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!):