Inspired by the recent Brontë conference I attended at Warwick University, I’m currently re-reading Villette. Molly Ryder, a PhD student at the University of Exeter, gave a fantastic paper on Lucy Snowe and confinement, looking at the more ‘horror’ aspects of the narrative. I’ve always really appreciated Charlotte’s most mature work, and, having been invited to speak at an international conference in Brussels next year, I’m hoping the trip will allow me to understand the text even further.
Whilst reading this morning, I was reminded of a passage in the novel that has always made an impact upon me. It is the part where Lucy goes to the theatre and encounters a ‘devil-like’ Vashti on stage:
She rose at nine that December night: above the horizon I saw her come. She could shine yet with pale grandeur and steady might; but that star verged already on its judgment-day. Seen near, it was a chaos—hollow, half-consumed: an orb perished or perishing—half lava, half glow.
I had heard this woman termed “plain,” and I expected bony harshness and grimness—something large, angular, sallow. What I saw was the shadow of a royal Vashti: a queen, fair as the day once, turned pale now like twilight, and wasted like wax in flame.
For awhile—a long while—I thought it was only a woman, though an unique woman, Who moved in might and grace before this multitude. By-and-by I recognised my mistake. Behold! I found upon her something neither of woman nor of man: in each of her eyes sat a devil. These evil forces bore her through the tragedy, kept up her feeble strength—for she was but a frail creature; and as the action rose and the stir deepened, how wildly they shook her with their passions of the pit! They wrote HELL on her straight, haughty brow. They tuned her voice to the note of torment. They writhed her regal face to a demoniac mask. Hate and Murder and Madness incarnate she stood.
It was a marvellous sight: a mighty revelation.
It was a spectacle low, horrible, immoral.
Swordsmen thrust through, and dying in their blood on the arena sand; bulls goring horses disembowelled, made a meeker vision for the public—a milder condiment for a people’s palate—than Vashti torn by seven devils: devils which cried sore and rent the tenement they haunted, but still refused to be exorcised.
As well as disturbing, the language here is highly sexualised, the scene a conflation of violence and eroticism. Although her of Vashti has been discussed by a number of critics, this particular section reminded me of Charlotte’s constant fixation with the devil as a figure of attraction, previously embodied within her male characters. In Shirley, Robert Moore has ‘a glance in his eye which seemed to invoke the devil’ and on numerous occasions Rochester in Jane Eyre is described as having devilish characteristics. He continuously admits to having a satanic personality – ‘I am little better than a devil at this moment’, ‘to women who please me only by their faces. I am the very devil when I find out they have neither souls nor hearts’ – but it his revelation that the devil is inherent to his personal model of ‘correct’ masculinity that really strikes me: ‘to my mind a man is nothing without a spice of the devil in him’.
Moving back further, Charlotte’s juvenilia also makes numerous references to Angria’s Byronic protagonists, Zamorna and Northangerland, as having devilish embodiments. Although my thesis and forthcoming book chapter – in a collection of essays titled Charlotte Brontë from the Beginnings (2016) – discusses the demonic personality of Branwell’s Northangerland in further detail, Zamorna, Charlotte’s ‘ideal’, is also frequently shown to be a man with devilish attributes. Although there are many examples I could quote, for the sake of this post I will pick the most important. It lies in a transcribed manuscript titled Four Years Ago, held at the Brontë Parsonage Museum. Whilst the original is lost, an early critic called Hatfield typed up Charlotte’s tale in the early twentieth century. In it, Zamorna flirts with a young woman at a party:
I saw myself [Zamorna] in a great mirror dancing with the devil, and with that young Milesian it should have been a pas-de-deux, but we made a threesome reel of it. Round we went, and round again and again, to such divine music! Honor asked me to stop but I could not. She went red and white but I whirled her still faster than ever. I asked her if she did not see who impelled me. She said, ‘No,’ and fainted in my arms. I carried her out of the saloon into the garden which was full of coloured lamps and moving groups. it was summer and very mild and warm. She revived. I sat her down in an arbour, or rather the porch of a summer-house, within which gleamed an immense mirror, with statues lifting up torches on each side. These mirrors are vile things. Thus part of the garden was quiet and solitary; it was screened by a dim grove. The music came towards it from the house. The moon gliding over the city looked down upon us. My little partner said, ‘what a sweet night it was’. ‘Yes,’ said I, abstractedly, for my eyes were fixed on the mirror. It reflected Honor, sitting on the steps, in white, flowers and leaves of the vine clustering above her; myself leaning against one side of the porch, and the devil, the exact shadow of myself, against the other. The Milesian between us, looking up every now and then at me, with an expression in her parted lips and lifted eye, as if she wondered why I was so silent. The devil began to talk to Honor and tell her she was a very pretty girl, a wild, gentle, being, fit to be born and reared in the woods of the West. He told her she was his country-woman, and she coloured and flashed a look of enthusiasm upward, so as to meet fully the glance of his royal highness. ‘Now’, said the Prince of Air, ‘what are your thoughts, Honor? Do you like your country the worse because I am hereafer to be its King’ Honor looked down at her white robes, and at her pretty feet, and answered, “Oh my lord, all who are born in my country love it, but there is no country ruled by you which I should not adore,” the devil looked satisfied, grim evil shade! How he winked and nodded at me, who stood so quietly, gentlemen, so innocently listening to the great deceiver making love, very much scandalized at him, but not thinking it right to interfere….‘Your Grace is the devil,’ concluded Castlereagh. ‘I am’ was the solemn answer, accompanied by a sigh so contrite, so humble.
Although the narrative is slightly awkward and fragmented, the link between the devil and attraction is clear, Zamorna’s flirtation – which is immoral as his wife Marian is about to die from a broken heart – encouraged by a sexualised, satanic provocateur. In a style similar to that of James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Zamorna’s split-self is uncontrollable, the last sentence revealing his guilt and regret. However, it is Zamorna’s small ‘spice’ of evil that makes him a lasting figure of attraction throughout Charlotte’s early writings. Like Rochester, it is Zamorna’s ‘bad boy’ (sorry had to be used) characteristics that make him a girlhood fantasy, religious sentiments pushed aside to make way for devilish eroticism.
From my research, it is clear that Charlotte battled with her imaginary figure of attraction. In her Roe Head Journals, it is even revealed that she becomes delusional about Zamorna, seeing him leaning against an obelisk in her school-room. It is later on in the saga that she has to distance herself away from her devil-like model, understanding him through the eyes of her cynical pseudonym, Charles Townshend. Although she parted with Angria in 1839, it is clear that she was unable to shake her association between sexuality and the devil in her later works. I am yet to understand why this image resonated within her so strongly, and how this links with present day discourse, contemporary readers still finding the devilish attributes within Brontë masculinity ‘sexy’. Moreover, I need to research how this fits in to wider understandings of ‘devilish imagery’ in gender-based studies on sexuality. I don’t know, maybe I can just throw out there that Charlotte Brontë might find devil imagery appealing because she is in fact a minion of Satan and a cold-blooded killer? James Tully certainly thinks so in this book:
(Academic kudos 100%)