Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Falling for Monsieur Paul Emanuel (Villette, Charlotte Bronte)

Charlotte Bronte, Villette (1853)

What always strikes me in this novel-- one of my favorites!-- is that I'm led into Lucy Snowe's affection for a hero who's unlikely, if not absolutely unlikable.  A plain, short, middle-aged teacher at a school for girls in fictional Villette (Belgium), M. Paul Emanuel rages at his pupils and colleagues; takes everything personally; manipulates; and often shows an astonishing lack of consideration for others, as when he locks Lucy into a roach-infested attic for four hours on a hot summer day so that she can rescue his stage play from imminent disaster.  Not exactly endearing, right?

Oddly enough, wrong.  Under Bronte's influence, somehow I can't help but smile at his childish ego-- just as I find Mr. Rochester impossibly cute when he's being, well, impossible!  Something about the emotional transparency and self-centeredness of these men becomes so appealing once they betray a weakness for the heroine...  Plus, they spar so well with protagonists (like Lucy Snowe and Jane Eyre) who don't take their hot tempers and jealous antics at all seriously!  Lucy laughs at M. Paul before falling in love with him, and indeed-- like Jane-- indulges in a few mind-games of her own at his expense.  To Lucy, M. Paul isn't frightening or abrasive; his haranguing is "piquant" and "better than music."  He stimulates.
Belgian teacher Constantin Heger,
the basis for M. Paul's character

In Villette, too, there's the added pleasure of knowing that, unlike Rochester, Paul Emanuel isn't rich, isn't tall and "athletic," and doesn't have the dangerous allure of a repentant sinner.  (On the contrary, he's a pretty serious Catholic.)  In other words, Bronte doesn't have much conventionally "romantic" material to work with here-- yet she irresistibly draws me into her own enchantment with this character, a stand-in for the object of her own (unrequited) infatuation.

Falling for M. Paul feels so right because it affirms that one doesn't have to have looks, money, status, or even spot-on social skills in order to inspire an overwhelming passion.   Human?  Flawed?  Occasionally ridiculous?  Guys, you're still candidates for the role of romantic hero, as Heger found-- to his chagrin.


  1. I read this many years ago and remember not liking it. Perhaps because I was expecting someone more like Rochester. Thanks for your take on the story. I just might give it another try.

    1. Thanks for your comment! As Lucy tends to see the worst in people, I can understand not liking Villette. It's dreary (even angry) in comparison with Jane Eyre! But somehow its romance seems all the sweeter, perhaps because Lucy is so starved emotionally... I'm intrigued, too, by the idea that Charlotte Bronte's personality might emerge more clearly from this novel.