Villette Summary and Analysis of Chapters X-XIII

The tenth chapter, "Dr. John," begins with a discussion of Madame Beck's character. She is described by Lucy as passionless and particularly without a love for her own children. She is kind and looks out for their welfare, but she seems to have no personal attachment to them. She does not give them the kind of attention and affection that Lucy feels that children need.

The two eldest children, Desiree and Fifine, are introduced. Desiree, the eldest, is cruel, vindictive, and destructive. She is spied on relentlessly by Madame Beck, which is the only way Madame has of controlling her. Madame does not reprimand Desiree or or correct her faults; she merely says that Desiree needs particularly strict watching.

Fifine, on the other hand, is said to resemble her dead father. She is healthy, active, and of a sweet and honest disposition. Lucy naturally finds this child charming. The youngest child is only described as "puny and delicate."

One day Fifine falls and breaks her arm. The doctor is called, but Dr. Pillule is unable to come, and a young Dr. John is sent instead. He sets Fifine's arm (Madame Beck is able to assist him ably without trembling, while Lucy shakes too much to be of use) and makes a good impression on Madame Beck. It appears that Madame is setting her cap for Dr. John. Fifine rapidly heals under the doctor's daily visits, and Desiree, who decides that it would be fun to be sick, pretends to have an illness so that he must continue to return to the Rue Fossette each day.

The young doctor is English, and Lucy eventually recalls that it was he who helped her at the station when her luggage was lost. He is tall and fair, and Lucy describes him in such terms that lead the reader to believe that she finds him handsome. She is not impressed with him entirely, however, for she notes his perhaps too-eager desire to please and impress people. He is cold to Lucy and takes no more notice of her than of a piece of furniture. One day he finds her watching him and rebukes her with a veiled insult. Lucy does not give him the satisfaction of explaining herself, and she makes it a point never to speak to him. The perpetually misunderstood and neglected outsider, Lucy takes a perverse pleasure in not giving those who consider themselves her "betters" any explanation or defense of herself or her motives.

Chapter XI opens with Madame Beck's youngest child, Georgette, contracting a fever. The two elder girls, Desiree and Fifine, are then sent away to their grandmother (bonne-maman) in the country in order to avoid infection. Georgette's illness necessitates even more visits from Dr. John.

There is some talk among the servants that Madame will marry Dr. John. Lucy is convinced that, as far as the heartless Madame Beck can have affection for anyone, she has it for Dr. John. While this may be due to no more than social climbing and personal vanity rather than actual love on Madame's part, when it becomes clear to Madame that Dr. John does not love her, she is quite obviously wounded. She realizes that she is older than Dr. John–near forty, perhaps—and while handsome she is certainly not sufficiently young, beautiful, or socially prominent enough for Dr. John. The truth hurts her, but she continues on as if nothing has occurred.

One day Dr. John arrives at the door of Rue Fossette. Lucy waits a long time and, curious, she descends and finds that he is in the small room kept for the use of the female door-keeper (the "portresse"). Lucy spies him from behind the door and overhears a conversation that is heated and passionate. Dr. John leaves the room without seeing Lucy but looking upset.

The next chapter, "The Casket," opens with a reference to a horrible medieval legend of a nun shut up alive in an underground vault in the garden when Madame Beck's house was a convent. Lucy, hardly a believer in supernatural tales, thinks she can detect the smooth stone under an old tree that is said to cover this grave.

Lucy goes along well enough in her job as English teacher, but she is occasionally gripped by the fierce desire to be free of all the strictures on her life. One night during a fearful storm, all the Catholic girls lie awake praying, but Lucy climbs out onto a windowsill to enjoy the wet and wind of the tempest. She endeavors in her daily life, however, to keep hopes for the future at bay; for she believes that they will only lead to disappointment.

In the evenings Lucy walks in the garden, especially down one secluded alley (l'allée défendue)that she has cleaned up and called her own. One night she intercepts a small ivory box flung from a window onto the ground. It is addressed to someone with a "grey dress"—which Lucy coincidentally is wearing at that moment. But Lucy is not expecting a love letter. The ivory casket contains violets and a love letter, but Lucy cannot determine to whom it is addressed or who the writer is.

At that moment Dr. John inexplicably arrives and is let in by Rosine the portresse. Lucy notes, too, that Rosine wears a grey dress. Dr. John surreptitiously runs into the garden and looks around for the casket. He turns into the alley and finds Lucy holding out the casket. She gives it to him, and he inquires if she will tell Madame about it. Lucy says she does not know whom it is for or from, but if Dr. John can assure her that it has nothing to do any of Madame's students then she will keep the secret. Madame Beck spies on Dr. John and Lucy during this conversation.

In Chapter XIII, "A Sneeze out of Season," Lucy has cause to learn more about Madame Beck's spying. In the evenings, the teachers and the few boarding students gather in the refectory for "lecture pieuse," or religious instruction. Lucy, the staunch English Protestant, dislikes listening to this instruction, so she wanders in the dark schoolrooms or goes to bed.

One evening, Lucy cannot bear to stay in the refectory with the girls and teachers, so she goes up to the dormitory where her curtained sleeping area is. She spies Madame Beck carefully going through her things. Madame is obviously suspicious of Lucy for something, and Lucy infers that Madame saw Dr. John that night in the garden.

Later, Madame invents a fever in Georgette (who has been convalescing), which requires her to send for Dr. John. Madame tells Lucy to stay with Georgette until he comes. Dr. John duly comes and writes out a cursory prescription for little Georgette. As he is about to leave, Lucy sees another missive fall from the same window–from the building of the boys' college bordering the garden–while she and Dr. John are standing looking out the window. He bids her to retrieve it, for he cannot do it or he will be seen. Swiftly Lucy gets the letter and brings it back up to Dr. John. He immediately tears it up unread. Lucy asks him what is going on, for she now realizes that Dr. John wrote neither of these letters. He explains that he is protecting someone–which Lucy mistakes to be Madame Beck–from the unwanted advances of some suitor, which would cause damage to the reputation of some female at the school. Some boy in the boys' college bordering the garden is sending these letters. Dr. John is at the point of telling Lucy who the person is, as well as asking her to help him protect her, when there is a sneeze at the door leading to Madame Beck's apartment. She has returned back from her "errands" surreptitiously and has been listening at the door.


In this section of the book the repressed and buried character of Lucy's life becomes apparent, as evidenced by the metaphor of the ghost story of the nun buried alive. Lucy, who has a violently passionate inner life, is buried under the propriety and restriction of her life as a teacher at Madame Beck's. Although most of Lucy's most pressing earlier difficulties are now resolved (employment, food, shelter, etc.), it is clear that the spiritual stuntedness, or "heart-poverty" as Lucy calls it, of her life has not improved—or has perhaps diminished during Lucy's short tenure with Miss Marchmont. Lucy's life is devoid of love and of even a single adult, close friendship. And while Lucy does not have any prospects of love or future family, it is clear hat she also feels the loss of it. Lucy is not emotionally cold, but she attempts to make herself that way in order to avoid what she considers the inevitable disappointments life will bring her. This has been a lifelong attitude for her: she had thought something similar at Mrs. Bretton's home when she was a child as well as during her time with Miss Marchmont. The reference to "The Casket," therefore, has a double meaning.

The introduction of Madame Beck's children serves two purposes. The character faults and the overall moral degradation of Labassecourian culture is illustrated in Madame's inability to properly discipline Desiree. The attachment of Lucy to the younger children (Fifine and Georgette), especially her emotional distress at their illnesses, shows Lucy's humanity and tenderheartedness. This is contrasted sharply with the utter lack of feeling and empathy that Madame Beck, the children's own mother, has for her daughters. Madame, as a mother, fails her children two ways. She cannot discipline and teach them proper behavior, which Desiree so desperately needs, nor is she able to empathize and comfort Fifine after her broken arm or Georgette during her serious infection. Again, for Lucy, this is another example of the failings of the Labassecourian Catholic way of life, personified in Madame Beck.

A direct attack on Catholicism is made by Lucy when she describes the nightly religious instruction given to the boarding students. The tales of hagiography and extreme penitence are foreign, medieval, and seem barbaric to the Protestant Lucy. The subtext, of course, is the debauched nature and overall error of the Labassecourian Catholicism. Lucy, though accepted and employed by the people of this culture still, like British colonials of her time, considers herself racially and, most importantly, culturally superior to the people whom she lives amongst.

The episode of Lucy finding and clearing the l'allée défendue shows the limitations on independence and privacy in Lucy's life. That in order to have a little solitude and a corner to call her own Lucy must retreat to a neglected, narrow corner of the garden is pathetic and indicative of the lifestyle these teacher-governesses, or genteel, educated servants, were made to lead. The intrusion of the billet-doux, or love note, which describes Lucy (presuming that it does) in such insulting terms is a further blow to Lucy's limited and loveless life. Not only is she hemmed in and restricted in this place, but she is unlucky enough to have to read of the disdain with which she is held by at least one student. Though Lucy does not look for love letters or want the love of the students—or even care about the mistrust of her employer—she does seem to wish for some kind of regard from the only Englishman in her life, Dr. John.

Dr. John's complete insensitivity toward and disregard of Lucy from the beginning of their renewed acquaintance takes an unexpected turn when Lucy discovers the first love letter in the ivory casket. Though Lucy still does not know who has written them and who the intended recipient is, she knows Dr. John is somehow involved. The painful irony for Lucy is never spared, for she learns that Dr. John in this affair is entirely blameless and hoping only to protect the reputation of the recipient, who Lucy erroneously believes is Madame Beck. Dr. John sees Lucy only as a person who has regrettably found out the secret of the letters, a person who may be useful if she can be persuaded to assist him in keeping the secret from Madame Beck and the rest of the school. Considering Lucy so far beneath him–in physical appearance, social standing, and fortune–Dr. John, though described incredibly by Lucy as "the best gentleman in Christendom," has no regard for Lucy's feelings. That she would continue to admire a man with so little regard for her and for people of her station and condition is indicative of an element of self-loathing in Lucy's character.