Chapter VII, "Villette," finds Lucy in her hotel in Boue-Marine, utterly unsure of what to do next. She remembers the conversation she had with Ginevra Fanshawe aboard The Vivid. Ginevra had told Lucy that Madame Beck, the proprietress of the school that Ginevra attends in the town of Villette, wants to hire an English governess.
On this slim recommendation, and with nowhere else to go, Lucy boards a stagecoach for Villette, forty miles distant. Though the day is humid, gray, and rainy, Lucy feels exultant and enjoys the journey. She arrives at night.
The driver has left Lucy's trunk in Boue-Marine, but Lucy cannot speak French to find out where it is. A fellow English passenger, a handsome young man, assists Lucy and finds out the necessary information. He also sends her toward of a quiet inn, walking with her part of the way. As she walks, two men follow her with nefarious intent. Lucy walks faster, and in her fear she misses the proper staircase and goes on until she passes a guard patrol. This foils the blackguards, but she realizes she has passed the inn. After continuing a short way, she sees the sign that says "Madame Beck’s." She bravely rings the bell.
She is brought in, chiefly because she speaks English. After she waits fifteen minutes in the parlor, Madame Beck comes in to see her. She speaks no English, and Lucy speaks no French, so a housemaid acts as interpreter. Madame Beck seems to want to hire Lucy as an English teacher (governaunte) or nurse for her children, but Madame is unsure, for Lucy has no references. Madame wants to send Lucy back out into the night, telling her to come back tomorrow. At that moment Monsieur Paul, Madame Beck’s cousin, comes in. He is an expert in physiognomy, the study of facial features as a guide to character. Madame Beck asks M. Paul to look at Lucy’s face and make a judgment. He says that Lucy is partially good and partially bad, and that if things go well with Madame Beck, Lucy’s good nature will predominate. Madame Beck hires her, and Lucy stays.
The next chapter tells of Lucy’s meteoric rise from being a homeless, unemployed young woman to being an English teacher at Madame Beck’s. The night she arrives, after being fed well, Lucy is conducted up to the nursery. Lucy notes that the present nursery maid, Mrs. Sweeney (also called "Svini") is a drunkard. After Lucy falls asleep, Madame creeps into the room and examines all of Lucy’s clothing and her few possessions. Lucy awakens but feigns sleep and watches her. Madame also takes an impression of the keys to Lucy’s trunk and boxes, so that she can open them should she want to in the future. This is the first of the instances by which Lucy learns that Madame runs her boarding school by spying on her employees, students, and teachers.
In the morning Mrs. Sweeney is dismissed. She is a drinker, and she has clothes far above her station (thinks Lucy) that were probably stolen from someone else. Her English, an Irish brogue with an overlay of Cockney, is not the kind of English that Lucy thinks should be taught to the children anyway. Lucy is to be the nursery-governess to Madame’s three children. She is to teach them English, care for them, teach them nursery lessons and prayers, look after their clothing, and so on.
Lucy finds the arrangements suitable, and things go along smoothly for a time. She and Madame talk in the evenings, and Lucy finds her to be sensible and very effective, if morally deficient. Lucy finds that Madame Beck, while possessing a "rational benevolence," is entirely heartless, only doing things for rational motives and particularly out of her own self-interest. Still, she runs a very good school, where the pupils learn lessons easily (although never with any great progress) and are well treated. Lucy admires Madame’s self-possession and firmness, but she knows her to have no disinterested compassion for anyone else.
Throughout this time of discovery, Lucy contrasts the customs of Madame Beck’s school with those of England. Overall, Madame Beck’s has more strict restraint of the students, for, according to Madame, the "continental" girl has more need of restraint than the sweet, innocent girls of England. The food and amusements and overall treatment of the students also seem better than many English schools, Lucy finds, with the learning of lessons made to be as easy and pleasant as possible. Yet, Lucy maintains that almost everything about English schools and students is still superior.
One day as Lucy is sewing, Madame calls her to teach the English class of sixty students since the English master, Mr. Wilson, is late. Lucy, abhorring silently her own habit of "sloth" and inaction, tries to avoid it, but she is propelled forward by Madame’s urging and resolves to act as a substitute teacher. She is terrified, and Madame, on the way to the classroom, questions her closely about how she will manage the students and whether she has enough courage. Lucy speaks a little French now, but she is not confident or fluent enough in it to feel totally at ease teaching sixty unruly girls. Nevertheless, the hardness in Madame’s face spurs Lucy to action, and she goes in to teach the class.
She immediately goes about humiliating and reprimanding—by tearing a copy-book and locking one student in a closet—the worst offenders in the class. This makes the girls quiet, and the class goes well. Madame Beck has listened at the door, and she considers Lucy’s conduct favorable. At the end of class Mr. Wilson is dismissed, and Lucy is promoted to English teacher—and her salary is raised.
In the ninth chapter, "Isidore," readers learn that Ginevra, now Lucy’s friend, has friends in Villette who take her to parties. For these parties she must have appropriately elegant clothing. Mrs. Cholmondeley, her "chaperon," an English friend living in Villette, has bought her some dresses, but under relentless requests from the shameless Ginevra, she has cut off her charity in this regard. Ginevra, though sent to school by her rich de Bassompierre uncle, has only a tiny allowance and cannot buy more finery for herself. She has bought things on credit from the dressmaker and sent the bills to her uncle, but before one particularly important party she shows Lucy a parure (a jeweled ornament) that could not possibly have come from either Mrs. Cholmondeley or have been bought on credit. After close questioning, Lucy learns that Ginevra has accepted it from a Monsieur Isidore.
M. Isidore, a handsome young man whose name is not Isidore (it is a nickname from silly, prattling Ginevra), is deeply in love with Ginevra and hopes to marry her. Ginevra toys with his affections, blowing hot and cold, and although M. Isidore is handsome, Ginevra is not in love with him. She cannot bring herself to be so, she says, even though other girls are, because Isidore requires so much of her and wants her to be serious and make a commitment. Ginevra just wants to "enjoy youth"—but she took his gift. Lucy asks whether M. Isidore is a suitor acceptable to Ginevra’s parents and learns that he is not. She concludes that Ginevra is using M. Isidore, so she rebukes Ginevra for her shallowness and thoughtless treatment of him. In this conversation we learn something of Lucy’s strict moral code and her admirable lack of vanity and coquettishness. Ginevra takes Lucy’s "sermonizing" well and remains Lucy’s friend, though she does not change.
Lucy has excelled in teaching, getting her students to apply themselves somewhat and even earning the regard of some of the more intelligent students. She roundly criticizes the girls’ sloth, ignorance, and unwillingness to work hard. The moral character of these Labassecourian girls, too, is considered shocking to Lucy: these girls, and even Madame Beck, consider it a trifle to tell a lie. It is thought, says Lucy, in this Catholic country to be a more serious offense to read a novel or to miss Mass on a Sunday than to tell a lie. As a consequence of Lucy making it plain that she will not allow girls to lie and that she considers it a grave offense, the surveillance of her by other teachers and Madame Beck increases.
Madame Beck, through Lucy’s eyes, is not led by her emotions. This is something of a stereotype of the calculating French person of business, which was current in England in Brontë’s time—suggesting that the French were less moral and more self-serving than the English. Madame Beck’s willingness to hire Lucy on the strength only of M. Paul’s physiognomic analysis of her is meant to show that Madame would not hire Lucy out of pity or sympathy but to satisfy her own interests. As in earlier chapters, Lucy makes sweeping judgments about people during her first or early encounters with them.
Lucy’s extreme courage in the face of very difficult circumstances leads the reader to admire her and hope that she finds safety and good employment. But the almost foolhardy adventuring of a young woman with little money, no references, and no friends or prospects also gives the impression that Lucy remains young and naïve. Nevertheless, the story of Lucy traveling, within the space a very few days, from her native town to London, to Boue-Marine, and thence to the doorstep of Madame Beck’s in the town of Villette is a thrilling and well-told tale.
The coincidences may seem a bit thick to the modern reader. How lucky was it that Lucy, wandering blindly about an unknown town, would end up on the very street of Madame Beck’s school? How fortuitous was it that there was a kind young English gentleman to assist her at the stagecoach bureau? And, most of all, how incredibly fortunate was it for Lucy that she would hear of a job from a young student she met only in passing on her sea voyage? Brontë’s penchant for coincidence as a way to propel the plot is apparent. Even so, it is so skillfully and believably done that the reader can suspend disbelief quite easily. The fact that only through coincidence and luck could a young lady such as Lucy end up in following this series of events, after all, adds verisimilitude.
The French or Belgians (Labassecourians), the Irish, the English cockneys, and the Catalonians (residents of Northern Spain) are all shown to be inferior to the English gentry and its educated classes in Lucy’s eyes. The comic figure of Mrs. Sweeney, whom Lucy snobbishly takes to be only a hanger-on in an Irish family, such as a washer-woman, is looked down upon not only for her drinking, but also for her low-class Irish speech and showy dress. It is particularly ironic that Charlotte Brontë writes critically of an Irishwoman, for her father was of Irish birth. The Labassecourians (Madame and her servants) are said to have hired Mrs. Sweeney only on the strength of her cashmere shawl. Even Madame, whom Lucy respects greatly for her organizational abilities and perfect rational calm, is portrayed as vain and easily fooled by trifles. The overall degraded nature of the residents of this country (Lucy says, regarding the girls of noble Labassecourian families, "as far as nobility goes in this country") is clear in Lucy’s mind. She is happy to have a position of respectable work, but it is made abundantly clear that Lucy firmly believes that English people and culture are inherently better and morally superior to anything in Villette. Madame herself, though a wonderfully capable lady, is definitely heartless. She has no feelings to be persuaded, Lucy says, and in this case this wonderfully drawn character seems to the reader to be either psychotic or unreal. It seems unlikely that anyone not pathological would have the complete absence of feeling beyond self-interest that is attributed to Madame Beck. But her school is remarkably well-run, and Lucy, while being employed in a comfortable manner, can go on feeling morally superior.
The gradations of character and class in Brontë’s time were very complex and rigid, and they largely are not analogous to today’s cultural stratifications. An English gentlewoman or lady was to follow a rigid set of moral, financial, and behavioral requirements, most of which no longer apply. Lucy, born into a family of some wealth, we are to assume, and with some pretensions to gentility, holds herself firmly in one kind of class. This class, while broadly defined economically as women being entirely supported by their families and educated well, has less to do with money than with education, speech, bearing, and physical and moral conduct. The idea of class prescribing objectively defined traits, such as working only at certain kinds of jobs, speaking a certain way, or adhering to a rigid moral and religious code of conduct, defined the worth of a human being in ways that are anathema to modern ideas of diversity and social mobility. An English gentlewoman, for example, could only do certain kinds of work (being a nursery-governess or English teacher, rather than a lady’s maid, for example) and behave a certain way (abhorring the very effective spy techniques of Madame Beck, having zero tolerance for lying of any kind), and these traits were considered to be at the core of such women’s existence, part of what defined them as a particular kind of human being. Maintaining dignity was of utmost importance, and it influenced everything these women did. In this light, it becomes clear why Lucy, who had a poor command of French, would take the chance of teaching sixty unruly girls in an English class. Not only was the job of teacher of higher status than nursery-maid (and with a higher salary), but Lucy, raised to be a lady or at the very least an educated and moral gentlewoman, saw herself as more fitted by her birth and upbringing to be a teacher rather than one who would care for small children. Also, Brontë writes in such a fashion that it seems that Madame, despite her moral laxity and her strange Continental ways, is able to shrewdly perceive Lucy’s worth and station, even though she is not able to ascertain the same things about Mrs. Sweeney.
In Chapter IX, Lucy engages in extremely harsh criticism of the whole Labassecourian race. She calls their blood "marsh-phlegm" and, when describing how some of the titled girls have French mixed in their pedigrees, says that it only serves to increase their sneakiness, slyness, and overall moral degradation. The laxity of attitude toward lies, admittedly, would have been truly shocking to many English readers of Brontë’s time, especially for schoolgirls. Brontë is once again trumpeting the superiority of the English race, customs, morals, and schooling, by contrasting what she considers the "Continental" customs of spying (by Madame Beck), lying (by everyone), and coquettishness (by the Continentally corrupted English girl, Ginevra) with the austerity of the English Protestant culture from which she came. She skewers Catholicism particular in her conversation with Isabelle. If this is also Brontë’s perspective, she seems to have considered this religion a major source of evil in non-English societies.
The comments about her students, with their "thick glossy hair" and large ears, can be puzzling to today’s readers. That a teacher would look upon her pupils, however foreign, in the way one might look at an unusual or curious species of animal makes the reader believe that any sort of moral superiority on Lucy’s part must be false. This attitude, especially toward the French (and the Labassecourians are but literary stand-ins for the French or the Belgians in this book) by the English of that time, was current and well accepted. The English, for reasons of trade, politics, and especially religion, considered their culture the most morally developed on Earth and infinitely superior to the Continental tradition of Catholicism. Though Brontë’s words are bitingly satirical, they would not have been considered particularly damning or unusual to the English readership of her day.
Brontë’s writing employs a very high use of adverbs, and in these three chapters, her powers of description are shown in their best light. She creates, in a very few lines, a wonderfully clear picture of the school and the customs of the teachers and students. She brings the reader into the sun-drenched world of the schoolrooms and courtyard, where French-speaking students flit through the pages with their silliness and charms. Lucy, the staid and drab Protestant bird amid these brightly-colored (exotic, nearly tropical) fowl, is shown to be the epitome of English sense, severity, and moral rectitude. That she remains likable is due to the skill of Brontë’s writing, but Lucy's degraded position and lack of any champion or friend in her world also make the reader sympathetic. Lucy is also desperately courageous, able to weather storms that might have sent lesser women to the workhouse.
Ginevra’s friendship, while as real and as sincere as she can give, does not give Lucy any kind of help or support other than passing companionship. Ginevra’s lack of morality, her coquettishness, and her youth disappoint Lucy. This character of Lucy, perhaps one of the most curious and unknowable in nineteenth-century literature, is slowly building for the reader a picture of her world and her own character. In later chapters, however, it will become clear how little of Lucy is yet known to us.