Identity renegotiation in Charlote Brontë’s Villette
The nineteenth century, especially its second half, saw an intense preoccupation with the issue of national identity. Not unlike Europeans, the English people defined themselves in relation to the Other in the colonies. In the words of Said, European culture in general “gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self” (Said 1993: 236). Understandably, colonial matters were reflected in much of the writing of the day and, as argued by Gayatri Spivak, “imperialism, understood as England’s social mission, was a crucial part of the cultural representation of England to the English” (Spivak 1985: 262)1. At the same time, Englishness was also defined and interrogated by juxtaposing it with the Continent, especially France, a long-time political and religious enemy.2 In this context, the nineteenth-century British novel was a useful tool not only in the Empire-building project but also in asserting the superiority of the English way of life. However, it is important to remember that major Victorian writers also used the contrast with Continental values and attitudes to shine critical light on their countrymen. Charlotte Brontë is not different in this respect. A great deal has already been written about the novelist’s orientalism and reliance on “stereotyped images of threat or allure” (Boehmer 2005: 22) in presenting the colonial Other. Similarly, her pejorative representation of Catholics and the French has not escaped critical attention. Yet it is only recently that Brontë’s views on cosmopolitanism...
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