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BOOKS / Classic Thoughts: Brains thrill to the core: Lucasta Miller on Charlotte Bronte's Villette (1853)

UNLIKE Jane Eyre, which has become one of the iconic love stories of popular culture, Charlotte Bronte's Villette is an acquired taste. Matthew Arnold thought it 'hideous, undelightful, convulsive'. Harriet Martineau found it 'almost intolerably painful'. Indeed, far from reflecting the sentimental, purple-heathery image which the Bronte sisters have since acquired, Villette is irreducibly disturbing.

Jane Eyre appeals because we are impelled to empathise unconditionally with its heroine, to think her thoughts and to feel her feelings. There is no such trust between the reader and Villette's Lucy Snowe. The way in which she tells her story hardly puts you at your ease - she conceals vital information and offers blatantly misleading assessments of her own personality. Much - if not most - of what we can infer about her psychology happens beneath the surface, as the recurrent images of burial suggest. Villette is a novel with an unconscious mind. The deeper you dig, the more disturbing it becomes.

Repressing her turbulent inner life, and projecting an image of 'calm' frigidity to the world outside, Lucy Snowe's character is governed by conflict. Her split personality is in constant danger of disintegration. This internal battle to repress her rebellious fantasies and desires - which leads at one point to explicit mental breakdown - is expressed through a series of alarmingly sado-masochistic metaphors (nails are driven through heads, making 'the temples bleed and the brain thrill to the core'), and through the lurid, surreal, and imagistic passages which burst at intervals through the realist surface of the narrative.

In Jane Eyre, the madwoman was kept locked up in the attic. In Villette, she seems to have infiltrated the central character. Even the external mechanics of the plot take on a preternatural, pathological feel. Readers have complained that the conspiracy to keep Lucy Snowe away from her lover Paul Emanuel is implausible. Literally taken, it may look laboured, but it epitomises the atmosphere of paranoid fantasy which pervades the book.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about Villette is the relationship between Charlotte Bronte and her heroine. As her most autobiographical book, how self-revealing is it? Lucy Snowe describes the 'creative impulse' as an 'irrational demon'. How far is Bronte in control of the psychological forces she uncovers?