Preferred Citation: Litvak, Joseph. Caught in the Act: Theatricality in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1992.

Scenes of Writing, Scenes of Instruction

3. Scenes of Writing, Scenes of Instruction

Authority and Subversion in Villette

As to the anonymous publication, I have this to say: If the withholding of the author’s name should tend materially to injure the publisher’s interest, to interfere with the booksellers’ orders, etc., I would not press the point; but if no such detriment is contingent I should be much thankful for the sheltering shadow of an incognito. I seem to dread the advertisements—the large-lettered “Currer Bell’s New Novel,” or “New Work by the Author of Jane Eyre.”

I submit, also, to the advertisements in large letters, but under protest, and with a kind of ostrich longing for concealment.

In 1966, Jacques Derrida published the essay that would be translated into English as “Freud and the Scene of Writing”;[1] nine years later, in a pointedly polemical swerve from Derrida, Harold Bloom posited a “primal scene of instruction.”[2] In substituting “instruction” for “writing,” Bloom signaled his rejection of the deconstructive problematic of textuality in favor of what he took to be, precisely, more primal questions of poetic influence and originality. It is not my aim here to determine which “scene”—Derrida’s or Bloom’s—in fact takes precedence over the other. Rather, I want to reexamine the relationship between “writing” and “instruction” as scenes, scenes that Bloom’s revisionism works to disarticulate, and to do so by introducing into this agon between critical fathers the figure of a woman writer for whom those scenes have a crucial interdependence.

As I suggested in the previous chapter, Charlotte Brontë is in some sense a major precursor (to use Bloom’s term) of a certain kind of modern writer-teacher; in this chapter, I hope to look more carefully at how, in Villette (1853), theatricality—the common denominator of Derrida’s and Bloom’s theorizing—brings the activities of writing and teaching/learning into productively unsettling contact with each other. Often serving to prevent such contact, “theory” can end up idealizing or hypostatizing the terms it would isolate. When, for example, Bloom speaks of “instruction,” he clearly has something grander in mind than the often tedious business of pedagogy depicted in Brontë’s text; likewise, when Derrida writes of “writing,” his strategic avoidance of literalistic reductions of the term sometimes leads to a certain formalizing abstraction. The suspended relationship between criticism and pedagogy will therefore be rearticulated here in the context not only of a difference in genders, but also of a difference in genres: where Derrida stages “writing” through the interpretation of psychoanalytic texts, and where Bloom stages “instruction” through the interpretation of poetic texts, Brontë stages both in her own novelistic text, whose local specificities may suggest ways in which to frame the professing of literary theory as itself a literary genre, with powerful (if not exactly magisterial) performative motives and effects.

Before turning to the analysis of Villette, however, I want to comment briefly on the relationship between this chapter’s title and its subtitle. If the title recalls the critical dyad of Derrida and Bloom, the coupling of “authority and subversion”—familiar from the chapter on Mansfield Park—should evoke the more recent “new historicist” discourse about the politics of literature, where “authority” tends to be associated with the name of Foucault and “subversion” with that of Mikhail Bakhtin.[3] In the course of the reading that follows, it should become evident that I do not see these two oppositions as parallel or homologous; instead, I would hope that each pairing would cut across the other as if diagonally. For while the more recognizably political terms of the subtitle are intended to check the potential for theoretical essentialism in the terms of the title, the latter are intended to complicate the too-easy polarity of the former—a polarity that asserts itself even when, as often happens in new historicist practice, the terms are presented as asymmetrical. It is possible, of course, to reduce the Derrida-Bloom antithesis to a choice between revolutionary and conservative literary theories. Where Derrida’s mobilizations of écriture have impelled (and perhaps been impelled by) various Marxist and feminist insurgencies, Bloom’s counteremphasis on the oedipal pathos of “instruction” has seemed increasingly to bespeak a politically motivated contempt for such contestatory politicizing of literary studies. Yet what should emerge, through the subsequent discussion of Brontë’s novel, is a sense of how the interplay or overlap between scenes of writing and scenes of instruction may prevent us from deciding too quickly whether a text is “authoritarian” or “subversive,” “complicit” or “contestatory.” Though deconstruction, among other teachers, would remind us that these binary oppositions are as inevitable as more classically philosophical ones, Brontë’s text—even as it opposes a certain severe Protestant consciousness to a more “playful” French, or Franco-Belgian, sensibility—compels us at least to refine our vocabulary, to come up with more versatile and more acute ways of describing the relations between literary performance on the one hand and social-political performance on the other.

Brontë, of course, advertises her work in such a way as to make it seem particularly resistant to such heuristic use. Gillian Beer has observed that “Charlotte Brontë was the most introspective of all Victorian novelists.”[4] Although the previous chapter should have problematized Brontë’s “introspectiveness,” the epigraphs to the present chapter make clear that, well after the spectacular success of Jane Eyre, Brontë was indeed still playing the role of the governess. In these quotations from her letters concerning the marketing of Villette (which followed the publication of Shirley in 1849), Brontë, her deglamorizing “spectacles” still firmly in place, continues to figure authorship in terms of self-“concealment” rather than of self-revelation. By 1852, when those letters were written, Brontë’s attachment to these dull “spectacles” has in fact been generalized as the wish for the even murkier “shadow of an incognito,” and the “fictitious barrier” imposed upon the governess has become the barrier of fiction itself, behind which the governess-novelist would withdraw.

It should be easy enough, at this point, to expose that barrier as a piece of theatrical scenery. But instead of repeating that gesture from the previous chapter, let us consider a surprisingly similar antitheatrical pose on the part of a contemporary of Brontë’s who had achieved great success precisely as an actress. After describing how, in order to save her father and his Covent Garden Theatre from financial ruin, she performed on his stage in the role of Juliet, Fanny Kemble concludes her account of her triumphant debut:

And so my life was determined, and I devoted myself to an avocation which I never liked or honored, and about the very nature of which I have never been able to come to any decided opinion….

At four different periods of my life I have been constrained by circumstances to maintain myself by the exercise of my dramatic faculty; latterly, it is true, in a less painful and distasteful manner, by reading, instead of acting. But though I have never, I trust, been ungrateful for the power of thus helping myself and others, or forgetful of the obligation I was under to do my appointed work conscientiously in every respect, or unmindful of the precious good regard of so many kind hearts that it has won for me; though I have never lost one iota of my intense delight in the act of rendering Shakespeare’s creations; yet neither have I ever presented myself before an audience without a shrinking feeling of reluctance, or withdrawn from their presence without thinking the excitement I had undergone unhealthy, and the personal exhibition odious.

Nevertheless, I sat me down to supper that night with my poor, rejoicing parents well content, God knows! with the issue of my trial; and still better pleased with a lovely little Geneva watch, the first I had ever possessed, all encrusted with gold work and jewels, which my father laid by my plate and I immediately christened Romeo, and went, a blissful girl, to sleep with under my pillow.[5]

Kemble’s inability “to come to any decided opinion” about the theater reveals itself throughout this passage, not only in the elaborately qualified disavowal of the second paragraph, but also in the overdetermined symbolism of the third, where the dutiful daughter pockets the reward for her “painful and distasteful” self-sacrifice. Accepting the token of paternal gratitude and approval, the young Kemble also manages a sly (and possibly unwitting) mischievousness in christening the prize “Romeo” and taking it off to bed. Perhaps this gesture bespeaks an otherwise inexpressible pride in the “personal exhibition” that her moralism compels her to find “odious.” But even if, to the contrary, it implies her resentment of having been “constrained” into such odious exhibition, this would-be antitheatrical protest remains couched in theatrical terms. For in going to sleep with “Romeo”—under the legitimating auspices of the canonical Shakespeare—she extends into the family circle the very drama in which she has just performed, and thus mocks parental authority even as she defers to it.

Of course, this feat is made easier by the fact that she has performed not only for the sake of, but also with, her parents—while her father played Mercutio, her mother played Lady Capulet—so that, for her, the theatrical profession (or “avocation,” as she would minimize it) represents a peculiar combination of submissive and transgressive possibilities. To “do [her] appointed work conscientiously in every respect” is to violate the canons of respectability enforced by society at large; to rebel, however covertly or belatedly, against “the obligation [she] was under” is to win back that respectability. As confining as this quadruple bind may seem, it may also permit an oddly compensatory rhetorical slippage, so that, in recounting her experience on the stage, Kemble can move rapidly, almost indiscernibly, between censorious and covertly celebratory registers. How, for example, are we to take her statement that she went to sleep “a blissful girl”—as an instance of bemused dismissal or of fond remembrance? That these apparently incompatible attitudes may cohere in a single narrative utterance points to the way in which the subject of the theater produces instabilities, one might even say a certain “excitation,” in a text by an author who, if she cannot resolve her indecision, would at least subordinate it to a commanding rhetoric of moral integrity.

Kemble’s Records of a Girlhood (1878), the memoir in which the passage above appears, is a remarkable and neglected work of Victorian autobiography, and its author a significant figure not only for nineteenth-century theatrical and social history, but for literary history as well. Kemble can serve to bring into focus some complexities in Villette.[6] For if Brontë’s anxieties about the theatricality of authorship match Kemble’s distaste for public exposure, the author who would not become an “actress” and the actress who in fact became an author also resemble each other in their guilty fascination with the object of their fear and loathing. In Villette, as in Kemble’s Records, the theater and its metaphorical extension, theatricality, prove capable of arousing profoundly and intricately mixed feelings because of their own ideologically heterogeneous character, their availability to both authoritarian and subversive discourses. Of course, we have already studied this overdetermination not only in Jane Eyre, but also in Mansfield Park and the nonnovelistic texts clustered around it. What the passage from Kemble illustrates (and what Villette amplifies) is an effect of this overdetermination to which we have not yet devoted much attention: when conservative cultural forces require the containment or inscription of theatricality (within structures such as the self, the family, the autobiographical narrative, the novel), the possibility arises that this normalizing move will generate its own inversion, and that the process of inscription will itself come to seem theatrical.

Like her namesake, Fanny Price, Kemble seems to hypothesize a series of gradations that would guard her against the de-gradations of acting: if, while acting is “unhealthy,” “reading” is “less painful and distasteful,” then writing about acting must place one at an even more safely privatized remove. Yet the rhetorical slippage in Kemble’s account exemplifies the way in which the supposedly sanitizing process of recording or writing down one’s theatrical experiences may fail to keep them down; in the oscillations of her prose, the act of “righting” theatricality becomes shiftily and dizzyingly theatrical in its own right. Appearing to distance her theatrical career from her narrative of it, Kemble at the same time continues that career at and on another stage, by displacing her earlier performance into what thus becomes a scene of writing.

Although Brontë and Kemble both write theatrically about (or, more exactly, against) the theater, it is important not to erase the differences between them, the most obvious of which is that Kemble had prolonged first-hand experience of her subject. But it is just as important not to hypostatize that experience as literal and primary, in contradistinction to Brontë’s, which thus becomes figurative and derived. What might seem most exceptional in Kemble’s case—the understanding, by virtue of belonging to one of England’s greatest theatrical families, of the theater as at once deviant and normative—in fact manifests itself throughout Villette as the irreversible entanglement of a disciplinary theatricality with a transgressive or potentially feminist theatricality. While the resulting undecidability has prompted certain critics to regard Villette as uncannily modern or radical, the comparison of Brontë with Kemble suggests a particularly Victorian inflection of this modernity, a mutually unsettling relationship between the terms “Victorian” and “modern.”[7]

If Kemble’s inability to reach a decision about the theater offers a determinate context for Villette’s indeterminacy, the ironies uncovered in our brief reading of Kemble hint that there might be considerable room for contestatory maneuvering within this apparently limiting framework—maneuvering all the more effective, perhaps, for taking place in the “sheltering shadow” of the dominant, patriarchal ideology, and thus for passing as “unconscious.” Remaining undecided about the theater may in fact be a socially acceptable way of participating in the undecidability of the theater, of moving inventively within the contradictions of a certain Victorian construction of theatricality itself. If, in its wobbliness and self-division, that construction oddly resembles the more recent notion of écriture, writing about the theater—whether as a former actress or as an “ostrich”-like novelist—may necessarily mean occupying not a stably extratheatrical vantage point but rather what Freud, speaking precisely of “the unconscious,” called “another scene.”[8]

Despite its author’s “ostrich longing for concealment,” Villette, unlike Jane Eyre, makes no secret of its obsession with the theater and theatricality. This obsession becomes most obvious in the numerous episodes of acting and theatergoing that punctuate the narrative and that constitute so many flamboyant, though not exactly extraneous, “set-pieces.”[9] Yet Brontë’s insistent concern with theatrical issues is also evident in the way that theatrical imagery and vocabulary virtually permeate the text, providing it with its self-consciously meta-Gothic machinery, encoding the action as a series of “scenes” and “spectacles,” defining the characters in terms of their “roles,” even populating the narrator-heroine’s claustral and jealously guarded consciousness with a stock company composed of such allegorical players as Impulse, Temptation, Reason, Imagination, Hope, and Desire. And since the novel interprets theatricality not just as a form of extravagance but also as a system of artifice and deception, the narrative itself may properly be called theatrical insofar as Lucy Snowe deploys a whole repertoire of evasive and duplicitous tactics in telling—and not telling—her story. A thorough study of the theater and its diffusion throughout Villette would require far more space than this chapter will allow. For now, we must content ourselves with examining some of the more telling excitations that the theatrical problem induces in the text.[10]

This problem manifests itself most tellingly in the way in which the novel’s thematics of acting and spectatorship overlap and merge continually with its thematics of teaching and governance. Like Jane Eyre, and like Brontë herself in her earlier life, Lucy Snowe devotes her quotidian energies to the business of pedagogy: in the course of the novel, she moves from governess to schoolteacher to proprietor and director of her own school. Yet, while the narrative keeps positing an opposition between the disciplinary activity of the governess/teacher on the one hand and the flamboyant career of the actress on the other hand, it also keeps undermining this opposition, so that Lucy is at once the self-effacing antithesis and the unlikely double of a character such as the “demoniac” (p. 339) Vashti or the narcissistic Ginevra Fanshawe, whose chief skills are “music, singing, and dancing” (p. 151).

That Vashti and Ginevra inhabit the same culpably public sphere points to another one of the major differences between Villette and Jane Eyre. For if much of the official ideological labor of the latter consists in the segregation of the “demoniac” from the (merely) frivolous, the former displays a curious nonchalance not only about the mixing of those two registers but also about Lucy’s frequent excursions into the composite space thus constituted. As we will see when we touch on the “Gothic” subplot revolving around the figure of “the nun,” the generic and social barriers that were imposed in Jane Eyre seem considerably more permeable and provisional in the later novel. The fact that the teacher here appears less closely tied to her intermediate post may have something to do with the novel’s foreign setting: Villette would seem to present us with an instance of ideology on holiday, as it were, no longer so concerned with the policing of domestic relations, where “domestic” applies to both the household and the nation. This relative relaxation of disciplinary constraints may also have something to do with the different career moves of the two pedagogical heroines: while Jane Eyre does spend time as a schoolteacher, what defines her more centrally is her activity as a governess; conversely, while Lucy starts out as a governess, she quickly assumes the more public, and more frankly histrionic, role of the schoolteacher.

In other words, if the novel’s primary spatial foci are the schoolroom and the theater, it conflates these two venues as much as it separates them, so that each in its own way becomes a scene of instruction. On the one hand, Madame Beck’s pensionnat seems to require, for its proper administration, a certain calculated deployment of theatrical effects; the most sustained example of this theatricalization of power is the episode of the school play in chapter 14; the most recurrent, the tendency of the narrative to frame the teacher’s estrade as a stage. On the other hand, Lucy’s visits to the theater tend to have a didactic, rather heavily allegorical character; in the epistemologically anxious world of the novel, the theater becomes a meaning-fraught arena where one goes to Learn Lessons. And if we expect a dialectical resolution to emerge from the novel’s third overcharged space, the hated yet surreptitiously admired Catholic Church, we can only be disappointed, for this indulgently tyrannical institution merely replicates the tension at work in each of the other spheres, disseminating its supposedly corrupt teaching as the “subtle essence of Romanism” that “pervades” (p. 195) Madame Beck’s school, and exhibiting the incursion of theatricality in the “painted and meretricious face” (p. 516) of its decadent pageantry.

Yet it would be a mistake to see these more or less open displacements as signs of deconstructive “subversion”: when ideology goes on holiday, it unwinds only to expand its reach. When, as so often happens in Villette, ostensible opposites end up imitating each other, and potential alternative spaces turn out to have been mirages, the most noticeable effect is not usually one of heady destabilization but of stasis or even imprisonment. Many critics have commented upon the oppressive atmosphere of Villette: despite, or perhaps because of, the heroine’s upward mobility, the same paternalistic structure seems to contain and neutralize every incipient attempt at resistance or bid for autonomy, and repetition seems to preempt any move toward genuine difference.[11] For this reason, the novel’s motif of female androgyny or transvestism—as when Lucy dresses partly as a man for the school play, or when we are told that Madame Beck “did not wear a woman’s aspect, but rather a man’s” (p. 141)—appears not so much daringly iconoclastic as grimly expressive of the ambitious woman’s confinement to male impersonation.[12] At these moments, theatricality itself wears an aspect that alternates painfully between the liberation of role-playing and the conventionality that circumscribes and ironizes any such improvisatory freedom.

A number of critics have also observed that, although Lucy rightly views the mannish Madame Beck as her adversary, she in some sense resembles and even surpasses this simulacrum of both “first minister” and “superintendent of police” (p. 137), mastering the art—amply if inadvertently demonstrated by her unobliging mentor—of transforming theatrical spectatorship into a technology of surveillance.[13] “ ‘Surveillance,’ ‘espionage,’ these were her watch-words” (p. 135), Lucy says of the way Madame Beck manages her pensionnat but these are the watch-words (the pun is all too appropriate) of Lucy’s narrative as well. By the end of the novel, when Lucy sets up her own school—thanks, of course, to Monsieur Paul—she has already proven herself a formidable rival of Madame Beck, in whose establishment she has studied and internalized a complex “system for managing and regulating” (p. 135) others, a system that Lucy even uses to manage and regulate her relationship with the reader.

For Lucy’s famous “perversity,” however protomodernist a narrative it may appear to generate, derives its logic from the material exigencies of a more or less abject power struggle distinctively enacted between women, who can overcome their disenfranchisement and claim some of the prerogatives of male authority only by battling each other in a game of silence and indirection. Lucy’s narrative stance is modeled on the “pantomime” (p. 131), performed on her first night at the school, in which she colludes and competes with her employer: while Madame Beck inspects Lucy and her belongings, Lucy, “feign[ing] sleep” (p. 131), spies on her. As Tony Tanner points out, “the spier spied on is not an uncommon situation in this world” (p. 19).

Yet it is not just the characters who feel the unpleasant effects of the manipulative and antagonistic voyeurism that dominates Villette: to the extent that reading here is not so much a “masquerade” (to use Helena Michie’s term) as itself a kind of spying—an equation that the novel does not fail to underline—we repeatedly find ourselves inserted in the discomforting, even humiliating, position of Madame Beck, by the kind of rhetorical one-upmanship in which Lucy excels.[14] And though this experience is bound to be different for male and female readers, the difference may be more elusive than we would think, since to be cast as the outwitted Madame Beck is to be characterized as at once “too masculine” and “not masculine enough,” as a monstrous conjunction of the illegitimately “male” and the inescapably “female.”[15]

The most notorious instance of the way the reader is made to perform as the narrator’s dupe occurs at the beginning of volume 2, where Lucy reveals that the alluring “Dr. John” is the same person as Graham Bretton. By the time she finishes explaining why she has left us in the dark, along with Graham, Lucy has instilled in us the very suspicion and anxiety from which we may have thought we could enjoy a safe readerly detachment. Lucy recognized Graham long before this revelation, but

to say anything on the subject, to hint at my discovery, had not suited my habits of thought, or assimilated with my system of feeling. On the contrary, I had preferred to keep the matter to myself. I liked entering his presence covered with a cloud he had not seen through, while he stood before me under a ray of special illumination, which shone all partial over his head, trembled about his feet, and cast light no farther.

Like Madame Beck’s system of management and regulation on which it is based—and which it seeks rivalrously to “assimilate”—Lucy’s “system of feeling” sustains a veiled yet watchful subjectivity, one that functions primarily by gathering information about (and withholding it from) other selves, “cast[ing] light no farther” than a “tremblingly” furtive scopophilia will allow. Lucy repeatedly invokes the sheltering shadow of an incognito, not for herself, but to hide from the reader the identities of other characters.[16] These acts of renaming, however, keep her “covered with a cloud” of mystery as well—“Who are you, Miss Snowe?” (p. 392), we wonder with Ginevra Fanshawe—and this opacity is as aggressively (and pruriently) strategic as it is defensively sheltering.

In this light, as we have already rather suspected, Charlotte Brontë’s own wish for a sheltering shadow betokens not an antitheatrical posture, but indeed an intensely theatrical penchant for disguise and dissimulation.[17] If she refuses to make a spectacle of herself, Brontë merely ends up exchanging theatrical self-display for theatrical self-concealment. Dreaming of what in effect would be a second incognito—for the putatively androgynous pseudonym, “Currer Bell,” had of course served initially as a mask in its own right—Brontë imagines an “anonymity” that, while keeping her out of the public eye, would enable her to eye the public with redoubled efficacy. Without going so far as to portray Brontë as the agent of some kind of Victorian Big Brother, we should emphasize here her predilection for the trappings of patriarchal power—the power to objectify and scrutinize others while exempting oneself from similar treatment.

Becoming trapped inside a borrowed costume is indeed one of the risks that Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar suggest when they argue that, in Brontë’s novels, “escape becomes increasingly difficult as women internalize the destructive strictures of patriarchy.”[18] Impersonating Madame Beck’s impersonation of a first minister-cum-superintendent of police, Lucy also mimes her author’s response to Robert Southey’s advice that, since “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life,” she content herself with “writ[ing] poetry for its own sake; not in a spirit of emulation, and not with a view to celebrity.”[19] Her obedient promises to Southey and herself notwithstanding, Brontë, as we know, does not ultimately follow this advice. Yet, though she does not restrict her literary activity to the writing of poems, and though she does publish, Brontë’s intractability is as problematic as Kemble’s acquiescence. For she figures her “business” as an author in terms that imply a certain compromise, whereby she engages in the forbidden act of “emulation” but emulates what looks like the permissible “business of a woman’s life.”

As we have seen, that is, Brontë models her novel-writing persona not on the attention-craving actress, but on the correctly self-denying pedagogue, a role she knows well. For Brontë and for Southey, as for certain contemporary schools of literary criticism, writing suggests a kind of naughty “celebrity” that verges on notoriety, and that can be avoided only if writing emulates not the (bad) emulation typical of acting but the (good) emulation proper to learning and teaching. What is inscribed or contained here is thus a particular characterization of writing itself. Barred from the pursuit of literary fame, the novelist-as-teacher settles for the humbler privilege of disciplinary license, renouncing theatricality as a mode of self-exposure to recover it, in far less glamorous form, as an obliquely and tenuously empowering paradigm for supervision. Assuming the gray uniform of the schoolmistress is as close as she will get to putting on the patriarchal trousers. If the female novelist achieves moral respectability by investing herself in an educating heroine rather than a performing one, she also takes political shelter—but ambiguous shelter, since what protects her at the same time contains her—under an ideological system that inscribes and appropriates theatricality as a metaphor for governance.[20]

But the distance between a governess and a governor, or between a mistress and a master, is as great as that between Madame Beck, or Lucy, and a real minister or police superintendent.[21] Lucy makes this distance explicit when she writes: “That school offered for [Madame Beck’s] powers too limited a sphere; she ought to have swayed a nation: she should have been the leader of a turbulent legislative assembly” (p. 137). Yet if an energizing turbulence is denied these two ambitious women in the larger political sphere, it shows up not only in the theatricalized schoolroom, but in the textual politics of this bildungsroman itself. When Lucy describes how Madame Beck forced her to take over as the school’s English teacher, she admits, “I shall never forget that first lesson, nor all the under-current of life and feeling it opened up to me” (p. 142). But when Lucy mounts the estrade, she gains access not so much to “life and feeling” in their unmediated form as to energies of enactment that the inscription of theatricality has had to keep under or keep down. The “under-currents” “opened up to” her remind us that the scene of instruction is still a scene, and that the act of writing about teaching is still an act.

Admittedly, the intrinsic fluidity of the pedagogical theater is not always cause for celebration: Villette frames the scene of instruction as a hazardously volatile space, in which the autocratically “histrionic lessons” (p. 197) of a teacher like Paul Emanuel risk degenerating into “the ravings of a third-rate London actor” (p. 455). Moreover, the teacher’s vulnerability is matched by his or her own power to inflict violence. Though the staginess of teaching may at times diminish its disciplinary impact, it serves more often to secure it. Indeed, what makes Lucy’s “first lesson” so memorable is the almost terroristic efficacy of the coups de théâtre with which she silences the “mutinous mass” (p. 143) of her pupils. And while this inaugural scene of instruction is also, as it happens, a scene of writing, the writing in question takes place under the oppressive heading of “dictation” (p. 144): what surfaces here is not—or at least, not yet—the decentering force of écriture; rather, we seem to be back in the Lowood schoolroom of Jane Eyre, where writing is a form of manual labor, not an act of disruption.

If the scene nonetheless has the capacity to intimate a reversal of the inscription of theatricality into the theatricality of inscription, this is because the repetition implicit in the process of dictation figures the more ambiguous repetition that the narrative itself performs. For though, as I have argued, the repetitiveness produced by the novel’s collapsing of oppositions is more claustrophobic than liberating, the novel also uses repetition in a less constraining way, as an integral component of its distinctive narrative structure. I have referred to its “obsessive” concern with theatricality, but I want now to qualify this quasi-psychoanalytic term. As Karen Lawrence has shown, while Villette apparently lends itself to discussion in terms of the Freudian narrative theory elaborated by Peter Brooks and D. A. Miller, that model, especially as represented by Brooks, may be limited by its androcentrism.[22] I would merely point out one aspect of Brooks’s theory that Lawrence does not discuss, but that supports her thesis. It is significant that Brooks draws on the Freudian topos of the child’s game of fort/da, which I invoked in the previous chapter to describe Brontë’s rather impertinent way of “playing with” the very disciplinary machinery of which her work seems to be an instance. Yet Brooks, following Freud, tends to see the reversals and repetitions in the game of fort/da as essentially conservative functions under the aegis of the death-drive: the mastery that the child achieves in “staging” over and over the disappearance (fort) and return (da) of a toy—interestingly, Freud himself uses the theatrical term (inszenieren)—seems akin to the quiescence achieved through death.[23]

To be sure, it would not be terribly difficult to subordinate Villette’s narrative structure, which obsessively stages and restages the disappearance and return of the theater, to this reading of “Freud’s Masterplot,” as Brooks calls it. In an article on the image of Rachel Félix in Villette and other Victorian novels, John Stokes has identified repetition as a salient feature of dramatic criticism in the period, even or especially in the writing of so distinguished a critic as George Henry Lewes, Brontë’s would-be mentor (and, as we will see, an important interpreter of theatricality to George Eliot).[24] While Stokes thus argues for “the superiority of novels [to criticism] when it comes to rendering the evanescence of theatrical experience,” in its general outlines, at any rate, Villette may recall all too well the “homogenizing tendency”[25] that Stokes finds in the discourse of dramatic criticism. But though Brontë participates in that discourse more compromisingly than Stokes would allow, her stance within it at the same time suggests a saving difference. For if Jane Eyre’s occasional appearance of “out-governessing the governess” can create a little too much excitement in both the text and many of its readers, Lucy Snowe’s emulative project of out-teaching the teacher involves, as I will show in the next section, a more importunate pattern of doings and undoings, a more persistently unsettling play of fort and da than Jane’s less perverse narrative will accommodate. Much as they would effect a binding (a term Brooks favors) of potentially provocative “under-currents,” the obsessive comings and goings of the theatrical motif in Villette, both in and out of school, may also imply a peculiarly feminist strategy of repetition that “opens up” the master’s discourse, and the master’s plot, from within. Interestingly, in French, the language that Brontë disseminates so lavishly throughout this francophobic text, répétition means, among other things, “rehearsal.” As “drama critics” in their own right, both Brontë and Kemble (who herself cunningly repeats theatricality in another place) anticipate the French feminism of Luce Irigaray, the theorist of “mimicry,” against a certain Freudianism, as repetition with a difference:

To play with mimesis is…, for a woman, to try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allowing herself to be simply reduced to it. It means to resubmit herself—inasmuch as she is on the side of the “perceptible,” of “matter”—to “ideas,” in particular to ideas about herself, that are elaborated in/by a masculine logic, but so as to make “visible,” by an effect of playful repetition, what was supposed to remain invisible: the cover-up of a possible operation of the feminine in language. It also means to “unveil” the fact that, if women are such good mimics, it is because they are not simply resorbed in this function. They also remain elsewhere: another case of the persistence of “matter,” but also of “sexual pleasure.”[26]

The episode of the school play is the novel’s first major staging of its theatrical concerns. The centerpiece of Madame Beck’s fête, the vaudeville, like the ball that follows and elaborates upon it, could be read as a virtual object lesson in Foucauldian paradox. In its apparent raciness, the play dramatizes the libidinal intrigues taking place in the pensionnat, all the better to control them. Likewise, the ball, which entails the seemingly scandalous introduction of young men into the girls’ school, actually enhances the authority of the school’s Machiavellian “directress” (p. 213). As Lucy observes, “the admission of these rattlesnakes, so fascinating and so dangerous, served to draw out madame precisely in her strongest character—that of a first-rate surveillante” (p. 213). Just here, however, we begin to notice a certain danger within the paradox itself. For if Madame Beck’s strength as a surveillante needs to be “drawn out,” then she cannot help crossing the all-important line between spectator and “character,” thereby opening herself up to a surveillance of which she should be the sole practitioner. Though perhaps intermittently necessary, these displays of power can imperil the very authority they seek to reinforce, whether that authority is represented by a schoolmistress (or -master), a teacher in that school, or—as we will see—a king.

At this point, in any case, it is worth noting that the vaudeville itself effaces the division between audience and spectacle, compromising the neat hierarchy whereby those who see exercise epistemological and political mastery over those who are seen. And it is none other than Lucy, by her own definition the spectator par excellence, who sets this process in motion when she bows to pressure from M. Paul and agrees to replace one of his actresses in the role of a fop. Having mentioned the more sobering implications of Lucy’s partial cross-dressing, of her confinement to male impersonation, we must now acknowledge that her half-male, half-female attire does in fact engender a disturbing little drama—a drama that disturbs both hierarchies of gender and hierarchies of power. It does so, however, not by functioning as a static representation, but by instigating a dynamic circulation of erotic subtexts between “actors” and “audience.” For when Lucy steps onto the stage as the fictional surrogate of the Count de Hamal, wooing Ginevra away from the fictional surrogate of Dr. John, she in effect rewrites the script so as to release from its formulaic lineaments a veritable orgy of overdetermined triangularity. Suddenly discovering that Ginevra is “acting at” (p. 210) the real Dr. John, Lucy aims her own performance, at once seductively and vindictively, at the same target, turning the beholder into a spectacle in his own right:

The spectacle seemed somehow suggestive. There was language in Dr John’s look, though I cannot tell what he said; it animated me: I drew out of it a history; I put my idea into the part I performed; I threw it into my wooing of Ginevra. In the ‘Ours,’ or sincere lover, I saw Dr John. Did I pity him, as erst? No, I hardened my heart, rivalled and out-rivalled him. I knew myself but a fop, but where he was outcast I could please. Now I know I acted as if wishful and resolute to win and conquer. Ginevra seconded me; between us we half-changed the nature of the rôle, gilding it from top to toe. Between the acts M. Paul told us he knew not what possessed us, and half expostulated, ‘C’est, peutêtre plus beau que votre modèle,’ said he, ‘mais ce n’est pas juste.’ I know not what possessed me either; but somehow, my longing was to eclipse the ‘Ours:’ i.e., Dr John. Ginevra was tender; how could I be otherwise than chivalric? Retaining the letter, I recklessly altered the spirit of the rôle. Without heart, without interest, I could not play it at all. It must be played—in went the yearned-for seasoning—thus flavoured, I played it with relish.

Lucy’s own improvisatory “drawing out” of a history refuses merely to copy the modèle prescribed by M. Paul; though still a repetition—after all, Lucy “retain[s] the letter” if not the “spirit”—her performance is a repetition that displaces the original. Surprised by her own histrionic and revisionary prowess, Lucy mimes the unfolding of the novelist-as-pedagogue into the novelist-as-actress-as-(re)writer. “Cold, reluctant, apprehensive, I had accepted a part to please another: ere long,” she recognizes, “warming, becoming interested, taking courage, I acted to please myself” (p. 211). Simultaneously autoerotic, homoerotic, and heteroerotic, Lucy’s bold reinterpretation pluralizes the “sexual pleasure” Irigaray associates with female mimicry. Critics have labored indeed to untangle the relational possibilities of Brontë’s polymorphous scenario, in which a woman dressed from the waist up as a man plays the effeminate suitor of a coquette who plays herself; in which this female quasi-male-impersonator acts for one man (M. Paul), and both for and against another (Dr. John); in which the inextricably interwoven strands of rivalry and desire running through the “real-life” drama are further knotted by its “recklessly” innovative reworking on stage.[27]

Lucy’s supposedly uncharacteristic role-playing does more than just bestow upon her a “character” whose stereotypically masculine “strength” temporarily installs her in Madame Beck’s souliers de silence: what is at stake here is not merely the reversal or reapportionment of traditional gender roles. Similarly, the doubling of actors as viewers of their audience, and thus of this audience as a spectacle in itself, does not just shore up the specular symmetry implicit in any theatrical confrontation. In each case, the terms of a classic antithesis (male versus female, actor versus spectator) are turned back upon themselves to yield a peculiar structural confusion. Breaking down sexual and aesthetic polarities, Lucy “breaks character” so as to divide and multiply characters—both her own and others’—and to produce an unmanageable proliferation of plots, whose point is its very excessiveness, its refusal to be straightened out into a single coherent narrative line. Staging a miniature yet appropriately unruly carnival at the center of Madame Beck’s authoritarian, self-promoting fête, Lucy—like Brontë—“draws out” the precariousness inherent in a regime that uses a disciplinary theatricality to neutralize a transgressive theatricality. For this antithesis, it turns out, is no more absolute than the others: in each version of theatricality, its opposite remains uneasily latent.

Given the contestatory energies implied by this scene, it comes as no great surprise that Lucy should resolve immediately to renounce them:

A keen relish for dramatic expression had revealed itself as part of my nature; to cherish and exercise this new-found faculty might gift me with a world of delight, but it would not do for a mere looker-on at life: the strength and longing must be put by; and I put them by, and fastened them with the lock of a resolution which neither Time nor Temptation has since picked.

Where Fanny Kemble can admit to her “intense delight” in acting only by sublimating it as “reading” and by subsuming it beneath the authorizing aura of “Shakespeare,” Lucy is compelled to “put by” her dramatic propensities altogether: the disruptive forces would seem to have been recontained without any trouble, and the ghost of Robert Southey to have triumphed after all. But Lucy’s claim to have stifled her theatrical instincts is not entirely accurate. Although she evades M. Paul’s invitation to dance at the ball, barely saving herself from this “second performance” (p. 221), later the same evening Lucy finds herself once again “venturing out of what [she] look[s] on as [her] natural habits” (p. 222), when she presumes to discuss Ginevra with Dr. John.[28] And like so many final “farewell performances,” this infraction inaugurates a whole series of such lapses—not so much into histrionics “pure and simple” as into the more insidious hybridization of scenes of writing/instruction—lapses which create precisely the undecidability that prevents us from knowing whether Lucy “really” wants to give up the bad and “unnatural” habit of acting but keeps getting overcome by “Temptation,” or whether “Temptation” is merely another one of Lucy’s roles, which she performs with “keen relish,” even while impersonating a “mere looker-on at life,” an innocent bystander.

On the one hand, the major theatrical episodes in the novel—the vaudeville, the visit to the art gallery to see “The Cleopatra,” the concert, the performance by Vashti, the climactic fête in the park—all share what might be viewed as a certain self-canceling tendency: assembling major characters, precipitating recognitions and resolutions, they seem designed to pull the various loose thematic ends of the narrative together so as to have done with theatrical excess once and for all. On the other hand, to the extent that these totalizing gestures themselves partake of a certain theatricality—by no means a monolithically conservative one—they seem either disingenuous or misguided. Purifying theatricality of its anarchic traces, for example, means rehabilitating the opposition between a powerful (and invisible) spectator and a strangely passive actor or object of surveillance, an opposition that the vaudeville has dramatically discredited. To be sure, when Lucy accompanies Dr. John and his mother to the concert attended by the king and queen of Labassecour, she conscientiously expresses the obligatory fear of self-exhibition—recoiling from her unfamiliarly colorful mirror image, staying “in the shade and out of sight” (p. 292)—and indeed makes a point of ridiculing most of the performers and congratulating herself on being the only observant member of an audience composed of dim-witted Labassecouriens. But if Lucy reduces the entire scene—including the other spectators as well as the performers—to the status of an anthropologically interesting tableau, her most ambitious act of observation—her reading of the family drama, the “mournful and significant…spectacle” (p. 291), taking place between the king and the queen—is also her most ambiguous.

For though this reading typifies the analytic program of a supervisory authority bent on demystifying everything but itself, it also entails a sympathetic identification of reader with “text.”[29] In the “strong hieroglyphics” of melancholia she sees “graven as with iron stylet” (p. 290) on the king’s face, Lucy perceives not only the markings of a power that subjugates him, but also a reflection of her own susceptibility to “that strangest spectre, Hypochondria” (p. 290). Yet the destabilizing force of this reading goes beyond the sentimentality of shared suffering. For Lucy proceeds to suggest:

Perhaps he saw her [Hypochondria] now on that stage, over against him, amidst all that brilliant throng. Hypochondria has that wont, to rise in the midst of thousands—dark as Doom, pale as Malady, and well nigh strong as Death. Her comrade and victim thinks to be happy one moment—“Not so,” says she; “I come.” And she freezes the blood in his heart, and beclouds the light in his eye.

As in the revisionary vaudeville presented six chapters earlier, Lucy turns the either/or logic of dichotomy—in this case, the dichotomy between master and slave, ruler and subject—into the trickier acrobatics of both/and, where the individual performers are internally contradictory as well as expansively volatile. It is not just that, in projecting herself onto the king, and implicitly assuming his text-like receptivity, Lucy at once diminishes his power and augments her own; by animating the Hypochondria that haunts them both, she compounds the complexity, and upsets the symmetry, of the power-play. For if Lucy’s demystification of the king is both sympathetic and aggressive, it aligns her on the one hand with the real queen, his “kind, loving, elegant” (p. 290) wife, and on the other hand with the ghostly queen or cruel goddess who renders him “her comrade”—note the equivocation—“and victim.” Moreover, since Hypochondria is anthropomorphized first as a figure who writes her power on the king’s face and then as a figure who performs on a stage, she can reenact the embodiment of the novelist-as-actress, a representation supposedly prohibited after the school play, when Lucy vowed never to act again. Here, of course, she does not take the stage literally. But she does so fantasmatically, through her treble identification with the vulnerably conspicuous king, that “good angel” (p. 291) his wife, and above all the avenging artist (herself trebled by association with Doom, Malady, and Death) born of her own afflicted imagination; and these multiple projections, in their versatility, may be even more unsettling than Lucy’s more overt role-playing. The theater here is more than just a scene of instruction or—what comes to the same thing—a scene of disciplinary inscription, in which Lucy presents herself as a page to be written upon by the social realities of Labassecour. Both text and author, both spectator and specter, both king and queen at once, Lucy inscribes a mind-boggling one-woman show.

However, as part of a pattern that quickly becomes familiar to readers of Villette, the managerial imperative wastes no time in announcing itself, reinvesting the theatrical metaphor with the values of vision and comprehension, so that, by the end of the concert, after Ginevra has sneered at him and his mother, Dr. John can “speak the plain truth” (p. 302) and proclaim the demise of his infatuation. But in the lottery that follows the concert, Dr. John wins a woman’s head-dress, and Lucy a cigar-case; she refuses to exchange prizes with him, treasuring her metonym of masculinity “to this day” (p. 300). And while she says that “it serves…to remind [her] of old times” (p. 300), it seems more significant as a souvenir of that earlier episode in the narrative itself, when Lucy’s explicitly theatrical cross-dressing initiated a chiastic narrative confusion not unlike this more recent one, which Dr. John’s manly claims of insight and self-possession seek to overrule.

The subsequent trajectory of Dr. John’s love story, wherein he replaces the coquettish (i.e., irresponsibly theatrical) Ginevra with the doll-like (i.e., compliantly theatrical) Paulina Home as the object of his affections, may be taken to epitomize the ideological campaign of the narrative as a whole.[30] But in its parts—especially those parts that seem to bear a totalizing function—Villette continues to resist this pressure toward domestication. The remaining theatrical episodes become increasingly hypertense and elaborate in their staging of Lucy—and her author—as at once writer and text, and if these figurations of simultaneous power and servitude are too ambiguous to inspire easy optimism, their very ambiguity begins to seem significantly troublesome, a growing and irremediable irritant. Admittedly, the relation of these problematic moments to the overarching narrative is itself undecidable: in one reading (perhaps inspired by Brooks), such continual returns to the scene of the crime—the crime of theatrical excess—may signal a repetition-compulsion on the part of the text, a need to master a disquieting stimulus; in another reading (perhaps inspired by D. A. Miller’s more recent, Foucauldian work),[31] the same recurrence could be seen as a device whereby the text confidently rehearses its technique of producing, and just as deftly withdrawing, whatever might appear to unnerve it; in yet a third reading (perhaps inspired by Irigaray), this pattern could point to the text’s delight in reviving and reliving tensions it pretends to disown. But again, it is precisely because it is so difficult to determine the text’s competence in, or attitude toward, this play of fort/da that these scenes of return, taken together, seem so provoking; Lucy Snowe turns Jane Eyre’s bad acting into a bad habit—a virtual system, a Method, as it were—that her narrative cannot (or will not) kick.

Three chapters after the concert, in any case, Lucy is back in the theater, this time drawn by the magnetism of the renowned actress Vashti who, repeating her real-life model, Rachel Félix, is herself repeated, as we will see, in the texts of Eliot and James. Lucy’s response to the performance by Vashti is advertised as one of almost self-parodic ambivalence:

It was a marvellous sight: a mighty revelation. It was a spectacle low, horrible, immoral.

It is as though Brontë wished to control her own indecision about the theater, and about Rachel-Vashti, by presenting it in such crudely schematic form.[32] The surrounding paragraphs, however, suggest why the actress might invite, and defy, such defensive simplification:

What I saw was the shadow of a royal Vashti: a queen, fair as the day once, turned pale now like twilight, and wasted like wax in flame.…I found upon her something neither of woman nor of man: in each of her eyes sat a devil. These evil forces bore her through the tragedy, kept up her feeble strength—for she was but a frail creature; and as the action rose and the stir deepened, how wildly they shook her with their passions of the pit! They wrote hell on her straight, haughty brow. They tuned her voice to the note of torment. They writhed her regal face to a demoniac mask. Hate and Murder and Madness incarnate, she stood….

Suffering had struck that stage empress; and she stood before her audience neither yielding to, nor enduring, nor in finite measure, resenting it: she stood locked in struggle, rigid in resistance.

Recapitulating and combining in her very person the king, the queen, and Hypochondria, the “sinister and sovereign Vashti” (p. 341) also, as many critics have noted, serves as a potent, heavily freighted image for both Lucy and Brontë as female artists. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, for example, reads “this drama of substance and abstraction” as an allegory of almost sadomasochistic self-inscription: “Vashti is herself at work creating a character, so that the rigor and wastage of individuation, redoubled in her, spread out as well to capture Lucy, the suddenly fixed viewer.”[33] Doubling, redoubling, fascination, repulsion, sovereignty, suffering, strength, and frailty mingle and collide in this overwrought portrait of the artist, which makes a mockery of the neatly balanced antithesis that would crop and frame it. Unavailable to the relatively sophisticated grammar of both/and alone, Vashti evokes not only that structure but also the rhetorical convolution of neither/nor/nor. Hardly a reassuring apotheosis of the novelist-as-actress, this “maenad” with “angel’s hair” (p. 340) nonetheless figures the spectacularly profitable (and spectacularly expensive) possibilities of multiple negation and self-contradiction.

Vashti indeed seems to exemplify Irigaray’s theory of female mimicry, whereby “to play with mimesis is…, for a woman, to try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allowing herself to be simply reduced to it.” Vashti’s performance suggests that, if one is inscribed in a constraining social text, one can at least act out the various processes of one’s textualization, thereby achieving a certain leverage with which to displace that preexistent order. To the extent that this visit to the theater constitutes yet another scene of instruction, it is one in which Lucy learns from Vashti (as Irigaray might have learned from Vashti) how to stage “a possible operation of the feminine in language.” Just as Vashti turns herself into a receptive surface on which “the passions of the pit…[write] hell,” so Lucy suffers her acquaintances to superimpose their received ideas—sexist, class-bound, sentimentalizing—upon her; but, like Vashti, she manages at the same time to rewrite the parts others would make her play, “neither yielding to” them nor “enduring” them, but “rigid”—indeed, perverse—“in resistance.” When Vashti’s performance is cut short by a fire she herself seems to have caused, Lucy may be said not only to take over for her but also to take up the stylus where Hypochondria left off, for now she in fact represents the scene of her own writing: “ ‘Fire!’ rang through the gallery. ‘Fire!’ was repeated, re-echoed, yelled forth: and then, and faster than pen can set it down, came panic, rushing, crushing—a blind, selfish, cruel, chaos” (p. 342). The act of describing the fire seems suddenly to be taking place not retrospectively, but at the same time as the event itself. And as the time of the narration collapses into the time of the narrative, the roles of novelist (Brontë) and teacher (Lucy) and actress (Vashti) “repeat” and “re-echo” one another in a potentially productive textual “chaos.”

To be sure, what is produced, after the inevitable demystifying dismissal of the fire as the result of a minor accident involving “some loose drapery” (p. 347), is nothing more immediately redeemable than more chaos. But if the remainder of the narrative has little trouble displaying Lucy as “a rising character” (p. 394), her professional progress has performative implications that an exemplarily self-disciplined novel of education would deny. If the “show-trial” (p. 492) in chapter 35 offers us yet another view of the writer-teacher on stage, this time subjected to a “forced examination” (p. 496), it also shows Lucy triumphing over her boorish examiners, not so much by demonstrating her knowledge as by inscribing a defiant satire on “Human Justice.” Lucy has every reason to be as “content…with the issue of [this] trial” as Kemble says her parents were (and as she herself may have been, though for different reasons) with the outcome of her own. Once again, Lucy converts what could have been a merely disciplinary scene of instruction, in which the female teacher is framed as a student, into a scene in which writing is both work and play. And, once again, the English teacher seems to combine self-inscription with self-dramatization. For Lucy’s text about Justice is not just a satire; indeed, as M. Paul might complain, “ce n’est pas juste.” “Human Justice” starts out as a “blank, cold abstraction” (p. 495), much like the often blank, cold Lucy Snowe herself. Suddenly inspired, however, by her recognition of her examiners as the two men who had frightened her on the night of her arrival in Villette, Lucy revises Justice as a “red, random beldame with arms akimbo” (p. 496); in the process, she may also be sketching a colorful and unsettling (if not exactly flattering) portrait of herself as a destructive female artist. Turning the “trial” into a “show” of her own, Lucy teaches her arrogant would-be teachers a lesson.

The novel’s showiest frustration of its own apparently straitlaced pedagogy, however, occurs at the end, in the scene of Lucy’s drugged excursion to the illuminated park. To move from writing and instruction to the other critical dyad informing the present chapter: this long, climactic episode might almost be read as a symbolic encounter between the Bakhtinian carnival and the Foucauldian prison, an encounter in which the two spaces, like the theater and the schoolroom, clash and merge and displace each other, in what thus becomes a vertiginous dialectic of “Imagination” and “Truth.”

Stimulated into reverie by a drug that was intended to stupefy her, Lucy escapes from the “prison” (p. 548) of Madame Beck’s school and wanders to the park, which in its festive aspect appears to her “a land of enchantment” (p. 550). Seeing her friends pass before her in a weirdly alienating light, Lucy resorts again to the theatrical metaphor: “Throughout this woody and turfy theatre reigned a shadow of mystery; actors and incidents unlooked-for, waited behind the scenes” (p. 556). But this is as much the language of paranoia as of liberatory excess, and neither Lucy nor the reader is terribly surprised to discover, at the “confines” (p. 556) of this theater, the “secret junta” (p. 558) made up of Madame Walravens, Madame Beck, and Père Silas. For indeed, this fête “was not considered a show of Vanity Fair, but a commemoration of patriotic sacrifice. The Church patronized it, even with ostentation” (p. 558).

Nor should it surprise us that the play of ambiguity does not stop here, but extends into Lucy’s reading of the “love scene” (p. 566) between M. Paul and his ward, Justine Marie: as in earlier readings, Lucy’s “unveiling” of the truth, to use Iragaray’s term, is itself a product of fantasy; once more, Lucy is not just “excluded spectator,” but, as Mary Jacobus notes, “metteur en scène in a drama of her own making.”[34] And while the literal unveiling of “the nun” as de Hamal seems to have been dictated by a selective, stage-managing rationalism that would turn nunnery into mummery, the residues of transgressive theatricality persist all the way into the novel’s notoriously inconclusive ending, where Brontë, having cast M. Paul as Lucy’s “king” (p. 587)—But what, at this point, is a king?—and sent him to “Guadaloupe,” at once kills him off and brings him back alive, playing the game of fort/da not only with this newly crowned monarch, but also, outrageously, with her own authoritarian father, who pressed her for a “happy” ending. As Elizabeth Gaskell, Brontë’s friend and biographer, tells us: “All she could do in compliance with her father’s wish was so to veil the fate in oracular words, as to leave it to the character and discernment of her readers to interpret her meaning.”[35] Closer here to an actor’s mask than to part of a nun’s habit, the “veil” becomes a sheltering shadow of undecidability, beneath which, if she so chooses, Brontë can do a kind of conjuring trick: she can make M. Paul—as well as his resident sponsor, the Reverend Patrick Brontë—go away and come back and go away again. We end, as we began, with an instructive scene of ambivalent daughterly inscription. Like Fanny Kemble rehearsing the events of her opening night, Charlotte Brontë, on closing her novel, provides a valuable lesson in the ironic theatricality of “indecision,” and in the complex, often surprisingly double-edged symbolism of that patriarchal theater known as the nineteenth-century family. “In compliance with her father’s wish,” the author veils not only M. Paul’s fate but her own subversive performance as well. Covertly enacting both regicide and patricide, Brontë gets away with murder.

At the beginning of this chapter, I acknowledged (and predicted) the difficulty of getting around or beyond the authority-subversion polarity. In so doing, however, I also indicated the need for better and more various ways of talking about the political affiliations and social consequences of the peculiar kind of “performance” that takes place in and as a literary (or literary-theoretical) text. The reading conducted here has attempted partially and very preliminarily to answer that need by demonstrating some of the complicated, shifting relations among theatricality, pedagogy, and writing in Brontë’s novel, relations whose effects cannot simply be reduced to a binary opposition between transgression and containment. In concluding this chapter, and in anticipating the discussion of Dickens and sensationalism in the next, I would like to draw out, as Brontë would say, one other potentially particularizing strategy suggested, though not yet identified, here.

When Lucy resorts to cross-dressing in the vaudeville for Madame Beck’s fête, she calls attention to a process that, as other examples in this chapter should have confirmed, traverses the text—what Christina Crosby, in her shrewd reading of Villette, calls “a wide range of substitution and slippage” concerning gender identity.[36] Crosby’s paradigm for this process—although “paradigm” may not be the best word to use when a promiscuous contiguity is the order of the day—is the surprising connection between the neurotically introspective Lucy on the one hand and the vacuously superficial Count de Hamal on the other, a connection implied not only by Lucy’s performance as the fop in the school play, but also by the fact that these apparently antithetical characters are both associated with the figure of “the nun”: while this figure functions resonantly as a “metaphor” for Lucy’s own repression, that evocativeness gets “flattened out” retroactively when Lucy learns, near the end of the novel, that “the nun” was merely the theatrical disguise de Hamal assumed in order to gain access to Ginevra inside the pensionnat.[37] With remarkable dexterity, Crosby exploits this connection to achieve a kind of deconstructive flattening out of her own, a sophisticated (con)textualization of earlier feminist readings of the novel, which tend to inflate the psychological meaningfulness they ascribe to Lucy. Treating the conventional Gothic figure of “the nun” as a textually constitutive “none”—less as an emblem of plenitude and interiority than as a floating signifier, a ghostly harbinger of différance—Crosby claims for Villette a more “radical”[38] feminism than has hitherto been recognized in it. “Invagination” would indeed describe the general strategy of a reading that in effect turns Lucy Snowe inside-out.

Like the critics discussed in the previous chapter, Crosby uses theatrical tropes—tropes of costumes and of role-playing—so as to debunk the Gothicizing metaphysics of Brontëan presence. Unlike some of those critics, however, she links theatricality not only with a certain textual flatness, but with a certain “play” as well.[39] Yet though she in turn links this play with the Irigarayan notion of a speculum de l’autre femme,[40] she has little to say about the “sexual pleasure” that Irigaray sees as being “unveiled” by a feminist “play[ing] with mimesis.” It is worth noting, therefore, that, while conventionally mediated, all the veilings and unveilings performed in Villette, like all the dressings and cross-dressings, intimate various unconventional forms of sexual desire or sexual experience, forms that the term “androgyny” would merely reconventionalize. Instead of rehearsing the travesty of “the nun,” or of returning to another already-cited example of gender slippage, such as the non-exchange of prizes in the scene of the concert, I would like to look briefly at one more passage, in which the slippery configuration of writing, acting, and instruction hints at “under-currents” of sexual and textual pleasure (or even of pain) that the sensation novel, for its part, will specialize in “exciting,” and that a responsive teacher-critic might be able to mobilize as well.

This passage occurs in chapter 28, shortly after Lucy has caused M. Paul’s cherished lunettes to shatter, in the middle of one of his lessons, no less. As though advancing this rather castratory flirtation, the narrative has Lucy push her luck by keeping her distance from M. Paul when he arrives at the pensionnat to deliver one of his occasional dramatic readings; and he exposes himself to further danger by his very choice of material:

For his misfortune he had chosen a French translation of what he called “un drame de Williams Shackspire; le faux dieu,” he further announced, “de ces sots païens, les Anglais.” How far otherwise he would have characterized him had his temper not been upset, I scarcely need intimate.

Of course, the translation being French, was very inefficient; nor did I make any particular effort to conceal the contempt which some of its forlorn lapses were calculated to excite. Not that it behoved or beseemed me to say anything; but one can occasionally look the opinion it is forbidden to embody in words. Monsieur’s [new] lunettes being on the alert, he gleamed up every stray look; I don’t think he lost one: the consequence was, his eyes soon discarded a screen, that their gaze might sparkle free, and he waxed hotter at the north pole to which he had voluntarily exiled himself, than, considering the general temperature of the room, it would have been reasonable to become under the vertical ray of Cancer itself.

Against Fanny Kemble’s faith in the prophylactic properties of “reading” (as opposed to acting) and of “Shakespeare” (as opposed to less prestigious cultural icons), this passage frames the reading of Shakespeare as a notably risky undertaking, much like acting itself at its most “painful and distasteful.” Admittedly, the riskiness may have something to do with the fact that much gets lost in (French) translation. Yet M. Paul’s French serves, oddly enough, to align him with none other than Vashti. Indeed, if this is presumably a scene of instruction—in which it is not quite clear who is the teacher and who is the student—it is also a scene of writing—in which, likewise, it is hard to know just who writes and who (or what) gets written. On the one hand, after his less-than-successful reading M. Paul “seem[s] to be occupied in making marginal notes to his ‘Williams Shackspire’ ” (p. 417). On the other hand, the more consequential act of inscription here would appear to be that whereby Lucy rewrites the incendiary Vashti (“wasted like wax in flame”) as the blazing Paul (“wax[ing] hotter at the north pole”), or vice versa. Displacing Vashti’s “demoniac” performance into Paul’s “contemptible” one, Lucy, like Jane Eyre, experiences much of the pungent “excitement” of bad acting. And the observation that Paul’s pain affords Lucy pleasure only begins to address the thinly veiled erotics of the scene. For if the “pain” is not all on his side, neither is the “pleasure” all on hers. Part of what gets Paul hot, as it were, is the excitement of attacking not only “Williams Shackspire,” but also Lucy, ostensibly through her compatriots. Conversely, she must sense a certain arousing sting in hearing herself classed among “ces sots païens, les Anglais.”

We could speculate further about Lucy’s affect in response to this slippage, in which she is typed in the terms that she herself ordinarily applies to Paul and his culture; about the surreptitious gratification she might derive from the inadvertently carnivalesque (if “forlorn”) Frenching of the immortal Shakespeare; about the implications of the blurring of gender that results from the recasting of Paul as Vashti or of Vashti as Paul; about the frisson that might attend the sheer fact of conducting such a highly charged sexual power play behind the “screen” of institutional ceremony. But it will have to be enough for now merely to signal these complexities, which perhaps seem insufficiently public or momentous to found a significant textual politics, much less a “subversive” textual politics. I would argue, and indeed hope to show in the next chapter, that such undercurrents are worth identifying, since, precisely to the extent that they precede or exceed the stark and sweeping opposition between “authority” and “subversion,” they constitute the micropolitics of theatricality in the nineteenth-century novel. It may be difficult, even impossible, to resist the temptation to decide whether a given novel is “authoritarian” or “subversive”; yet that project may also be as unrewarding, finally, as trying to separate the “French” scene of writing from the “English” scene of instruction. If what we have been given to read, after all, is an (unspecified) “drame de Williams Shackspire,” we might as well attempt to become better (more specific) readers of that grotesquely composite text and play.


1. Brontë’s letters are quoted in Clement Shorter, ed., The Brontës: Life and Letters, 2 vols. (1908; rpt. New York: Haskell House, 1969) 2:282, 283. Derrida’s essay is included in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).

2. The most relevant texts by Bloom are A Map of Misreading (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), esp. 41–62, and Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), esp. pp. 52–82.

3. The subtitle in fact alludes to a particular (and particularly influential) new historicist essay, Stephen Greenblatt’s “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion, Henry IV and Henry V,” in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), pp. 18–47. The present chapter’s reading of Villette should make clear why I have omitted Greenblatt’s “its” from my allusion. I first encountered the notion that “Bakhtin and Foucault might serve as antithetical models for the discursivity of culture” in a discussion of Greenblatt’s work (among that of others) by Jonathan Goldberg, “The Politics of Renaissance Literature: A Review Essay,” ELH 49 (Summer 1982): 533.

4. Gillian Beer, “ ‘Coming Wonders’: Uses of Theatre in the Victorian Novel,” in English Drama: Forms and Development, ed. Marie Axton and Raymond Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), p. 185. For another excellent discussion of the theater as the ambivalently charged “other” of the Victorian novel, see Nina Auerbach, “Alluring Vacancies in the Victorian Character,” Kenyon Review 8 (1986): 36–48.

5. Frances Ann Kemble, Records of a Girlhood, 2nd ed. (New York: Henry Holt, 1879), pp. 220–21.

6. In Literary Women (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976), p. 188, Ellen Moers suggests the juxtaposition of Kemble’s Records with Villette, both of which she sees as belated responses to that sensational early-nineteenth-century figuration of the writer/actress, Madame de Staël’s Corinne. For a richly informative account of the shifting cultural perception (and social status) of the actress in the course of the Victorian period, see Christopher Kent, “Image and Reality: The Actress and Society,” in A Widening Sphere: Changing Roles of Victorian Women, ed. Martha Vicinus (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977), pp. 94–116.

7. Readings that stress the modern or even postmodern aspects of Villette include Nina Auerbach, “Charlotte Brontë: The Two Countries,” chapter 12 in Auerbach, Romantic Imprisonment: Women and Other Glorified Outcasts (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), pp. 195–211, and Christina Crosby, “Charlotte Brontë’s Haunted Text,” Studies in English Literature 24 (1984): 701–15.

8. For a rigorous discussion of “the relation of psychoanalysis to theatricality,” see Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, “Theatrum Analyticum,” Glyph 2 (1977): 122–43.

9. The theatricality of the episodes themselves is suggested by Robert Bernard Martin, who refers to them as “a series of big scenes, almost set-pieces” (The Accents of Persuasion: Charlotte Brontë’s Novels [New York: Norton, 1966], p. 155).

10. In his introduction to the Penguin edition of Villette, ed. Mark Lilly (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), p. 13, Tony Tanner claims that “oscillation” is “a key-word in considering the novel.” I will be referring to this edition throughout the chapter. Subsequent references will appear parenthetically in the text.

11. In her perceptive reading of Villette in Women, Power, and Subversion: Social Strategies in British Fiction, 1778–1860 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1981), pp. 86–124, Judith Lowder Newton tends to locate the novel’s subversiveness in its theme of “the working life and of self-enhancing power,” as opposed to the constricting values of female “love and self-sacrifice” (p. 103). Though the working life can suggest an escape from the Victorian ideology of love and marriage, the power such work affords is by no means obviously self-enhancing. For this reason, I prefer to look for subversiveness less in the novel’s thematic opposition of work to love and marriage than in the cunning and indirection of its narrative strategies. For a particularly acerbic reading of Lucy Snowe’s social and economic ascent, see Terry Eagleton, Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1975), pp. 61–73.

12. For a discussion of the paradoxical advantages of female cross-dressing in Villette, see Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), p. 413.

13. On the similarity between Lucy and Madame Beck, see, for example, Margot Peters, Charlotte Brontë: Style in the Novel (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973), p. 91, and Mary Jacobus, “The Buried Letter: Feminism and Romanticism in Villette,” in Women Writing and Writing about Women, ed. Jacobus (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1979), p. 45.

14. The association of reading with spying is established, for example, by such intrusive acts as Madame Beck’s examination of Lucy’s letters from Dr. John, and M. Paul’s regular inspections of the contents of Lucy’s desk.

15. The gender of the reader posited by Lucy’s asides is usually left unspecified, but in the course of one of these not particularly friendly addresses (p. 422), she lifts the veil to identify her reader as male. Full treatment of the interesting and complicated question of how the narrator constructs and negotiates her relationship with her audience lies beyond the scope of this chapter.

16. The name “Lucy Snowe,” which Brontë at one point changed to “Lucy Frost,” is itself highly overdetermined, and thus a kind of shadow in its own right, as suggested by the author’s defense of it with reference to “the ‘lucus a non lucendo’ principle”; see Shorter, ed., The Brontës: Life and Letters 2:286. The name functions in a complex signifying chain, which includes ideas of coldness, blankness, light, dark, abstraction, contradiction, repetition, and so forth.

17. Brontë is of course no more identical with Lucy Snowe than she is with Jane Eyre. Throughout this chapter, however, I assume a certain allegorical link between Brontë and Lucy (just as I posited certain telling continuities between Brontë and Jane). Critics have often pointed out the author’s differences from, and even dislike of, Lucy, and much more needs to be said about the by-no-means-unproblematic relations between author and protagonist. Yet the tendency to enumerate dissimilarities may bespeak a will to dissociation that itself needs to be analyzed. For now, at any rate, I would contend that the novel remains more instructive as a (highly oblique) portrait of the artist than as a case history.

18. Gilbert and Gubar, Madwoman in the Attic, p. 400.

19. Shorter, ed., The Brontës: Life and Letters, 1:128. For a perceptive discussion of Brontë’s art in light of the conflicts expressed in her correspondence with Southey, see Carol T. Christ, “Imaginative Constraint, Feminine Duty, and the Form of Charlotte Brontë’s Fiction,” Women’s Studies 6 (1979): 287–96.

20. My terms here derive from Ellen Moers, who offers chapters on “Performing Heroinism” and “Educating Heroinism” (Literary Women, pp. 173–210 and 211–42).

21. I owe this formulation to a long and dazzling footnote in an essay by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Finding Feminist Readings: Dante–Yeats,” Social Text 3 (Fall 1980): 74, n. 2.

22. Karen Lawrence, “The Cypher: Disclosure and Reticence in Villette,Nineteenth-Century Literature 42 (March 1988): 448–66. Lawrence’s fine essay also shares the concern of the present chapter with the interplay between theatrical and scriptive metaphors in Brontë’s novel. The works to which she refers are Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (New York: Random House, 1985), and D. A. Miller, Narrative and Its Discontents: Problems of Closure in the Traditional Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981). For another feminist alternative to Brooks, Lawrence recommends Nancy K. Miller, “Emphasis Added: Plots and Plausibilities in Women’s Fiction,” in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory, ed. Elaine Showalter (New York: Pantheon, 1985), pp. 339–60. For a discussion of Brooks and other male-centered narrative theorists, see also Joseph Allen Boone, Tradition Counter Tradition: Love and the Form of Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 71–73.

23. For the development of this argument, see in particular “Freud’s Masterplot: A Model for Narrative,” in Brooks, Reading for the Plot, pp. 90–112. The relevant text by Freud is Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

24. John Stokes, “Rachel’s ‘Terrible Beauty’: An Actress Among the Novelists,” ELH 51 (Winter 1984): 771–93.

25. Ibid.: 790.

26. Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), p. 76.

27. For a lucid enumeration of the various erotic relations implied by this scenario, see Eagleton, Myths of Power, p. 70.

28. The word “habits” connects Lucy’s “natural” reticence with the image of the nun, which is central to the novel. That the nun’s habit turns out to be a kind of theatrical costume points to the radically theatrical “nature” of Lucy’s anti- or untheatricality.

29. For an interesting reading of the episode of the concert as an anti-patriarchal debunking on Lucy’s part, see Gilbert and Gubar, Madwoman in the Attic, p. 421.

30. For an example of Paulina’s non-threatening theatricality, see the pas de fée she performs in the presence of her father and her future husband (p. 364).

31. This work has been collected in Miller, The Novel and the Police (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988). For an example of the kind of reading I have mentioned, see the essay in that volume entitled “From roman policier to roman police: Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone,” pp. 33–57.

32. The letters in which Brontë describes her impressions of Rachel, whose acting she observed in London in 1851, constitute a kind of rehearsal for the Vashti chapter in Villette. “Rachel’s acting,” she writes to one correspondent, “transfixed me with wonder, enchained me with interest, and thrilled me with horror” (Shorter, ed., The Brontës: Life and Letters 2:252). For an astute reading of the Vashti episode as Brontë’s revision of George Henry Lewes, who not only had written extensively about Rachel but also had attempted to supervise Brontë’s own career, see Stokes, “Rachel’s ‘Terrible Beauty’ ”: 779–83.

33. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “The Character in the Veil: Imagery of the Surface in the Gothic Novel,” PMLA 96 (1981): 267.

34. Jacobus, “The Buried Letter,” p. 52.

35. Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, ed. Alan Shelston (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975), p. 484.

36. Crosby, “Charlotte Brontë’s Haunted Text”: 708.

37. I take the term “flattened out” from Crosby, ibid.: 705, who uses it to show how this debunking is reinforced by the explanatory letter that Ginevra leaves for Lucy.

38. Ibid.: 703.

39. For example: “The mobility of meaning in Brontë’s text is never a lure away from complexity, but is an Imaginary with a difference: its series of refracted images is always in play, always producing new configurations, without origin or end” (ibid.: 715).

40. Ibid.: 713.

Scenes of Writing, Scenes of Instruction

Preferred Citation: Litvak, Joseph. Caught in the Act: Theatricality in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1992.