21 November 2015


Locus Focus: Take One Hundred Twenty-Nine!

It seems that I neglected to say last week that the Conspiratorial Corners mini-series would be a fortnightly rather than weekly thing. But that's only because I hadn't known myself! I had been right on schedule, reading a book that had promised at least one relevant setting, when it just got too awful to keep reading any longer.

Luckily, there was another recent read that, although unsatisfying in other ways, delivered where it counted. And it is thanks to it that I have a setting for this week.

Numero 3, Rue de Mages
by Charlotte Bronte

The room was large, and had a fine old ceiling, and almost church-like windows of coloured glass; but it was desolate, and in the shadow of a coming storm, looked strangely lowering. Within, opened a smaller room; there, however, the blind of the single casement was closed. Through the deep gloom few details of furniture were apparent. These few I amused myself by puzzling to make out; and, in particular, I was attracted by the outline of a picture on the wall.

By-and-by the picture seemed to give way: to my bewilderment, it shook, it sunk, it rolled back into nothing; its vanishing left an opening arched, leading into an arched passage, with a mystic winding stair; both passage and stair were of cold stone, uncarpeted and unpainted. Down this donjon stair descended a tap, tap, like a stick; soon, there fell on the steps a shadow, and last of all, I was aware of a substance.

Yet, was it actual substance, this appearance approaching me, this obstruction, partially darkening the arch?

When I was in uni, I took a paper that introduced me to the conventions of the nineteenth-century English Gothic novel. According to my lecturer, there were several essential elements: a virtuous heroine who at one point runs around in a white nightgown, a brooding male lead who straddles the divide between hero and villain, a medieval or exotic setting, a castle or manor house with secret rooms, some supernatural elements, and at least one really nasty Catholic. (But don't worry. I won't turn this post into another excuse to talk about Twilight. =P) Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte's first novel, doesn't quite make the cut: Jane only hears of exotic settings from others and doesn't visit them herself . . . and the only nasty Catholic is a convert who was already nasty as a Protestant. But Bronte's follow-up, Villette, more than makes up for that.

The very night staunch Protestant Lucy Snowe takes a job in Villette, the capital of the fictional kingdom of Labassecour, she wakes to see her new boss going through all her things. It is the first example of the "surveillance" that keeps everyone in the city in line and a logical fruit of cultural adherence to a religion where there doesn't seem to be any such thing as privacy. At least the latter seems to be Bronte's take on Catholicism's sacrament of confession: she seems truly disgusted that things that seem to belong only between a soul and God are regularly spilled to busybody priests. But it is not until a bit later in the story, when her boss asks her to run an errand to Numero 3, Rue de Mages, that she learns how much of her personal business the town's priest already knows and how far he is willing to go to influence her life.

It's a sinister revelation that requires an equally sinister setting--and of course, some appropriate weather. When Lucy arrives, the sky is rapidly darkening; and her errand having been completed, she is prevented from leaving as soon as she likes when a heavy rain starts to fall. All the better for the priest to detain her a little longer. Lucy must have found the salon she is first ushered into, with its gloomy furniture, stained-glass windows, hidden passage behind a picture, and the bejeweled crone who emerged from it, testament enough to Numero 3's weirdness. The only way the house could have been creepier is if a mysterious murder had taken place there years before and the victims' voices were still heard in the halls around midnight . . . or if, you know, a priest happened to live there, too.

The priest's private prayer room becomes the scene of another sort of confession, as he tells Lucy a secret from a mutual friend's past. (It's not a breaking of the seal of the confessional, but it is an irony.) But this crafty Jesuit holds back as much as he reveals. A little later in the story, Lucy sees that her being at Numero 3 that day was part of a larger and simultaneously pettier plot.

I decided to read Villette after Brandon said it would be his first Fortnightly Book for November and Mrs. Darwin and Itinerante said they would join in. Our discussion is currently in full swing on Siris!

Question of the Week: What is the creepiest place you've ever been in?

Image Source: Villette by Charlotte Bronte

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