How is happiness conveyed in Jane Austen's Emma and Charlotte Bronte's Villette?

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“Some real lives do – for some certain days or years –

actually anticipate happiness of heaven” - Lucy Snowe

How is happiness conveyed in Jane Austen’s Emma and Charlotte Bronte’s Villette?

The nineteenth century was an era of great discovery, invention and social change as a result of political unrest in the previous years.  The American Revolution which culminated in the United States Declaration of Independence, lead to a change in political thought, bringing ideas of ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’ (1776: line4), though how much this extended to women is debateable.  Published thirty-seven years apart, Emma and Villette tell the stories of two girls trying to find happiness in difficult societies.  The two lead characters are very different; Emma is a respected, wealthy and attractive young woman yet rather spoilt, whereas Lucy Snowe is passive and secretive, with no significant amount of money or family connections.  Living in the same century, therefore, it would seem safe to assume that the girls would find happiness in the same things; good company, money and a happy marriage.  As Philip Davis argues, Victorian novels (though Emma predates Victoria’s reign by approximately twenty years) were concerned only with ‘Humanity, Duty, Vocation, Work, Marriage [and] Family’ (2002:2).

However, this is not the case for either of the girls.  Lucy finds comfort in solitude and some of the passages in Bronte’s novel where she is most at ease are those in which she is alone.  If not alone, Lucy prefers the company of just one or two trusted friends, but even this is problematical, as she often hides her feelings from the reader.  Emma on the other hand, appears to take pleasure in helping others to be happy; often to their detriment!  What can be said, nonetheless, is that both novels convey moral journeys towards a greater understanding of self and society.  By looking at a few specific incidents in each novel, the methods with which the authors explore the feeling of happiness can be uncovered.

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her (Emma p.5).

The opening sentence of Jane Austen’s novel manages to summarise Emma’s situation and history in a few simple words.  The reader is already informed by the omniscient narrator that this central character is content and privileged in every aspect that a young lady could wish for.  In comparison, Villette has a very different approach.  For example, it is not until the second chapter that we find out the name of the protagonist and narrator, Lucy Snowe.  Interesting to note also that the first two chapters are names of characters, ‘Bretton’ and ‘Paulina’, as if the narrator is happy to talk about them, but reluctant to talk about herself.  We hear about the people surrounding the narrator, events in the past but very little physical or characteristic detail.  We are given few clues as to how Lucy feels or thinks about these events; ‘well I liked the visit’ (Villette p.1) is the only indication of preference or opinion.  Even by the end of the novel we do not know where her ‘home’ was, and Lucy is constantly evasive about places and locations.  The reader is left to speculate why this is; because of unhappiness there and desire to forget it?  Or perhaps she is ashamed?  It is almost as if she does not trust the reader and as a result becomes difficult to like.  Most readers will assume that this past, of which Lucy is so vague, holds bad memories or experiences which set the tone of her character from the start.  

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As a narrator, Lucy is unreliable and the revelation that Dr. John and Graham Bretton are, in fact, the same people, is the prime example of this.  ‘I first recognized him on that occasion, noted several chapters back, when my unguardedly-fixed attention had drawn me on the mortification of an implied rebuke’ (Villette p.170-1).  Only when the reader will find out for themselves, does Lucy tell us that she knew all along.  ‘I had preferred to keep the matter to myself’ she reasons, ‘I liked entering his presence covered with a cloud he had not seen through’ (Villette p.171).  This motif of ...

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