Tag Archives: Villette

New publication: Walking the City in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, Journal of Victorian Culture

My article “‘A still ecstasy of freedom and enjoyment’: Walking the city in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette” has been published online  in the Journal of Victorian Culture. In this piece, I suggest that Brontë’s writing of women’s city walking makes a significant contribution to the idea of the flâneuse. Through a reading of Brontë’s letters from Belgium and her 1853 novel Villette, I argue that Brontë writes herself and Lucy Snowe into a growing canon of strolling city women, and that she brings a new perspective to the construct of the flâneuse through an embodied articulation of urban city wandering.

I start by looking at the prevalence of travel in Brontë’s letters, locating her within a new wave of women on the move in the mid-nineteenth century. There is a competing tension between the desire for mobility – “such a strong wish for wings” – and the reality of containment within the home, that runs through her letters, and this goes on to shape her fictional writing.* I then turn to her letters from Belgium: the city afforded Brontë new opportunities for “threading the streets”, and she starts to develop an attentiveness to the relationship between body, mobility and space that is developed more substantially in Lucy Snowe’s city encounter in Villette. Here, the thrill of city walking – “a still ecstasy of freedom and enjoyment” – emerges as an acutely embodied experience, and I argue that through this Brontë carves out a new discursive space for her woman walker, shifting from the spectatorship of the flâneur to a more fully sensory experience of the urban environment. This becomes crucial to the strong sense of autonomy and agency that walking affords women; at the same time, Brontë recognises the difficulties of mobility for women, and in the final section I look at how she negotiates this tension through highly embodied accounts of Lucy’s wandering in later sections of Villette.

* I explore this trait in Jane Eyre in my book.

 

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Charlotte Brontë’s Brussels

Yesterday (31st March) marked the anniversary of the death of Charlotte Brontë, and it is fitting that I have just returned from a weekend exploring an oft-overlooked part of her life: Charlotte Brontë’s time in the city of Brussels. Although it is well known that two of her novels, Villette (1853) and The Professor (published 1857) are based on her time as a student and teacher in the Belgium capital, the importance of Brussels is typically given less attention other than as a topographical reference-point for her novels. In my research I’m exploring the legacy of Charlotte Brontë in Brussels over the past 150 years, and this visit was the first step in seeing the sites for myself and meeting the Brussels Brontë Group: the group’s regular events and tours bring together people of all nationalities who are united by their love of the Brontës, with a special interest in Emily and Charlotte’s time in the city. I had a wonderful time attending a lecture (more of which in the next post), having dinner with the group to talk all things Brontë and Brussels, and then going on a walking tour of Brontë locations. I also retraced the route alone, and what follows here is a photo-essay of my journey around this lesser-known “Brontë country” – if you’re unfamiliar with the Brontë story, you can start by reading more about what brought the sisters to Brussels, and how it influenced their work, here.

Parc de Bruxelles
Parc de Bruxelles

Continue reading Charlotte Brontë’s Brussels

After Dickens 2012; Brontë 2016?

“So, 4 years until Charlotte Brontë’s bicentenary”

I was only half-joking as I made this my first tweet on the 8th February, the day after the Dickens bicentenary – as I mentioned in a post on Researcher Life, I’ve realised over the past couple of months that it really is worth looking ahead for any commemorative dates or other celebrations related to your research, and thinking about timing some relevant work accordingly. And thus it was that, fearing Dickens fever would soon die down (even I’m a little Dickens-fatigued), I found myself having a quick look to see which of authors are next up for the big 2-0-0: four years for Charlotte Brontë, a whole seven years until George Eliot, and Gaskell quietly came of bicentenary age in 2010. Which raises the question of whether Dickens 2012 will change the way we “do” bicentenaries; will Brontë or Eliot, arguably equally as “great” as Dickens, receive anywhere near the amount of fuss that Dickens’s birthday has created?

Dickens 2012 has, understandably, wearied a lot of Victorian scholars; whilst you could easily think that Dickens was the only man born in 1812, many have been quick to point out that Robert Browning, Edward Lear and the lesser-known Geraldine Jewsbury are also 200 this year. This has prompted some interesting reflections on the literary politics of bicentenaries and even wider questions about genre preferences in our contemporary ideas about the Victorian period: Alison Chapman raised an interesting discussion about poetry vs prose on the Victorian Poetry Network, reminding us that whilst poetry doesn’t hold such a strong place in our idea of the Victorian period today, there was an intrinsic relationship between poetry and prose in the period; she also points out that Dickens should be remembered not just as novelist, but also for his role in the evolving culture of Victorian poetry.

Whilst individual poets are, unfortunately, unlikely to ever get such sustained media attention as novelists (I’d suggest the potential of novels to be adapted for film and tv, and the particular adaptability of Dickens’s writing, goes a long way towards the general preference for novelists in general, and Dickens in particular, today), the upcoming bicentenary of another novelist raises the question of whether Dickens 2012 will prove to be a unique event in celebrating Victorian authors, or if this will instead set a precedence for future commemorations. Charlotte Brontë is especially pertinent to this discussion, as she remains one of the most popular nineteenth-century authors today: Jane Eyre is widely read and regarded as one of the Greats, and only last year yet another film adaptation was made, suggesting its enduring popularity.

But Jane Eyre is Brontë’s only really popular work, and her wonderful Villette and Shirley remain much less widely read despite containing much of what is loved about Jane Eyre: the psychological depths and mysteries of Villette are much darker, whilst Shirley‘s feminist heroines are problematic but the novel much more overtly and bravely probes into “the woman question”. As a result, I suspect that Brontë’s birthday will be a rather quieter affair, with a number of conferences and a small amount of media attention. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing: Dickens’s vast corpus of writing presents a rich opportunity for multiple reflections and responses, and the familiarity of many of his works has provided a springboard for opening up such wide interest in the bicentenary; the opportunity for “celebrating Dickens” is there itself in the sheer variety and volume of his works.

Charlotte Brontë presents us with a rather different legacy, and thus the need for a rather different response; what I hope is that her bicentenary will provide an opportunity to go beyond Jane Eyre and encourage wider recognition and enjoyment of her other works. Dickens 2012 has suggested the potential for not just for celebrating what we already know but discovering the new, forgotten, or neglected works; whilst the model of Dickens 2012 might not be appropriate for other celebrated authors, it has opened up a value in bicentenary (or similar) celebrations. It’ll be worth tracing the on-going impact of the projects and learning from this how other bicentenaries can best be used to encourage new forms of engagement with Victorian literature.

Now, will someone please write a screenplay of Villette…?!