Friday, February 12, 2021

The Memory of Things (Charlotte Brontë)

There's an intriguing recognition scene about 200 pages into Charlotte Brontë's final novel, Villette. The narrator, Lucy Snowe, is a young Englishwoman with sad memories and no strong family ties who crosses the Channel and finds employment in a school for girls, first as a servant and eventually as a teacher of English. There she becomes acquainted with a fellow expatriate, a young physician she knows, initially, as Dr. John, who is regularly called on to attend to the pupils in the school. After several months at the school, Snowe undergoes an emotional crisis. Though Protestant, she visits a Catholic church and gets a sympathetic if puzzled reception in the confessional; after leaving, she collapses in the street.

She comes to in a strange room, but the objects that surround her aren't entirely unfamiliar.
It was obvious, not only from the furniture, but from the position of windows, doors, and fire-place, that this was an unknown room in an unknown house.

Hardly less plain was it that my brain was not yet settled; for, as I gazed at the blue arm-chair, it appeared to grow familiar; so did a certain scroll-couch, and not less so the round center-table, with a blue-covering, bordered with autumn-tinted foliage; and, above all, two little footstools with worked covers, and a small ebony-framed chair, of which the seat and back were also worked with groups of brilliant flowers on a dark ground.

Struck with these things, I explored further. Strange to say, old acquaintance were all about me, and "auld lang syne" smiled out of every nook. There were two oval miniatures over the mantel-piece, of which I knew by heart the pearls about the high and powdered "heads"; the velvets circling the white throats; the swell of the full muslin kerchiefs: the pattern of the lace sleeve-ruffles. Upon the mantel-shelf there were two china vases, some relics of a diminutive tea-service, as smooth as enamel and as thin as egg-shell, and a white center-ornament, a classic group in alabaster, preserved under glass. Of all these things I could have told the peculiarities, numbered the flaws or cracks, like any clairvoyante. Above all, there was a pair of hand-screens, with elaborate pencil-drawings finished like line engravings; these, my very eyes ached at beholding again, recalling hours when they had followed, stroke by stroke and touch by touch, a tedious, feeble, finical, school-girl pencil held in these fingers, now so skeleton-like.

Where was I? Not only in what spot of the world, but in what year of our Lord? For all these objects were of past days, and of a distant country. Ten years ago I bade them good-by; since my fourteenth year they and I had never met. I gasped audibly, "Where am I?"
Snowe has good reason to wonder (and I've quoted only a small portion of an extended passage of discovery). She has been rescued by Dr. John, who (we learn now) is identical with the John Graham Bretton who is the son of the godmother with whom Lucy spent long periods during her adolescence, and she is now recuperating in his home. Neither Bretton nor his mother, who is also in the house, has recognized Lucy yet. The familiar articles Lucy sees around her are well-remembered objects from her childhood, brought along by the mother when she left England.

At this point Brontë, through Snowe, admits that she has been deceiving us. Snowe has, in fact, recognized Bretton chapters earlier, but has withheld that information both from him and from the reader.

That Lucy Snowe might have lost touch with the Brettons when she became an adult is not implausible. Like many a Brontë character, she lacks an intact nuclear family and seems to have been set adrift into life. That John Bretton wouldn't recognize his former housemate is, perhaps, harder to swallow. But it's a stroke of genius that Charlotte Brontë has understood how memories of childhood can be eerily embodied in knickknacks and furnishings that in themselves are entirely banal, and also to understand the disorientation that can occur in someone who re-encounters those objects in a strange environment to which they don't seem to belong.


Michael Leddy said...

This passage makes me think of Proust’s meditations on waking up and putting the parts of a room back together. And it makes me think of the little clay boot with a penny in it in my grandparents’ display cabinet. Which in turn makes me think of Ted Berrigan’s poem “Cranston Near the City Line,” which begins with details from childhood. (The poem is viewable in the Collected Poems at Google Books, but a link says the pages are unavailable.)

I haven’t read Villette (yet), which sounds (roughly) like The Professor, in which a male protagonist leaves England to teach in Brussels. Would you recommend Villette? I gave up on Shirley and haven’t revisited CB since.

Chris said...


I had the same experience with Shirley, actually; I thought it sounded like something I'd like but I got bored with it about 50 pages in. I do like Villette, though. I'm about halfway through. It seems like a much more modern and internal book than Jane Eyre, which may be why Virginia Woolf liked it so much.