Villette Ironic, Satiric, and Humorous Naming in French Words in Villette

Brontë hides some acidic commentary within some of the French words in Villette. As Lucy Snowe travels to France, she is heading to two made-up French places (which are possibly allegories for real places in the country of Belgium). "Boue-Marine," the port in which she is to land, means "sea mud." Brontë is injecting a bit of humor and irony here, informing the knowing reader (and snubbing the noses of those who do not know the French words, or who fail to look them up) that Lucy is not heading into the paradisiacal happiness that might be expected. Similarly, the fictional town of Villette (itself a diminutive of the French word for "city," implying that it is a pretend or miniature city, with pretensions to being a real city) is in the equally fictional "great" kingdom of "Labassecour"—which means, ridiculously, "barnyard." If the word is divided into three it means, similarly, "the low court."

Polly's new name, too, and Ginevra's grand French relations named "Bassompierre," have an air of ridiculousness. The name, ungainly and silly-sounding in English, does not translate to any particular word in English, but its relationship to the English word "bassoon" gives the word the aura of Frenchified pomposity. The distant university town where Dr. John's employer Dr. Pillule goes to treat a rich hypochondriac is called, comically, "Boquin-Moisi" ("mildewed book"). The street, Rue Fossette, on which Madame Beck's school stands, means "street of the small cavity"—implying an animal's burrow. The part of town where Lucy goes to give a desperate confession to Père Silas and subsequently collapses is the "Basse-Ville" (or the "low-town"), which is another snide reference to Catholicism. In addition, the location of Père Silas’s and Madame Malravens’s residence is the "Rue des Mages" or the street of the Magi (a reference, complimentary to Père Silas, of his status as a wise man, or just as likely another jab at the superstition of the church by referring to ancient Zoroastrian priests). Polly's former teacher was called Madame Aigredoux (“soft sourness”). In short, most of the place names in Labassecour are directly insulting, implying that the country is corrupt and that those in it are animals.

Not every name in the novel is insulting, however; some are merely illuminating. M. Paul Emanuel's name is a reinforcement of his Catholic otherness in relation to Lucy's British Protestantism. Paul, his Christian name, was an apostle whose writings sometimes suggest limitations on women, an attitude M. Paul definitely shares with the great writer of the Pauline epistles. "Emmanuel," a Biblical word proclaiming the Messiah and his coming, means "God with us." The main characteristic, for Lucy and for Brontë, that comes between M. Paul and Lucy is definitely his Catholicism, as illustrated by his official and permanent name.