Monday, March 9, 2015

Villette-along Week 2: "I felt no particular vocation to undertake the surveillance of ethereal creatures"

The temptation to summarize is great in these readalongs, but you've all read the chapters (yes, even though they were many?) and I just want to talk about Madame Beck.

I find this character so interesting. Through Lucy's description of her, we get what amounts to a portrait of a living, breathing woman. It would've been so easy to make her either a cheerful and plump benefactress or a strict and unfeeling taskmaster. But Madame Beck resists categorization, and above all she resists conforming to the Victorian feminine ideal.

I think Lucy sees in her some traits that she is missing and that challenge and empower her to step outside of her comfort zone.
At that instant, she did not wear a woman's aspect, but rather a man's. Power of a particular kind strongly limned itself in all her traits, and that power was not my kind of power: neither sympathy, nor congeniality, nor submission, were the emotions it awakened. I stoodnot soothed, nor won, nor overwhelmed. It seemed as if a challenge of strength between opposing gifts was given, and I suddenly felt all the dishonor of my diffidenceall the pusillanimity of my slackness to aspire. 

So it's clear that Lucy admires Madame Beck for, among other things, her business acumen and ability to manage a school of about 120 students, four teachers, eight masters, six servants, and her own three children. But she doesn't fail to mention the character traits that would open Madame Beck to judgment even in our gender-progressive era.

Madame Beck isn't compassionate or feeling. Her heart can't be appealed to in any matter. She's a fairly terrible mother. She cares for her children and their future, but she doesn't punish them when they're out of line and she doesn't hold them when they come to her seeking affection. She is what many would call today (pardon my French) a bitch.

Lucy acknowledges these traits, but she doesn't demonize Madame Beck for them. And because Lucy, as the narrator, is effectively Charlotte Brontё's mouthpiece (Hi, Charlotte, we know you don't like the French or Catholics, WE KNOW), it doesn't seem like she's meant to be an example of a "bad woman." She's just a woman, and a fairly capable one at that.

Although I have to disagree with Lucy about Madame Beck's special talent being cunning and espionage, because if she's so good at sneaking around undetected why has Lucy detected her so many times?

I am good at spying. Look what a good spy I am.

And how does Madame Beck react to the disappointment of Dr. John's unreturned affections? She gets on with her business. She's got other stuff to worry about, like her career and stuff. Moping over boys was so 1789.

And all Madame Beck's traits contrast most drastically, of course, with Ginevra Fanshawe's, a girl who has nothing to do in life but find a husband. Too bad Ginevra is totally gay for Lucy. Oh, hi, welcome to our readalongs, in which we always make someone gay.

No but seriously, Ginevra.

She has two suitors. One is a manly-man with whiskers (gross), and the other is a pretty man with hands smaller than hers. Who do you think she prefers? I will give you two guesses.

And not only is she disgusted by John's whiskers, but she hates his name and insists on giving him a new one, and that name is ISADORE.

So there's all that. And then you have the vaudeville in which Lucy acts as one of Ginevra's suitors and steals the show. And then afterward Ginevra delivers that sermon to Lucy about all the ways she is better situated in life, and I couldn't help but think, "Sweetie, who are you trying to convince?" For her part, Lucy remains unconvinced.
For in my heart you have not the outline of a place: I only occasionally turn you over in my brain.

Lucy's heart belongs to Dr. John, and I'll entertain no contrary opinions. Good day.

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