Shipwreck, Slavery, Revolution: History as the Open Secret in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette
Winner of the Friends of Fondren Library Graduate Research Awards, 2016. This paper was originally prepared for Rice Course ENGL541, Victorian Studies: Genres of Privacy given by Professor Helena Michie, Department of English in Spring 2015.
Is trauma a private or public experience? How do larger moments of historical, national, and imperial upheaval reverberate on the level of the individual? How readily do we forget a violent past, despite the traces that wash up on the textual margins? In this project I move against the critical current that posits Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853) as an autobiographical work. Although the parallels between the lives of Brontë and Lucy Snowe are perhaps tempting—much like her protagonist, Brontë leaves England for the continent, teaches English at a boarding school, and falls in love with a spirited, temperamental instructor—such an autobiographical reading imposes limits upon the possible interpretations of two traumatic scenes in the novel, Lucy’s journey to the continent and the (supposed) death of Monsieur Paul Emmanuel. Against an autobiographical backdrop, these two scenes read as simple textual symptoms of Brontë’s homesickness and unrequited love. By contrast, I place Brontë’s work in a longer, wider historical context, considering the uses and limits of framing Villette as a shipwreck novel. I contend that the flotsam and jetsam of a traumatic past—specifically, the violence of the British slave trade in the West Indies and the upheaval of the 1848 European revolutions—surface in Lucy’s pain and M. Paul’s apparent death. At stake in my project is the status of history: in Villette, I believe that history functions as an “open secret” (à la D. A. Miller), an absent-yet-present, repressed-yet-pervasive knowledge of the past that haunts the present.