Charlotte Bronte's Villette: Summary & Overview

Instructor: Debbie Notari
Charlotte Bronte's novel 'Villette' introduces us to Lucy Snowe, a sensible young woman with no family of her own. In this lesson we'll summarize how this Bronte heroine struggles through life and losses with grace and kindness.


Before launching into the plot, let's first take a few minutes to be introduced to the main characters in Charlotte Bronte's Villette.

1. First, the narrator of the story, as it is written in first person, is Lucy Snowe. Lucy lives with her godmother, Mrs. Bretton, and Mrs. Bretton's son, John, for a few months at a time as she is growing up. She has no close family, and has to survive many difficulties in her life.

2. Mrs. Bretton is a good woman, caring and kind. She is not opposed to taking in people who need a place to live, such as Paulina.

3. Paulina, or Polly Home, comes to live with Mrs. Bretton as a child when her mother dies, and it is at this time that she becomes acquainted with Lucy Snowe and John Bretton--who she later marries.

4. John Graham Bretton is Mrs. Bretton's son who becomes a doctor. He is good-natured and handsome, but undervalues Lucy.

5. Mr. Home, Polly's father, is a scientist and not very practical. He and Polly's mother separate before the mother dies. Later, Mr. Home inherits land and a title from relatives in France, and his name changes to M. de Bassompierre.

6. Miss Marchmont is an invalid who gives Lucy a job caring for her while traveling abroad.

7. Ginevra Fanshawe is a selfish girl, and Polly's first cousin. She is a student at the school where Lucy eventually teaches, and John Graham becomes one of her suitors.

8. M. Paul Emanuel is a teacher at the school where Lucy teaches, and the two eventually fall in love.

9. Count de Hamal pursues Ginevra, disguising himself as the ghost of a nun so he can visit her at school. The two elope.

10. Madame Beck is the headmistress at the school where Lucy teaches. She is a difficult woman.

Plot Summary


In this story, we see Lucy Snowe as a patient, enduring character who loves and loses. However, she stays true to who she is throughout her ordeals. Lucy goes to live with the Brettons when she is a young teenager, and she develops a love for John Graham Bretton that continues on into adulthood. When Polly arrives to live with the Brettons for a short time, she and John develop a close 'brotherly-sisterly' relationship, as Polly is somewhat younger than John and John is only a teen, himself.


Later, Lucy becomes a traveling companion to Miss Marchmont, who later dies. After first traveling to London, Lucy ends up in Villette, France, where she starts as a governess to the school matron's (Madame Beck's) three children, and then is offered a job as an English teacher. Lucy is an excellent teacher. By coincidence, John Bretton also ends up in Villette, as a doctor. Polly's father has inherited an estate in France and now goes by the name 'M. de Bassonpierre.'

Unrequited Love

John falls in love with a selfish girl, Ginevra Fanshawe, who is also the cousin of Polly. Ginevra cryptically calls him M. Isadore. That relationship doesn't work out. Ginevra has more than one suitor, and is not really capable of loving John as he deserves. Lucy cares for John, but he doesn't recognize her or show interest in her when he does realize who she is. However, Lucy, Mrs. Bretton and John do form a renewed friendship as the story continues. John continually fails to see how much Lucy loves him, and is drawn instead to more glamorous women. John later becomes reacquainted with Polly after rescuing her from a theatre fire, and they fall in love even though there is some age difference between them. The two marry and start a family. Their union is a happy one.

Lucy is an excellent teacher, but she longs for more fulfillment in her life. She feels very hurt that John does not love her in her early days at the school. She struggles, too, with the unfairness of life--that some people find love, while others don't, and that some people have the comforts of life, while others live in poverty.

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