Chapter XX's "Concert" is a royalty-attended gala musical event, presided over by M. Paul's half-brother, M. Josef Emanuel. M. Josef is the premier music teacher in Villette, and various professional artists and the best pupils from the Conservatoire will perform. For this event Dr. John has procured tickets for himself, Mrs. Bretton, and Lucy.
The morning of the concert, Mrs. Bretton surveys Lucy's clothing and determines that she does not have a nice enough dress to wear to such a grand event. Against Lucy's better judgment, Mrs. Bretton has the seamstress make for Lucy a new pink dress, relieved only by a drapery of black lace. Though the style of dress is modest and plain, the pink color worries Lucy that she is being too showy. But Mrs. Bretton will not be persuaded otherwise, and Lucy wears it to the concert.
The event is a dazzling affair, replete with chandeliers, satin-clothed ladies, and crimson cloth and carpets. The hall is great and filled with light, and the elite of Labassecourian society is there. As a peripheral part of the royal court, Ginevra Fanshawe is placed next to the daughter of an English peer, Lady Sara. Ginevra, looking pretty and virginal, surveys the crowd and notes Dr. John and Mrs. Bretton. She makes a face through her eyeglass at Mrs. Bretton and then curls her lip in disdain at her. Dr. John notes this, having noted earlier a shared look of "understanding" between Ginevra and the Count De Hamal. Since Dr. John will not have a young woman for his wife who has any sort of understanding with another man, and as Ginevra obviously looks down on the respectable middle-class Mrs. Bretton, Dr. John has decided that Ginevra is not worthy of him. He tells Lucy this, and while she defends Ginevra as only a giddy schoolgirl who is necessarily warped by the slapdash education her family has given her, they agree that Ginevra really is not worthy of Dr. John's affection. Lucy is glad that Dr. John is free of this attachment, but she cautions him not to be overly severe on the young Ginevra. Later, he significantly tells Lucy that he will not look for love in adversity any longer, but will only love when love is returned to him.
M. Paul is there with his half-brother, marshalling the female performers of the Conservatoire. Lucy happens near him in the crowd, and he notes the color of her new dress, she thinks, with disapproval. Not wanting another scene or lecture from M. Paul resembling the one in the museum, she turns her face into Dr. John's sleeve, hoping to avoid him. M. Paul sees this and is obviously hurt or offended that she has not curtseyed or stopped to talk to him. Dr. John sees that M. Paul is angry and asks Lucy why this is so. She explains that M. Paul thinks that she is not showing him proper respect, and Dr. John scoffs at this idea. M. Paul pushes by them in the crowd, and the three do not speak to each other.
Dr. John tells his mother in an oblique way that he has given up on the object of his affection, and he and his mother tease each other a bit about him preferring his mother to a wife. The three go home after a happy night.
Chapter XXI concerns the time after Lucy returns back to Madame Beck's. She is sad to leave the Brettons, and they are sad to see her leave, trying to delay her departure. They leave each other on very good terms, and Dr. Bretton promises that he will write and that his mother will come to visit. Lucy, awake in the dormitory that night, wrestles with her conscience and with what she calls the personification of Reason, which counsels her not to put too much hope or happiness in the receipt of this letter. She thinks that if Dr. John does write, he will only do so in a cursory manner, and only once, and she must be stern with herself and come to be happy only with that. She has a long discussion with herself concerning how Reason has given her only coldness and unhappiness in her life, which is all she should expect, while Feeling has always been her succor and has given her a respite from the unremitting dreariness that Reason says her life will be. This rather florid passage shows Lucy's philosophic cast of mind as well as her desire to quell all emotions in her that might cause disappointment in the future, including her innocent hopes.
Lucy is downcast the next day, and M. Paul sees her in the refectory alone. He comes in and tries to tell her to steel herself to her life and take her "bitters" daily, not to succumb to the "sweet poison" of vain hopes. Lucy resents his sermonizing and, weeping, begs him to leave.
Lucy is reunited with Ginevra, and she tells her a patently false story of Dr. John's distress at her turning her nose up at Mrs. Bretton and her attention to Count De Hamal. Lucy distorts the truth so much that Ginevra, in her vanity, believes that Dr. John was in a perfect fit of jealousy and rage at seeing Ginevra, wearing the bracelet he gave to her, flirting with De Hamal. In reality, Dr. John was perfectly self-possessed and only mildly regretful upon learning Ginevra's true nature.
One day Lucy is to have charge of a class while M. Paul is to lecture, and he intercepts a letter for Lucy from Dr. John. M. Paul gives it to Lucy in front of the entire class, and, knowing whom it is from, she rushes upstairs and locks it in her case unread. She comes back to class and sees M. Paul storming at the girls—he then turns his fury on Lucy. She sits quietly and eventually begins to silently weep. She tells him she has no wish to insult him. He softens and gives her a clean silk handkerchief by way of apology. He finishes teaching the class, and after the girls are gone he mentions the letter. She says it is only from a friend, but he says he knows what friend that is. Lucy tries to return M. Paul’s handkerchief, and he says she should keep until the letter is read; he will determine the tenor of the letter by the state of the handkerchief. When Lucy thinks she is alone, she has a moment of happiness, and she tosses the handkerchief around like a toy or a ball. M. Paul has been watching this, however, and he reaches over her shoulder and catches his handkerchief back, saying that she has been making fun of him with his possession. Lucy thinks that M. Paul, while making good points, is not a good little man.
Lucy gets a chance to read "The Letter" in chapter XXII. She creeps up to the unused attic with a candle. Lucy, who for so long has been used to privation, disregard, and hostility is now so incredibly overjoyed by the contents of the kind, good-natured letter that she claims to feel more happiness in that moment than any queen in a palace. As she reads, a figure dressed in white and black, resembling a nun, comes toward her out of the shadows. Lucy is terrified and rushes out of the attic.
She rushes to Madame's sitting room, where a small company of people are assembled, including Dr. John. The nearly hysterical Lucy tells them that something is in the grenier (attic), and they all go up to investigate. At first they claim that the objects there look to have been disturbed, and someone certainly must have been there, but Madame tells Lucy later that she now fancies that things were much the same as always. Lucy has left her letter from Dr. John there, and she searches madly for it—but Dr. John has secretly pocketed it.
They go downstairs, and John takes Lucy into a small room to help comfort her. She continues to weep bitterly at the loss of her letter. Dr. John, acting somewhat strangely, sees this and finally gives it back to her. He teases her that it is worth nothing, and the reader begins to think that he has an inkling of Lucy's unsaid love for him and that he is doing his best to quash it. He tells her that possibly her vision of the nun came from her own depression. He tells her to cultivate happiness. Lucy, sensibly though not aloud, observes that happiness is not a potato. She finds it peculiarly patronizing when people tell her to cultivate happiness, for she has had so little cause for happiness in her life and cultivation of it has been impossible. Dr. John swears to tell no one what she saw, and he urges Lucy never to mention it again in specific terms, for fear that she will be considered hysterical.
Though Dr. John is often kind, he shows almost unbelievable effrontery when he patronizes Lucy by saying that her vision of the nun was a result of her failure to cultivate enough happiness in her life. This meanness is not lost on Lucy. Though she obviously is in hopeless love with Dr. John, she at least acknowledges his faults. Sadly, with her low opinion of herself, she accepts his "diagnosis" and allows him to extol the virtues of Ginevra Fanshawe in front of her. Even after he has fallen out with Ginevra over her behavior at the concert, Dr. John still acknowledges her beauty to Lucy, to whom this can only be a sore point. Lucy is so desperate for his companionship that she will endure even the praise of her rival in order to be near him. None of this is surprising–she has no other real friends in the world. Lucy is pathetic in the true sense of that word, and Dr. John should, if he is supposedly the "best gentleman in Christendom," be more sensitive to her extremity of poverty, both in money and in spirit.
Lucy's love for Dr. John is so hopeless that Lucy cannot ever entertain the idea that she will have Dr. John for herself. So, she does the next best thing by becoming friends with his beloved, Ginevra, and she makes a point of being intellectually and morally superior to Ginevra. That Ginevra is objectified is not considered unusual by either Lucy or Dr. John. A marriageable girl had to have the requirements of physical beauty and innocent virtue, and any knowledge of the world (like an understanding with Count De Hamal) was considered a count against her. Young women, especially the young woman Dr. John has in mind for his future wife, were treated as little more than products of good schooling, breeding, and care, ready to be molded by their future husbands.
Thus Lucy muses to herself, that morning in the refectory, about why she has chosen Ginevra to be her special friend to share her morning rolls with, and beyond that to share her cup on country outings. Lucy does not have enough self-knowledge to know that she finds her closeness with Ginevra to be the nearest she will ever get to the kind of romantic relationship she wants with Dr. John.
As a comparison, the figure of the blustering, furious, apoplectic M. Paul is a humorous interpolation between the extremes of youthful romance of Ginevra and Dr. John. Most of his scenes are very funny depictions of his imperious nature, his jealous egotism, and his intellectual vanity. Lucy is not even allowed to sew in his presence, for he feels this activity takes away from the attention due to him.
Though Lucy at this point has no affection for M. Paul, the fact is that he, through all his silly naïve posturing and bluster, has been a truer friend to her than Dr. John. Dr. John never even recognized Lucy until his mother reminded him of Lucy's identity. This self-absorption should have been Lucy's first clue to the poverty of his character. The first time Dr. John ever had a real conversation with Lucy, he asked her to hide a love letter sent to Ginevra in order to protect her reputation. He never approached her in friendship; he asked her only to keep a secret for him. While Dr. John was kind to her and helped her after her illness—and certainly provided good company to her during her stay at his house—he also spent a large amount of time talking about his love for Ginevra. That he would not even consider that this might hurt Lucy's feelings, or even perhaps bore her, does not occur to him.
M. Paul, on the other hand, tells Lucy that she must take the "bitters" of life daily and learn to accept the hard lot her life will probably continue to have. M. Paul, unblinkingly, tells her the truth, and he does not play silly games that toy with her feelings (such as Dr. John’s keeping the letter needlessly from Lucy while she weeps over it). Most importantly, Dr. John, while again dispensing kindness, never attributes Lucy's illnesses to anything other than her own female hysteria. And, acknowledging her depression, he blames her for not cultivating happiness. This kind of hypocrisy should enrage Lucy, but she is blinded by love and thus excuses him or glosses over these enormities of insensitivity.
M. Paul, who is less physically attractive to Lucy and has a less charismatic personal style, is nevertheless truly concerned about Lucy's sorrow and never sugarcoats it or tries to dismiss it. He tells her she should indeed be prepared for the blows of life (as Lucy sternly told herself ten years ago that night in her bed at the Brettons' house in England) and that if she would allow it he would help her, daily, to do so. Lucy is in fact duped by the same kind of surface show that she accuses Dr. John of being duped by in his admiration of Ginevra. While Dr. John is drawn in by Ginevra's beauty and seeming innocence, Lucy is attracted to Dr. John because of his handsomeness and his English brand of camaraderie and gallantry. When she learns that his gallantries with regard to her are really only skin-deep (which John learns is true of Ginevra, as well), Lucy excuses it by saying that she does not deserve deep friendship from Dr. John—and that she has no right to expect any better.
In Lucy's Snowe's inwardly dramatic thoughts, this section of the novel contains a great deal of Old Testament imagery, including a reference to Isaiah (beautiful feet upon the mountain), Deuteronomy (Moses surveying Canaan from Mount Nebo), Exodus (pillar of cloud), and Genesis (Esau hunting venison for Isaac). It must be remembered that Charlotte Brontë was a clergyman's daughter and that she spent all her life surrounded by the religious life. For a person of Brontë's disposition and upbringing (and, by the same token, Lucy Snowe's upbringing and character), Biblical references when writing about extremes of feeling would have been natural. Besides, her audience would easily have understood these references, generally being quite aware of these images as well.
The intense passage wherein Lucy describes her persecution by Reason and her comfort in Feeling are of a style not seen often in contemporary novels. The extended metaphor for anthropomorphized concepts has fallen out of fashion, but it still reads as intense and dramatic as Brontë intended. Lucy, the perpetual outsider and the child at the table who always gets the smallest portion, has had to school herself all her life in the hard class of Reason, and the fact that she wrestles with it continually makes her uniquely sympathetic and accessible.