Villette HTML version

9. Isidore
My time was now well and profitably filled up. What with teaching others and studying
closely myself, I had hardly a spare moment. It was pleasant. I felt I was getting on; not
lying the stagnant prey of mould and rust, but polishing my faculties and whetting them
to a keen edge with constant use. Experience of a certain kind lay before me, on no
narrow scale. Villette is a cosmopolitan city, and in this school were girls of almost every
European nation, and likewise of very varied rank in life. Equality is much practised in
Labassecour; though not republican in form, it is nearly so in substance, and at the desks
of Madame Beck's establishment the young countess and the young bourgeoise sat side
by side. Nor could you always by outward indications decide which was noble and which
plebeian; except that, indeed, the latter had often franker and more courteous manners,
while the former bore away the bell for a delicately balanced combination of insolence
and deceit. In the former there was often quick French blood mixed with the marsh-
phlegm: I regret to say that the effect of this vivacious fluid chiefly appeared in the oilier
glibness with which flattery and fiction ran from the tongue, and in a manner lighter and
livelier, but quite heartless and insincere.
To do all parties justice, the honest aboriginal Labassecouriennes had an hypocrisy of
their own, too; but it was of a coarse order, such as could deceive few. Whenever a lie
was necessary for their occasions, they brought it out with a careless ease and breadth
altogether untroubled by the rebuke of conscience. Not a soul in Madame Beck's house,
from the scullion to the directress herself, but was above being ashamed of a lie; they
thought nothing of it: to invent might not be precisely a virtue, but it was the most venial
of faults. 'J'ai menti plusieurs fois' formed an item of every girl's and woman's monthly
confession: the priest heard unshocked, and absolved unreluctant. If they had missed
going to mass, or read a chapter of a novel, that was another thing: these were crimes
whereof rebuke and penance were the unfailing meed.
While yet but half-conscious of this state of things, and unlearned in its results, I got on
in my new sphere very well. After the first few difficult lessons, given amidst peril and
on the edge of a moral volcano that rumbled under my feet and sent sparks and hot fumes
into my eyes, the eruptive spirit seemed to subside, as far as I was concerned. My mind
was a good deal bent on success: I could not bear the thought of being baffled by mere
undisciplined disaffection and wanton indocility, in this first attempt to get on in life.
Many hours of the night I used to lie awake, thinking what plan I had best adopt to get a
reliable hold on these mutineers, to bring this stiff-necked tribe under permanent
influence. In the first place, I saw plainly that aid in no shape was to be expected from
madame: her righteous plan was to maintain an unbroken popularity with the pupils, at
any and every cost of justice or comfort to the teachers. For a teacher to seek her alliance
in any crisis of insubordination was equivalent to securing her own expulsion. In
intercourse with her pupils, madame only took to herself what was pleasant, amiable and
recommendatory; rigidly requiring of her lieutenants sufficiency for every annoying
crisis, where to act with adequate promptitude was to be unpopular. Thus, I must look
only to myself.