By Samantha English
Content warning: mention of anxiety, depression, and emotional abuse
I fell in love with the Brontë sisters when I was sixteen. I read Wuthering Heights in a slow-churning tempest of terror and intrigue, Cathy’s ghost lingering over my shoulder as I drew complex family trees of the Earnshaw and Linton families at my kitchen table. I carried my black-penned copy of Emily’s singular work to you, Wellesley, where it sat watching me, witchlike, waiting to be joined by its sister novels. It didn’t take long. By my second semester, I was in the Nineteenth Century Novel class, combing obsessively through Jane Eyre. I wasn’t just hooked. I was haunted.
One of my professors recently called me a Victorianist. Her assessment makes sense. I approach every session of my 300-level class on nineteenth-century novels “of romantic mistake” with what I’m sure is annoying zeal; I’ve had a (potential) senior thesis on Charlotte Brontë murmuring in my brain since the end of my first year. Still, the Victorian period was just as, if not more, problematic than Mr. Rochester, Heathcliff, and Arthur Huntington of Anne’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall put together. I am often troubled by my fascination with these novels. Yet, what I love about Brontëlore is not its romances or its history or even the gothic mist that shrouds it all—it is the deeply complex female characters who are trapped within the covers of the sister canon.
As the weeks before I leave you, Wellesley, come to an end, I am reading Villette, Charlotte’s final novel, written after the deaths of her beloved sisters. Villette, like Jane Eyre, is both evocative and sensual, wrestling with submission and passion; Charlotte asks readers to question women’s roles in Victorian society. However, while Jane Eyre’s narration is transparent, Villette’s Lucy Snowe is coated in mystery. She lacks the sincerity that makes Jane so lovable. Lucy frustrates and confuses readers by withholding information and revising her reflections, telling one thing and seeming to feel another. She is often rude, alarmingly silent, sexually repressed, and fascinated with a particular type of feminine presentation. Perhaps Lucy’s disturbing persona stems from Villette’s autobiographical origins. Like Lucy, Charlotte taught at a Catholic boarding school abroad, where she suffered from intense depression and disastrously fell in love with a professor who could not marry her. However, Lucy remains puzzling in her own fictional right, hiding from the reader even as she tells her story.
I think we sometimes especially dislike the characters who are most like us. In many aspects, I believe I am no Lucy Snowe: I call myself culturally Catholic, an identifier Lucy would hate for a multitude of reasons; I like to think I am a compassionate person, a label I would not give to Lucy, a woman who is deeply critical of other women; and I know, at least to you, Wellesley, I am much more conspicuous than the mysterious Lucy. But while reading Villette, as I watched Lucy Snowe conceptualize her passion, I realized I was looking into a mirror. Lucy, who represses her past to the point that the reader is only allowed to understand it through the metaphor of a shipwreck, exhibits an emotional facade that I recognize in myself. Though other Brontë women like Jane Eyre and Catherine Linton are physically stifled by domesticity, Lucy is psychologically restrained, purposefully controlling her emotions for self-preservation to the point of debilitation. As a victim of emotional abuse, I often find myself smothered by my own silence. Being stuck in toxic environments so many of the formative years of my life means I cannot break out of the dollhouse I built for myself. Even in spaces like you, Wellesley, where I know I could reveal my true humanity, I sometimes whisper from an imaginary window; I can be aware of the exit partially available to me while still being afraid to jump.
During my two and a half years here, you, Wellesley, have become my refuge, a place where I feel welcome to exist as I am, where I am slowly discovering the woman hiding behind the lies I told myself for most of my life. However, a refuge too can be stifling. Lucy Snowe knows this all too well: prepared to resign herself to a life of isolation and loneliness, Lucy repeatedly envisions the ghost of a nun who was buried alive in the garden of the girls’ school. She feels the most safe when she has control over her movements, but she finds that the spaces that exist for her independence leave her passionless and despondent over time. I would not say the same about your effect on me, Wellesley, but I fear sometimes that my psychological control grows stronger the longer I let myself only be fully free when I am within you. Further, Wellesley, you are not a perfect place; you are not even a “safe” place as I once naïvely thought you were. The more frustrated I get with my refuge, the more suffocated I feel. What happens when the only home I have left is the one I thought I had made for myself here with you, Wellesley? What happens when your walls start crumbling down?
I am setting sail on a voyage that has a destination but no return date. The future, as Lucy Snowe tells and Charlotte writes, is left deliberately unclear even when an ending is promised. As I embark, the horizon behind me presents the landmarks I fear: the administration taking away my on-campus job, my friends’ graduation date sent in stone, the storm cloud of emotional abuse hovering over my horizon, the dollhouse of womanhood still pressing on my inner compass, and, of course, the huge void sitting on my future asking to be filled with something other than question marks. Before me lies a journey as exhilarating as it is inescapable. Like Lucy, I will set myself down on the dock, let myself be rowed, but I will not “slumber through halcyon weather.” I will “permit the reader to picture me” as a canary on the edge of the ship, watching for a storm, waiting for my wings to catch the right air, feeling for the wind to breeze through the birdcage of my heart. As Lucy Snowe remarks, “A great many women and girls are supposed to pass their lives something in that fashion; why not I with the rest?” Indeed, Wellesley—why not I with the rest?
Samantha English ’19 is still convincing herself that she is no bird, and that no net ensnares her—not even Wellesley.
From December 2017 issue