From the Gothic to the Postcolonial: Charlotte Brontë’s Villette and Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy (In-Person)
Charlotte Brontë’s novel Villette has been called “the most moving and terrifying account of female deprivation ever written.” It tells the story of Lucy Snowe, a brilliant, passionate, yet reticent English schoolteacher who, in the aftermath of an unspecified tragedy, leaves England for a fictionalized Brussels to teach in a girls’ boarding school. Unambiguously modeled on Brontë’s own tumultuous life, and a heady mixture of realism and the gothic, the novel is at once hot and cold, rageful and withholding, consumed with private feeling and public performance. And yet, it is also a psychologically complex story of emigration, displacement, and cultural alienation—themes that Jamaica Kincaid transposes to another register in her 1990 novel Lucy, a postcolonial rewrite of Villette and autobiographical in its own right. Kincaid’s Lucy—equally brilliant, equally passionate, perhaps less reticent—emigrates from the West Indies to New York to work as an au pair for a wealthy white family, amplifying and recontextualizing the humiliations of employment, the incongruous norms of education and of sexuality, and the emotional turbulence of exile and willful self-invention that Brontë’s novel sets in motion. In this course, we will read both novels in their entirety, as well as secondary literature, paying special attention to the affordances and contingencies of fiction-writing in an autobiographical—and intertextual—mode. We will ask: How do Brontë and Kincaid each figure the rage, silences, cumulative indignities, and desires of their Lucies? What can we learn—about literary inheritance and appropriation, about the intersections of cultural and gender difference, about the relationship between the author and authorship—through a comparative reading of these two novels? What is the relationship between fiction and autobiography? What picture do Brontë and Kincaid paint of education and exile? What futures can—or can’t—they imagine for their Lucies?