Cold as Snow(e) (What’s in a Name?)

 Villette Cover Thumbnail (258x400)Lucy Snowe remains a mystery to the very end of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853). Apart from the occasional emotional outburst, Lucy keeps her feelings contained from the people in her life and also largely from the Reader. We barely know her, despite spending countless hours hearing her side of the story. The ending is vague, and, as Charlotte writes to her friend Ellen Nussey, [spoiler] “it was designed that every reader should settle the catastrophe for himself,” adding that drowning would be a “milder doom” than marriage.

As I mentioned in my last post, between the three volumes of Villette, I read Charlotte Brontë: Selected Letters (edited by Margaret Smith), which includes the letter to Nussey referenced above. This collection of letters has given me a better sense of the autobiographical nature of Brontë’s novels. For example, it contains Brontë’s emotional correspondence with M. Heger, who, along with his wife, ran the boarding school in Belgium where Charlotte and Emily Brontë were pupils and teachers. He became the model for Villette’s M. Paul, a professor of literature who ultimately helps Lucy achieve independence.

As explained in the letters, like her fictional Lucy, Charlotte strived for independence. She recognized that her father was “a clergyman of limited though competent income,” and so felt it was her “duty” to get a job that paid well enough regardless of her own preferences, becoming a teacher and a private governess. When engaged in these occupations, particularly when they required living in other people’s houses and/or under other people’s rules, Charlotte felt she must be “estrang[ed] from [her] real character” through “the adoption of a cold frigid… apathetic exterior that is painful.” Lucy is similar on the surface, and as Charlotte explains in a letter to W.S. Williams, a reader affiliated with her publisher:

I called her “Lucy Snowe” (spelt with an e) which “Snowe” I afterward changed to “Frost.” Subsequently—I rather regretted the change and wished it “Snowe” again… A cold name she must have—party—perhaps—on the “lucus a non lucendo”—principle—party on that of the “fitness of things”—for she has about her an external coldness.

Indeed, “Snowe” and “Frost” fit Lucy, who suffers from the same “apathetic exterior” as her author did, and the mixture of light and dark in her full name is appropriate for a character who alternates between being straightforward and being opaque with the Reader.

In real life, it seems aptronyms are also fairly common, despite the fact that we choose baby names without knowing anything about our children’s future personalities. Somehow, my girls have lived up to their names: the carefree, gregarious twin has a name that means, roughly, “entertaining companion,” while her more reserved, studious sister’s name means “aspiration.” I sometimes wonder, half-seriously, would their personalities be different today had we switched their names at birth.

Other Thoughts on Volume III of Villette (the end of the Read-along; Thank you to Beth for Hosting!):

Covered In Flour

17 thoughts on “Cold as Snow(e) (What’s in a Name?)

  1. Pingback: “Sinclair” Is The New “Smith” (Or So It Seems) | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  2. Pingback: #Villettealong: Reading Companions | Covered In Flour

  3. Pingback: Villette Readalong: Wrap-Up | Too Fond

  4. Miss Alexandrina

    I have always been fascinated about how a name may reflecta person. I once had a Chemistry teacher whose intials were PH, which, of course, amused me to no end. The question for thought is whether we ‘live up to’ our names, by being subconsciously influenced by them, or whether infant developing personality influences the name.

    Then, of course, there are the cases where someone changes their name. Because Alexandrina was deemed too long a name for four-yr-old me to learn for school, I was given my middle name my entire primary school life, before I went back to Alex(andrina) at the end of my first year of secondary school – whilst it’s not that I feel one suits me more than the other, I was always more comfortable in my first name, rather than second. I have no idea why that is.

    In a similar vein, I like that Bronte made a conscious decision with the light and dark in Lucy’s name; I’m afraid that I choose a name that suits my character rather arbitrarily than logically. On the other hand, I wonder if we writers still choose names reflecting the personalities in our minds. After I completed the first draft of my main novel, I did some browsing for the meaning of names, just out of interest, and found that many of the meanings fit the characters, though that had not been my intention. Peter – meaning rock – was especially striking as a secondary character who provides the only support for one MC in his family.

    I could go on. No doubt there is much research out there, both in the regions of Psychology and literature.

    1. It’s such an interesting topic. I’m curious to know whether we are influenced by our names, whether people treat us differently because of our names (thus influencing our behavior), or whether it’s some other combination of factors. I’d love to see studies on it (and I’ll probably look around for some).

      As for changing names, I know a couple who changed their child’s name after a few months because it just didn’t “fit.” Choosing a child’s name is a very stressful endeavor!

    1. Yes, it’s sad! Charlotte Bronte lived such a tragic life, and while I think she had genuine affection for her husband when she eventually got married (until her untimely death), it wasn’t quite what Jane and Mr. Rochester had.

  5. Love your thoughts on the name as being indicative of the character. I hadn’t considered it, although I should have! Thanks so much for taking the ride with me–it was so nice having you and Jaclyn to read and share thoughts with. Maybe we can do it again sometime?

    1. Thanks for hosting this read-along! It was definitely the encouragement I needed to read I book I should’ve read a long time ago. It would be fun to do it again!

  6. I know so many people whose names represent their character so fully that I’m absolutely convinced names define us. Just thinking of Charlotte, her name means ‘Strong woman’ and I think such description fits her perfectly.

    1. I know some people who seem defined by their names, too! I wonder whether we change our behavior to fit our names or whether it’s that people treat us differently based on our names (or a little of both). Thanks for the comment!

  7. SF

    I like it when characters have meaningful names, but not when it’s too obvious. I wonder what made Bronte insist on Snow over Frost.

    1. Yeah, I don’t like it when it’s too obvious. I have no idea why Bronte chose Snowe over Frost, but I think it’s rare to have firm reasons behind the names we choose for our characters or our children.

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