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Villette - Chapter IX - ISIDORE Post by :marketingtest Category :Long Stories Author :Charlotte Bronte Date :June 2011 Read :752

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Villette - Chapter IX - ISIDORE


My time was now well and profitably filled up. What with teaching
others and studying closely myself, I had hardly a spare moment. It
was pleasant. I felt I was getting, on; not lying the stagnant prey of
mould and rust, but polishing my faculties and whetting them to a keen
edge with constant use. Experience of a certain kind lay before me, on
no narrow scale. Villette is a cosmopolitan city, and in this school
were girls of almost every European nation, and likewise of very
varied rank in life. Equality is much practised in Labassecour; though
not republican in form, it is nearly so in substance, and at the desks
of Madame Beck's establishment the young countess and the young
bourgeoise sat side by side. Nor could you always by outward
indications decide which was noble and which plebeian; except that,
indeed, the latter had often franker and more courteous manners, while
the former bore away the bell for a delicately-balanced combination of
insolence and deceit. In the former there was often quick French blood
mixed with the marsh-phlegm: I regret to say that the effect of this
vivacious fluid chiefly appeared in the oilier glibness with which
flattery and fiction ran from the tongue, and in a manner lighter and
livelier, but quite heartless and insincere.

To do all parties justice, the honest aboriginal Labassecouriennes had
an hypocrisy of their own, too; but it was of a coarse order, such as
could deceive few. Whenever a lie was necessary for their occasions,
they brought it out with a careless ease and breadth altogether
untroubled by the rebuke of conscience. Not a soul in Madame Beck's
house, from the scullion to the directress herself, but was above
being ashamed of a lie; they thought nothing of it: to invent might
not be precisely a virtue, but it was the most venial of faults. "J'ai
menti plusieurs fois," formed an item of every girl's and woman's
monthly confession: the priest heard unshocked, and absolved
unreluctant. If they had missed going to mass, or read a chapter of a
novel, that was another thing: these were crimes whereof rebuke and
penance were the unfailing weed.

While yet but half-conscious of this state of things, and unlearned in
its results, I got on in my new sphere very well. After the first few
difficult lessons, given amidst peril and on the edge of a moral
volcano that rumbled under my feet and sent sparks and hot fumes into
my eyes, the eruptive spirit seemed to subside, as far as I was
concerned. My mind was a good deal bent on success: I could not bear
the thought of being baffled by mere undisciplined disaffection and
wanton indocility, in this first attempt to get on in life. Many hours
of the night I used to lie awake, thinking what plan I had best adopt
to get a reliable hold on these mutineers, to bring this stiff-necked
tribe under permanent influence. In, the first place, I saw plainly
that aid in no shape was to be expected from Madame: her righteous
plan was to maintain an unbroken popularity with the pupils, at any
and every cost of justice or comfort to the teachers. For a teacher to
seek her alliance in any crisis of insubordination was equivalent to
securing her own expulsion. In intercourse with her pupils, Madame
only took to herself what was pleasant, amiable, and recommendatory;
rigidly requiring of her lieutenants sufficiency for every annoying
crisis, where to act with adequate promptitude was to be unpopular.
Thus, I must look only to myself.

Imprimis--it was clear as the day that this swinish multitude were not
to be driven by force. They were to be humoured, borne with very
patiently: a courteous though sedate manner impressed them; a very
rare flash of raillery did good. Severe or continuous mental
application they could not, or would not, bear: heavy demand on the
memory, the reason, the attention, they rejected point-blank. Where an
English girl of not more than average capacity and docility would
quietly take a theme and bind herself to the task of comprehension and
mastery, a Labassecourienne would laugh in your face, and throw it
back to you with the phrase,--"Dieu, que c'est difficile! Je n'en veux
pas. Cela m'ennuie trop."

A teacher who understood her business would take it back at once,
without hesitation, contest, or expostulation--proceed with even
exaggerated care to smoothe every difficulty, to reduce it to the
level of their understandings, return it to them thus modified, and
lay on the lash of sarcasm with unsparing hand. They would feel the
sting, perhaps wince a little under it; but they bore no malice
against this sort of attack, provided the sneer was not _sour_,
but _hearty_, and that it held well up to them, in a clear,
light, and bold type, so that she who ran might read, their
incapacity, ignorance, and sloth. They would riot for three additional
lines to a lesson; but I never knew them rebel against a wound given
to their self-respect: the little they had of that quality was trained
to be crushed, and it rather liked the pressure of a firm heel than

By degrees, as I acquired fluency and freedom in their language, and
could make such application of its more nervous idioms as suited their
case, the elder and more intelligent girls began rather to like me in
their way: I noticed that whenever a pupil had been roused to feel in
her soul the stirring of worthy emulation, or the quickening of honest
shame, from that date she was won. If I could but once make their
(usually large) ears burn under their thick glossy hair, all was
comparatively well. By-and-by bouquets began to be laid on my desk in
the morning; by way of acknowledgment for this little foreign
attention, I used sometimes to walk with a select few during
recreation. In the course of conversation it befel once or twice that
I made an unpremeditated attempt to rectify some of their singularly
distorted notions of principle; especially I expressed my ideas of the
evil and baseness of a lie. In an unguarded moment, I chanced to say
that, of the two errors; I considered falsehood worse than an
occasional lapse in church-attendance. The poor girls were tutored to
report in Catholic ears whatever the Protestant teacher said. An
edifying consequence ensued. Something--an unseen, an indefinite, a
nameless--something stole between myself and these my best pupils: the
bouquets continued to be offered, but conversation thenceforth became
impracticable. As I paced the alleys or sat in the berceau, a girl
never came to my right hand but a teacher, as if by magic, appeared at
my left. Also, wonderful to relate, Madame's shoes of silence brought
her continually to my back, as quick, as noiseless and unexpected, as
some wandering zephyr.

The opinion of my Catholic acquaintance concerning my spiritual
prospects was somewhat naively expressed to me on one occasion. A
pensionnaire, to whom I had rendered some little service, exclaimed
one day as she sat beside me: "Mademoiselle, what a pity you are a

"Why, Isabelle?"

"Parceque, quand vous serez morte--vous brulerez tout de suite dans


"Certainement que j'y crois: tout le monde le sait; et d'ailleurs le
pretre me l'a dit."

Isabelle was an odd, blunt little creature. She added, _sotto
voce_: "Pour assurer votre salut la-haut, on ferait bien de vous
bruler toute vive ici-bas."

I laughed, as, indeed, it was impossible to do otherwise.

* * * * *

Has the reader forgotten Miss Ginevra Fanshawe? If so, I must be
allowed to re-introduce that young lady as a thriving pupil of Madame
Beck's; for such she was. On her arrival in the Rue Fossette, two or
three days after my sudden settlement there, she encountered me with
very little surprise. She must have had good blood in her veins, for
never was any duchess more perfectly, radically, unaffectedly
_nonchalante than she: a weak, transient amaze was all she knew
of the sensation of wonder. Most of her other faculties seemed to be
in the same flimsy condition: her liking and disliking, her love and
hate, were mere cobweb and gossamer; but she had one thing about her
that seemed strong and durable enough, and that was--her selfishness.

She was not proud; and--_bonne d'enfants as I was--she would
forthwith have made of me a sort of friend and confidant. She teased
me with a thousand vapid complaints about school-quarrels and
household economy: the cookery was not to her taste; the people about
her, teachers and pupils, she held to be despicable, because they were
foreigners. I bore with her abuse of the Friday's salt fish and hard
eggs--with her invective against the soup, the bread, the coffee--with
some patience for a time; but at last, wearied by iteration, I turned
crusty, and put her to rights: a thing I ought to have done in the
very beginning, for a salutary setting down always agreed with her.

Much longer had I to endure her demands on me in the way of work. Her
wardrobe, so far as concerned articles of external wear, was well and
elegantly supplied; but there were other habiliments not so carefully
provided: what she had, needed frequent repair. She hated needle-
drudgery herself, and she would bring her hose, &c. to me in heaps, to
be mended. A compliance of some weeks threatening to result in the
establishment of an intolerable bore--I at last distinctly told her
she must make up her mind to mend her own garments. She cried on
receiving this information, and accused me of having ceased to be her
friend; but I held by my decision, and let the hysterics pass as they

Notwithstanding these foibles, and various others needless to mention
--but by no means of a refined or elevating character--how pretty she
was! How charming she looked, when she came down on a sunny Sunday
morning, well-dressed and well-humoured, robed in pale lilac silk, and
with her fair long curls reposing on her white shoulders. Sunday was a
holiday which she always passed with friends resident in town; and
amongst these friends she speedily gave me to understand was one who
would fain become something more. By glimpses and hints it was shown
me, and by the general buoyancy of her look and manner it was ere long
proved, that ardent admiration--perhaps genuine love--was at her
command. She called her suitor "Isidore:" this, however, she intimated
was not his real name, but one by which it pleased her to baptize him
--his own, she hinted, not being "very pretty." Once, when she had been
bragging about the vehemence of "Isidore's" attachment, I asked if she
loved him in return.

"Comme cela," said she: "he is handsome, and he loves me to
distraction, so that I am well amused. Ca suffit."

Finding that she carried the thing on longer than, from her very
fickle tastes, I had anticipated, I one day took it upon me to make
serious inquiries as to whether the gentleman was such as her parents,
and especially her uncle--on whom, it appeared, she was dependent--
would be likely to approve. She allowed that this was very doubtful,
as she did not believe "Isidore" had much money.

"Do you encourage him?" I asked.

"Furieusement sometimes," said she.

"Without being certain that you will be permitted to marry him?"

"Oh, how dowdyish you are! I don't want to be married. I am too

"But if he loves you as much as you say, and yet it comes to nothing
in the end, he will be made miserable."

"Of course he will break his heart. I should be shocked and,
disappointed if he didn't."

"I wonder whether this M. Isidore is a fool?" said I.

"He is, about me; but he is wise in other things, a ce qu'on dit. Mrs.
Cholmondeley considers him extremely clever: she says he will push
his way by his talents; all I know is, that he does little more than sigh
in my presence, and that I can wind him round my little finger."

Wishing to get a more definite idea of this love-stricken M. Isidore;
whose position seemed to me of the least secure, I requested her to
favour me with a personal description; but she could not describe: she
had neither words nor the power of putting them together so as to make
graphic phrases. She even seemed not properly to have noticed him:
nothing of his looks, of the changes in his countenance, had touched
her heart or dwelt in her memory--that he was "beau, mais plutot bel
homme que joli garcon," was all she could assert. My patience would
often have failed, and my interest flagged, in listening to her, but
for one thing. All the hints she dropped, all the details she gave,
went unconsciously to prove, to my thinking, that M. Isidore's homage
was offered with great delicacy and respect. I informed her very
plainly that I believed him much too good for her, and intimated with
equal plainness my impression that she was but a vain coquette. She
laughed, shook her curls from her eyes, and danced away as if I had
paid her a compliment.

Miss Ginevra's school-studies were little better than nominal; there
were but three things she practised in earnest, viz. music, singing,
and dancing; also embroidering the fine cambric handkerchiefs which
she could not afford to buy ready worked: such mere trifles as lessons
in history, geography, grammar, and arithmetic, she left undone, or
got others to do for her. Very much of her time was spent in visiting.
Madame, aware that her stay at school was now limited to a certain
period, which would not be extended whether she made progress or not,
allowed her great licence in this particular. Mrs. Cholmondeley--her
_chaperon_--a gay, fashionable lady, invited her whenever she had
company at her own house, and sometimes took her to evening-parties at
the houses of her acquaintance. Ginevra perfectly approved this mode
of procedure: it had but one inconvenience; she was obliged to be well
dressed, and she had not money to buy variety of dresses. All her
thoughts turned on this difficulty; her whole soul was occupied with
expedients for effecting its solution. It was wonderful to witness the
activity of her otherwise indolent mind on this point, and to see the
much-daring intrepidity to which she was spurred by a sense of
necessity, and the wish to shine.

She begged boldly of Mrs. Cholmondeley--boldly, I say: not with an air
of reluctant shame, but in this strain:--

"My darling Mrs. C., I have nothing in the world fit to wear for your
party next week; you _must give me a book-muslin dress, and then
a _ceinture bleu celeste_: _do_--there's an angel! will you?"

The "darling Mrs. C." yielded at first; but finding that applications
increased as they were complied with, she was soon obliged, like all
Miss Fanshawe's friends, to oppose resistance to encroachment. After a
while I heard no more of Mrs. Cholmondeley's presents; but still,
visiting went on, and the absolutely necessary dresses continued
to be supplied: also many little expensive _etcetera_--gloves,
bouquets, even trinkets. These things, contrary to her custom, and
even nature--for she was not secretive--were most sedulously kept out
of sight for a time; but one evening, when she was going to a large
party for which particular care and elegance of costume were demanded,
she could not resist coming to my chamber to show herself in all her

Beautiful she looked: so young, so fresh, and with a delicacy of skin
and flexibility of shape altogether English, and not found in the list
of continental female charms. Her dress was new, costly, and perfect.
I saw at a glance that it lacked none of those finishing details which
cost so much, and give to the general effect such an air of tasteful

I viewed her from top to toe. She turned airily round that I might
survey her on all sides. Conscious of her charms, she was in her best
humour: her rather small blue eyes sparkled gleefully. She was going
to bestow on me a kiss, in her school-girl fashion of showing her
delights but I said, "Steady! Let us be Steady, and know what we are
about, and find out the meaning of our magnificence"--and so put her
off at arm's length, to undergo cooler inspection.

"Shall I do?" was her question.

"Do?" said I. "There are different ways of doing; and, by my word, I
don't understand yours."

"But how do I look?"

"You look well dressed."

She thought the praise not warm enough, and proceeded to direct
attention to the various decorative points of her attire. "Look at
this _parure_," said she. "The brooch, the ear-rings, the
bracelets: no one in the school has such a set--not Madame herself"

"I see them all." (Pause.) "Did M. de Bassompierre give you those

"My uncle knows nothing about them."

"Were they presents from Mrs. Cholmondeley?"

"Not they, indeed. Mrs. Cholmondeley is a mean, stingy creature; she
never gives me anything now."

I did not choose to ask any further questions, but turned abruptly

"Now, old Crusty--old Diogenes" (these were her familiar terms for me
when we disagreed), "what is the matter now?"

"Take yourself away. I have no pleasure in looking at you or your

For an instant, she seemed taken by surprise.

"What now, Mother Wisdom? I have not got into debt for it--that is,
not for the jewels, nor the gloves, nor the bouquet. My dress is
certainly not paid for, but uncle de Bassompierre will pay it in the
bill: he never notices items, but just looks at the total; and he is
so rich, one need not care about a few guineas more or less."

"Will you go? I want to shut the door.... Ginevra, people may tell you
you are very handsome in that ball-attire; but, in _my eyes, you
will never look so pretty as you did in the gingham gown and plain
straw bonnet you wore when I first saw you."

"Other people have not your puritanical tastes," was her angry reply.
"And, besides, I see no right you have to sermonize me."

"Certainly! I have little right; and you, perhaps, have still less to
come flourishing and fluttering into my chamber--a mere jay in
borrowed plumes. I have not the least respect for your feathers, Miss
Fanshawe; and especially the peacock's eyes you call a _parure_:
very pretty things, if you had bought them with money which was your
own, and which you could well spare, but not at all pretty under
present circumstances."

"On est la pour Mademoiselle Fanshawe!" was announced by the portress,
and away she tripped.

This semi-mystery of the _parure was not solved till two or
three days afterwards, when she came to make a voluntary confession.

"You need not be sulky with me," she began, "in the idea that I am
running somebody, papa or M. de Bassompierre, deeply into debt. I
assure you nothing remains unpaid for, but the few dresses I have
lately had: all the rest is settled."

"There," I thought, "lies the mystery; considering that they were not
given you by Mrs. Cholmondeley, and that your own means are limited to
a few shillings, of which I know you to be excessively careful."

"Ecoutez!" she went on, drawing near and speaking in her most
confidential and coaxing tone; for my "sulkiness" was inconvenient to
her: she liked me to be in a talking and listening mood, even if I
only talked to chide and listened to rail. "Ecoutez, chere grogneuse!
I will tell you all how and about it; and you will then see, not only
how right the whole thing is, but how cleverly managed. In the first
place, I _must go out. Papa himself said that he wished me to
see something of the world; he particularly remarked to Mrs.
Cholmondeley, that, though I was a sweet creature enough, I had rather
a bread-and-butter-eating, school-girl air; of which it was his
special desire that I should get rid, by an introduction to society
here, before I make my regular debut in England. Well, then, if I go
out, I _must dress. Mrs. Cholmondeley is turned shabby, and will
give nothing more; it would be too hard upon uncle to make him pay for
_all the things I need: _that you can't deny--_that agrees
with your own preachments. Well, but SOMEBODY who heard me
(quite by chance, I assure you) complaining to Mrs. Cholmondeley of my
distressed circumstances, and what straits I was put to for an
ornament or two--_somebody_, far from grudging one a present, was
quite delighted at the idea of being permitted to offer some trifle.
You should have seen what a _blanc-bec he looked when he first
spoke of it: how he hesitated and blushed, and positively trembled
from fear of a repulse."

"That will do, Miss Fanshawe. I suppose I am to understand that M.
Isidore is the benefactor: that it is from him you have accepted that
costly _parure_; that he supplies your bouquets and your gloves?"

"You express yourself so disagreeably," said she, "one hardly knows
how to answer; what I mean to say is, that I occasionally allow
Isidore the pleasure and honour of expressing his homage by the offer
of a trifle."

"It comes to the same thing.... Now, Ginevra, to speak the plain
truth, I don't very well understand these matters; but I believe you
are doing very wrong--seriously wrong. Perhaps, however, you now feel
certain that you will be able to marry M. Isidore; your parents and
uncle have given their consent, and, for your part, you love him

"Mais pas du tout!" (she always had recourse to French when about to
say something specially heartless and perverse). "Je suis sa reine,
mais il n'est pas mon roi."

"Excuse me, I must believe this language is mere nonsense and
coquetry. There is nothing great about you, yet you are above
profiting by the good nature and purse of a man to whom you feel
absolute indifference. You love M. Isidore far more than you think, or
will avow."

"No. I danced with a young officer the other night, whom I love a
thousand times more than he. I often wonder why I feel so very cold to
Isidore, for everybody says he is handsome, and other ladies admire
him; but, somehow, he bores me: let me see now how it is...."

And she seemed to make an effort to reflect. In this I encouraged her.

"Yes!" I said, "try to get a clear idea of the state of your mind. To
me it seems in a great mess--chaotic as a rag-bag."

"It is something in this fashion," she cried out ere long: "the man is
too romantic and devoted, and he expects something more of me than I
find it convenient to be. He thinks I am perfect: furnished with all
sorts of sterling qualities and solid virtues, such as I never had,
nor intend to have. Now, one can't help, in his presence, rather
trying to justify his good opinion; and it does so tire one to be
goody, and to talk sense,--for he really thinks I am sensible. I am
far more at my ease with you, old lady--you, you dear crosspatch--who
take me at my lowest, and know me to be coquettish, and ignorant, and
flirting, and fickle, and silly, and selfish, and all the other sweet
things you and I have agreed to be a part of my character."

"This is all very well," I said, making a strenuous effort to preserve
that gravity and severity which ran risk of being shaken by this
whimsical candour, "but it does not alter that wretched business of
the presents. Pack them up, Ginevra, like a good, honest girl, and
send them back."

"Indeed, I won't," said she, stoutly.

"Then you are deceiving M. Isidore. It stands to reason that by
accepting his presents you give him to understand he will one day
receive an equivalent, in your regard..."

"But he won't," she interrupted: "he has his equivalent now, in the
pleasure of seeing me wear them--quite enough for him: he is only

This phrase, in its senseless arrogance, quite cured me of the
temporary weakness which had made me relax my tone and aspect. She
rattled on:

"My present business is to enjoy youth, and not to think of fettering
myself, by promise or vow, to this man or that. When first I saw
Isidore, I believed he would help me to enjoy it I believed he would
be content with my being a pretty girl; and that we should meet and
part and flutter about like two butterflies, and be happy. Lo, and
behold! I find him at times as grave as a judge, and deep-feeling and
thoughtful. Bah! Les penseurs, les hommes profonds et passionnes ne
sont pas a mon gout. Le Colonel Alfred de Hamal suits me far better.
Va pour les beaux fats et les jolis fripons! Vive les joies et les
plaisirs! A bas les grandes passions et les severes vertus!"

She looked for an answer to this tirade. I gave none.

"J'aime mon beau Colonel," she went on: "je n'aimerai jamais son
rival. Je ne serai jamais femme de bourgeois, moi!"

I now signified that it was imperatively necessary my apartment should
be relieved of the honour of her presence: she went away laughing.

Content of CHAPTER IX - ISIDORE (Charlotte Bronte's novel: Villette)

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