Matthew Heitzman, “‘He Resembled the Great Emperor’: Charlotte Brontë, Villette, and the Rise of Napoleon III” (pp. 199–223)
This essay offers a local historical context for Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853), reading it in relation to the rise of Napoleon III as Emperor of France. Napoleon III completed his ascendancy just as Brontë was completing her novel. His rise prompted a mixture of anxiety and optimism in the English press, as English political commentators were uncertain if this new Napoleon’s reign would mark a return to the Anglo-French nationalist strife of the first Napoleonic period or if his rule would mark a détente and productive path forward for Anglo-French relations. I argue that this ambiguity is coded into Brontë’s characterization of Monsieur Paul Emanuel, and that we can read Monsieur Paul’s romance with Lucy Snowe as a political allegory—Brontë’s attempt to decipher what Napoleon III’s rapid rise meant for Anglo-French relations. I suggest in this essay that Brontë’s interest in the contemporary Anglo-French political context was a product of her fascination with Napoleon Bonaparte, specifically his rivalry with the Duke of Wellington, and that understanding her interest in the first Napoleonic period can help us to decipher why her depiction of Anglo-French nationalist interaction in Villette is totally at odds with her other novels, where French nationalism is typically a trait that needs to be effaced.