markers. We must therefore dive deeper into Villette's figurative language, looking beyond metaphor and toward metonymy.
To fully grasp Villette's historicity, we also must revisit the novel's two often-overlooked scenes of shipwreck. The wrecks teach us how to understand Brontë's representational poetics, how to salvage a more specific history from a supposedly insular autobiographical text, for out of the two wrecks emerge echoes of jettison, of slave revolt, and of the longue durée of [End Page 343] colonial slavery. In particular, I argue that Villette metonymically invokes the horrors of slavery in the British West Indies. In so doing, the novel reveals its fundamental relationship with circum-Atlantic slavery. At stake here is the status and genre of the novel. By drawing out the themes and histories of slavery that underwrite Villette, we can reframe the text as a social problem novel on a global scale. Indeed, Villette weaves together multiple transnational networks—be they literary, economic, political, or biographical—in order to move us beyond both the level of the individual and the frame of the nation.
The time is ripe for reading Villette as a node within a global network. Critics, as observed by Heather Glen, have begun to "challenge the view that [Brontë's] novels speak simply of 'private experience'" and are starting to see Brontë's works as "much more aware of and responsive to a multifarious and changing early nineteenth-century world" (1–2). Similarly, Alexandra Lewis notes in scholarship on the Brontë sisters a growing interest in transatlantic exchanges (201). This attention to Brontë's wider world echoes recent general efforts by Victorianists to grapple with the global dimensions of British literature in the long nineteenth century. In the words of Tim Watson, "the relationship between national, imperial and Atlantic histories needs to be rethought" (157). We are entering what might be called the global or post-postcolonial turn, and now is the time to reconceptualize the role of transnational exchange and mobility and to consider the politics and poetics of scale. Several critics—most prominently, Caroline Levine—have challenged us to look beyond the borders of Britain, beyond the nation as the ultimate boundary of authority, causation, and ideology.
Yet, to date, no...