The Priestcraft of the Book: Representations of Catholicism in Villette

  • Diana Peschier


Charlotte Brontë’s novel Villette has been identified by critics as a vehemently anti-Catholic work. It cannot be denied that the novel contains many detrimental references to the institutional practices of Roman Catholicism, but by situating it within the wider field of anti-Catholic writing in the nineteenth century I would argue that negative aspects of certain characters and situations which are linked by their association with Catholicism are more stylistic and thematic than rhetorical — the result of a cultural perception of that particular religion, not an overt criticism of it. Rosemary Clark-Beattie writes: ‘Villette is perhaps the most moving and terrifying account of deprivation, of powerlessness, ever written.’2 This statement provides a more fertile approach to the novel than that of the simple ‘anti-Catholic discourse’. It is useful in interpreting Brontë’s portrayal of Catholicism, in particular her representation of the nun. This chapter will aim to show that Brontë deployed current perceptions of Roman Catholicism to represent concepts such as isolation and surveillance which in Villette are more developed than in The Professor, Shirley and Jane Eyre.


Single Woman Fairy Tale Catholic Priest Solitary Confinement Moral Power 
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    For further explanation of this idea see Sally Shuttleworth, ‘The Surveillance of the Sleepless Eye: The Constitution of Neurosis in Villette’, in Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 142–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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© Diana Peschier 2005

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  • Diana Peschier

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