Villette, Female Political Agency, and the French Revolution of 1848


This essay reads Charlotte Brontë's Villette (1853) as a response to questions about women's public agency that were raised by the French Revolution of 1848, in which women played prominent roles. The actress Rachel, the inspiration for Villette's Vashti, became the most notorious female activist of the Revolution when she performed La Marseillaise in support France's Second Republic. As I demonstrate, Brontë engages directly with Victorian journalistic accounts of these performances. Here, and in other episodes focused on women leaders, such as 'Madame Beck' and 'The Cleopatra', Brontë seeks to expose the linguistic and iconographic conventions around female political power that diminish women's agency in the process of representing it. Brontë's awareness of the pervasiveness and intractability of these conventions explains the novel's final scepticism about women's ability to exercise political power. Although Villette's protagonist, Lucy Snowe, indulges in fantasies of political power, she satisfies these fantasies not in the public realm but in a politicized private realm, where she re-enacts Napoleonic-era political conflicts with her imperious lover, M Paul. My aim in analysing Brontë's engagement with 1848 is to understand Villette's politicization of romance. For Brontë, I argue, women's exclusion from the political is tantamount to their exclusion from history, and Lucy's strategic political re-enactments function as both critique of and compensation for this exclusion.



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Charlotte Brontë, politics, revolution, Villette, women

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Journal Title

Journal of Victorian Culture