Below I present an extract from the novel Villette by Charlotte Brontë, which in some people’s eyes is an unappreciated masterpiece on a par with, or even better than, Jane Eyre. Set in the 19th century, the novel initially depicts the protagonist Lucy Snowe as a hapless young English woman who leaves her native country in search of a better life after an unspecified family disaster. She soon finds herself employed as bonne (nanny) to the young children of a stern headmistress in a Belgian town. The extract below occurs near the beginning of the novel, as Lucy is settling into what she thinks is a comfortable yet uneventful and somewhat tedious life as a governess. But unbeknownst to her, the headmistress sees potential in her, sizing her up as a possible replacement for the languid and unsatisfactory English teacher, Mr. Wilson. When Mr. Wilson fails to show up one day, Lucy unexpectedly gets a chance to prove herself as a teacher. Initially hesitant, she soon finds her feet and comes to like her new post.
This passage gives a fascinating insight into what went on in 19th century classrooms. Much of Brontë’s fiction is said to be drawn from her own life. Given that she spent some time teaching in Belgium, this passage is probably a fairly accurate portrayal of what she experienced. Judging from the extract, the most important skill a teacher could possess at the time was the ability to control a class. Given how big classes were – sixty in the case of Lucy’s – the only possible way of teaching was to exert strict authority from the front and to impart material explicitly as Lucy does in her dictation lesson.
Anyway, here’s the extract:
I was one day sitting up-stairs, as usual, hearing the children their English lessons, and at the same time turning a silk dress for Madame, when she came sauntering into the room with that absorbed air and brow of hard thought she sometimes wore, and which made her look so little genial. Dropping into a seat opposite mine, she remained some minutes silent. Désirée, the eldest girl, was reading to me some little essay of Mrs. Barbauld’s, and I was making her translate currently from English to French as she proceeded, by way of ascertaining that she comprehended what she read: Madame listened.
Presently, without preface or prelude, she said, almost in the tone of one making an accusation, “Meess, in England you were a governess?”
“No, Madame,” said I smiling, “you are mistaken.”
“Is this your first essay at teaching—this attempt with my children?”
I assured her it was. Again she became silent; but looking up, as I took a pin from the cushion, I found myself an object of study: she held me under her eye; she seemed turning me round in her thoughts—measuring my fitness for a purpose, weighing my value in a plan. Madame had, ere this, scrutinized all I had, and I believe she esteemed herself cognizant of much that I was; but from that day, for the space of about a fortnight, she tried me by new tests. She listened at the nursery door when I was shut in with the children; she followed me at a cautious distance when I walked out with them, stealing within ear-shot whenever the trees of park or boulevard afforded a sufficient screen: a strict preliminary process having thus been observed, she made a move forward.
One morning, coming on me abruptly, and with the semblance of hurry, she said she found herself placed in a little dilemma. Mr. Wilson, the English master, had failed to come at his hour, she feared he was ill; the pupils were waiting in classe; there was no one to give a lesson; should I, for once, object to giving a short dictation exercise, just that the pupils might not have it to say they had missed their English lesson?
“In classe, Madame?” I asked.
“Yes, in classe: in the second division.”
“Where there are sixty pupils,” said I; for I knew the number, and with my usual base habit of cowardice, I shrank into my sloth like a snail into its shell, and alleged incapacity and impracticability as a pretext to escape action. If left to myself, I should infallibly have let this chance slip. Inadventurous, unstirred by impulses of practical ambition, I was capable of sitting twenty years teaching infants the hornbook, turning silk dresses and making children’s frocks. Not that true contentment dignified this infatuated resignation: my work had neither charm for my taste, nor hold on my interest; but it seemed to me a great thing to be without heavy anxiety, and relieved from intimate trial: the negation of severe suffering was the nearest approach to happiness I expected to know. Besides, I seemed to hold two lives—the life of thought, and that of reality; and, provided the former was nourished with a sufficiency of the strange necromantic joys of fancy, the privileges of the latter might remain limited to daily bread, hourly work, and a roof of shelter.
“Come,” said Madame, as I stooped more busily than ever over the cutting-out of a child’s pinafore, “leave that work.”
“But Fifine wants it, Madame.”
“Fifine must want it, then, for I want you.”
And as Madame Beck did really want and was resolved to have me—as she had long been dissatisfied with the English master, with his shortcomings in punctuality, and his careless method of tuition—as, too, she did not lack resolution and practical activity, whether I lacked them or not—she, without more ado, made me relinquish thimble and needle; my hand was taken into hers, and I was conducted down-stairs. When we reached the carré, a large square hall between the dwelling-house and the pensionnat, she paused, dropped my hand, faced, and scrutinized me. I was flushed, and tremulous from head to foot: tell it not in Gath, I believe I was crying. In fact, the difficulties before me were far from being wholly imaginary; some of them were real enough; and not the least substantial lay in my want of mastery over the medium through which I should be obliged to teach. I had, indeed, studied French closely since my arrival in Villette; learning its practice by day, and its theory in every leisure moment at night, to as late an hour as the rule of the house would allow candle-light; but I was far from yet being able to trust my powers of correct oral expression.
“Dîtes donc,” said Madame sternly, “vous sentez vous réellement trop faible?”
I might have said “Yes,” and gone back to nursery obscurity, and there, perhaps, mouldered for the rest of my life; but looking up at Madame, I saw in her countenance a something that made me think twice ere I decided. At that instant she did not wear a woman’s aspect, but rather a man’s. Power of a particular kind strongly limned itself in all her traits, and that power was not my kind of power: neither sympathy, nor congeniality, nor submission, were the emotions it awakened. I stood—not soothed, nor won, nor overwhelmed. It seemed as if a challenge of strength between opposing gifts was given, and I suddenly felt all the dishonour of my diffidence—all the pusillanimity of my slackness to aspire.
“Will you,” she said, “go backward or forward?” indicating with her hand, first, the small door of communication with the dwelling-house, and then the great double portals of the classes or schoolrooms.
“En avant,” I said.
“But,” pursued she, cooling as I warmed, and continuing the hard look, from very antipathy to which I drew strength and determination, “can you face the classes, or are you over-excited?”
She sneered slightly in saying this: nervous excitability was not much to Madame’s taste.
“I am no more excited than this stone,” I said, tapping the flag with my toe: “or than you,” I added, returning her look.
“Bon! But let me tell you these are not quiet, decorous, English girls you are going to encounter. Ce sont des Labassecouriennes, rondes, franches, brusques, et tant soit peu rebelles.”
I said: “I know; and I know, too, that though I have studied French hard since I came here, yet I still speak it with far too much hesitation—too little accuracy to be able to command their respect I shall make blunders that will lay me open to the scorn of the most ignorant. Still I mean to give the lesson.”
“They always throw over timid teachers,” said she.
“I know that too, Madame; I have heard how they rebelled against and persecuted Miss Turner”—a poor friendless English teacher, whom Madame had employed, and lightly discarded; and to whose piteous history I was no stranger.
“C’est vrai,” said she, coolly. “Miss Turner had no more command over them than a servant from the kitchen would have had. She was weak and wavering; she had neither tact nor intelligence, decision nor dignity. Miss Turner would not do for these girls at all.”
I made no reply, but advanced to the closed schoolroom door.
“You will not expect aid from me, or from any one,” said Madame. “That would at once set you down as incompetent for your office.”
I opened the door, let her pass with courtesy, and followed her. There were three schoolrooms, all large. That dedicated to the second division, where I was to figure, was considerably the largest, and accommodated an assemblage more numerous, more turbulent, and infinitely more unmanageable than the other two. In after days, when I knew the ground better, I used to think sometimes (if such a comparison may be permitted), that the quiet, polished, tame first division was to the robust, riotous, demonstrative second division, what the English House of Lords is to the House of Commons.
The first glance informed me that many of the pupils were more than girls—quite young women; I knew that some of them were of noble family (as nobility goes in Labassecour), and I was well convinced that not one amongst them was ignorant of my position in Madame’s household. As I mounted the estràde (a low platform, raised a step above the flooring), where stood the teacher’s chair and desk, I beheld opposite to me a row of eyes and brows that threatened stormy weather—eyes full of an insolent light, and brows hard and unblushing as marble. The continental “female” is quite a different being to the insular “female” of the same age and class: I never saw such eyes and brows in England. Madame Beck introduced me in one cool phrase, sailed from the room, and left me alone in my glory.
I shall never forget that first lesson, nor all the under-current of life and character it opened up to me. Then first did I begin rightly to see the wide difference that lies between the novelist’s and poet’s ideal “jeune fille” and the said “jeune fille” as she really is.
It seems that three titled belles in the first row had sat down predetermined that a bonne d’enfants should not give them lessons in English. They knew they had succeeded in expelling obnoxious teachers before now; they knew that Madame would at any time throw overboard a professeur or maitresse who became unpopular with the school—that she never assisted a weak official to retain his place—that if he had not strength to fight, or tact to win his way, down he went: looking at “Miss Snowe,” they promised themselves an easy victory.
Mesdemoiselles Blanche, Virginie, and Angélique opened the campaign by a series of titterings and whisperings; these soon swelled into murmurs and short laughs, which the remoter benches caught up and echoed more loudly. This growing revolt of sixty against one, soon became oppressive enough; my command of French being so limited, and exercised under such cruel constraint.
Could I but have spoken in my own tongue, I felt as if I might have gained a hearing; for, in the first place, though I knew I looked a poor creature, and in many respects actually was so, yet nature had given me a voice that could make itself heard, if lifted in excitement or deepened by emotion. In the second place, while I had no flow, only a hesitating trickle of language, in ordinary circumstances, yet—under stimulus such as was now rife through the mutinous mass—I could, in English, have rolled out readily phrases stigmatizing their proceedings as such proceedings deserved to be stigmatized; and then with some sarcasm, flavoured with contemptuous bitterness for the ringleaders, and relieved with easy banter for the weaker but less knavish followers, it seemed to me that one might possibly get command over this wild herd, and bring them into training, at least. All I could now do was to walk up to Blanche—Mademoiselle de Melcy, a young baronne—the eldest, tallest, handsomest, and most vicious—stand before her desk, take from under her hand her exercise-book, remount the estrade, deliberately read the composition, which I found very stupid, and, as deliberately, and in the face of the whole school, tear the blotted page in two.
This action availed to draw attention and check noise. One girl alone, quite in the background, persevered in the riot with undiminished energy. I looked at her attentively. She had a pale face, hair like night, broad strong eyebrows, decided features, and a dark, mutinous, sinister eye: I noted that she sat close by a little door, which door, I was well aware, opened into a small closet where books were kept. She was standing up for the purpose of conducting her clamour with freer energies. I measured her stature and calculated her strength. She seemed both tall and wiry; but, so the conflict were brief and the attack unexpected, I thought I might manage her.
Advancing up the room, looking as cool and careless as I possibly could, in short, ayant l’air de rien, I slightly pushed the door and found it was ajar. In an instant, and with sharpness, I had turned on her. In another instant she occupied the closet, the door was shut, and the key in my pocket.
It so happened that this girl, Dolores by name, and a Catalonian by race, was the sort of character at once dreaded and hated by all her associates; the act of summary justice above noted proved popular: there was not one present but, in her heart, liked to see it done. They were stilled for a moment; then a smile—not a laugh—passed from desk to desk: then—when I had gravely and tranquilly returned to the estrade, courteously requested silence, and commenced a dictation as if nothing at all had happened—the pens travelled peacefully over the pages, and the remainder of the lesson passed in order and industry.
“C’est bien,” said Madame Beck, when I came out of class, hot and a little exhausted. “Ca ira.”
She had been listening and peeping through a spy-hole the whole time.
From that day I ceased to be nursery governess, and became English teacher. Madame raised my salary; but she got thrice the work out of me she had extracted from Mr. Wilson, at half the expense.
(Villette is available for free online).