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The Priestcraft of the Book: Representations of Catholicism in Villette

  • Diana Peschier

Abstract

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.

Keywords

Single Woman Fairy Tale Catholic Priest Solitary Confinement Moral Power 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    Charlotte Brontë, Letter to Ellen Nussey, Haworth: 14 July 1849. The Letters of Charlotte Brontë, vol. 2, ed. Margaret Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), p. 230.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Rosemary Clarke-Beattie, ‘Fables of Rebellion: Anti-Catholicism and The Structure of Villette’, ELH 53 (1986): p. 823.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    For a fuller explanation see Juliet Barker, The Brontës (London: Weidenfield and Nicolson. 1997). pp. 718–19.Google Scholar
  4. 9.
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  5. 11.
    During the time that Charlotte Brontë was writing Villette, her letters to Ellen Nussey show that she was very depressed and suffering a great deal from bad headaches. In August 1852 she tells Ellen how unhappy she is, not because she is a single woman and likely to remain so but because she is a lonely woman and likely to be lonely. In September 1852, when writing to Ellen about Villette she says; ‘I feel fettered, incapable, sometimes very low. However at present the subject must not be dwelt upon; it presses me too hardly, wearily, painfully.’ Charlotte Brontë, Letters to Ellen Nussey (Bradford: Horsefall Turner, 1885).Google Scholar
  6. 12.
    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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    See John Maynard, Charlotte Brontë and Sexuality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).Google Scholar
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    For a detailed explanation of Brontë’s use of exegesis see the chapter on Villette in Christina Crosby. The Ends of History (London: Routledge. 1991).Google Scholar
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    Kate Lawson, ‘Reading Desire: Villette as Heretic Narrative’, in English Studies in Canada 17 March 1991.Google Scholar
  20. 53.
    For further explanation about Fenelon see Terry Lovell, ‘Gender and Englishness in Villette’, in Sally Ledger, Josephine McDonagh and Jane Spencer, eds, Political Gender: Texts and Contexts (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994).Google Scholar
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    Gayla McGlamery, ‘This Unlicked Wolf Cub’: Anti-Catholicism in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette’, in Cahiers Victoriens et Edourdiens, vol. 37, 1993, p. 67.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Diana Peschier 2005

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  • Diana Peschier

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