Doctors Dissected: Dr John Bretton, Villette, Charlotte Brontë (1853)

It’s tempting to characterise the host of doctors in Victorian fiction as a gallery of rogues and romantic heroes. But how do medical practitioners really feature in nineteenth-century narratives? In ‘Doctors Dissected’, a new series of blog posts, I’ll be reappraising the roles they play in canonical and lesser-known novels…

NPG 1452; Charlotte BrontÎ by George Richmond

“Charlotte Brontë”, George Richmond (1850), National Portrait Gallery (London)

As anyone who has ever grappled with Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853) will know, it’s something of a grower. An initially difficult novel – chiefly because its repressed and morbid narrator, Lucy Snowe, repeatedly evades our sympathies – it nevertheless becomes increasingly compelling, precisely because the reader must penetrate its steely exterior and self-abnegating heroine.

When I came to Villette, I was simultaneously getting to grips with Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic, a coincidence I found pretty serendipitous, for it provided an obvious framework for thinking about a rather inaccessible novel. Of course, one doesn’t have to be in the midst of theorising the ‘medical gaze’ to understand the importance of observation in the text. For Villette clearly circulates obsessively around ideas of surveillance, concealment and recognition. Few can fail to spot the way in which the narrative is governed by what Lucy chooses to withhold or disclose, how Madame Beck controls her school through acts of surveillance, or the emphasis on the threat posed by the ever-watchful Catholic Church. But Foucault’s focus on the way in which the doctor’s gaze is shaped and structured prompted me to think specifically about how Brontë’s doctor-character, John Graham Bretton, is constructed in relation to vision/ blindness.

As a point of departure, it is interesting to consider the character’s namesake. For Brontë reputedly named him after the author of Domestic Medicine, Thomas John Graham. His popular medical manual, which was first published in 1826, was a mainstay in the Brontë home; Patrick, Charlotte’ father, heavily annotated his copy (which is held by the Brontë Parsonage Museum) with notes about illnesses affecting the family. Sally Shuttleworth argues that, “in naming Dr John Graham Bretton after her father’s treasured medical tome, Brontë was giving embodiment to the system of medical surveillance which had governed her own life”. Shuttleworth’s language firmly associates both Dr John’s identity and role as doctor with the themes of observation-and-control underpinning the narrative.

In the novel, Dr John defines his professional authority in terms of his ability to observe and interpret others. When he scrutinises Lucy following her distress at simultaneously sighting the ‘ghost’ and losing the treasured letter from him, he insists, “I look on you now from a professional point of view, and I read, perhaps, all you would conceal”. Somewhat chillingly, his ‘gaze’ self-consciously encompasses what Lucy wishes to hide. In this instance Dr John observes a mixture of emotional and physiological signs, noting her “curiously vivid and restless” eyes, her pale cheeks, and unsteady hands. As Shuttleworth contends, he “directs onto Lucy the gaze of medical authority, calmly confident of his ability to define inner experience from outer signs”. Yet, as critics such as Shuttleworth and Beth Torgerson point out, Dr John’s gaze is also exposed as resolutely flawed. In this instance, his materialist diagnosis, which judges Lucy’s sighting of the nun to be a product of nerves, is shown to be false for – as Shuttleworth emphasises – Lucy genuinely has detected a physical presence. As the reader later learns, the nun haunting the pensionnat is really the Count de Hamal in disguise.

Characterising doctors as “self-opinionated”, and “immovable in their dry, materialist views”, Lucy repeatedly recoils from Dr John’s scrutiny. Her aversion is most dramatically enacted in one of the closing scenes in the novel, the hallucinatory passage in which Lucy narrates her drug-induced midnight wander through the Villette carnival. Revelling in the fact she is passing through almost invisible and anonymous, she suddenly finds herself watched by Dr John. She wonders, “there were hundreds to meet his eye and divide its scrutiny – why then did he concentrate all on me – oppressing me with the whole force of that full, blue, steadfast orb? Why, if he would look, did not one glance satisfy him? […] He could not see my face, I held it down; surely, he could not recognise me: I stooped, I turned, I would not be known”. This is an ominous encounter, in which the doctor’s gaze threatens Lucy’s sense of self.

It is interesting that Lucy fears exposure from Dr John’s penetrating gaze, given that it has proved so flawed in the past. Perhaps his newfound perspicacity results from the fact – as Tim Dolin suggests – that he is no longer “indifferent” towards her. As Dolin implies, this would indeed be a “turning point” in the text, for much of the novel seems to support Torgerson’s contention that “Lucy learns to read Dr John, but Dr John never learns to read Lucy”.

Despite the way in which he values the power of his professional gaze, Dr John indeed seems to demonstrate remarkable short-sightedness at times, in contrast to the perspicacious and perceptive heroine. In one of the biggest twists in the novel, the reader learns that the narrator has long recognised that Dr John is one and the same as her old family friend Graham Bretton. Although this is something she withholds from the reader for several chapters, interestingly she ensures that we look back at their early encounters in Villette with new insight, particularly the charged moment in which he catches her watching him. Lucy confesses, “[t]he discovery was not of to-day, its dawn had penetrated my perceptions long since”, explaining that she “first recognised him on that occasion, not several chapters back, when my unguardedly-fixed attention had drawn on me the mortification of an implied rebuke”. Although the retiring Lucy thinks it unremarkable that Dr John fails to recognise her in return, the reader may be somewhat more surprised given she is seemingly “still less changed than he”.

Yet it is not only Lucy’s almost obsessive, voyeuristic gaze that demonstrates his shortsightedness. For the motif of recognition/non-recognition is enacted once again after he saves Miss de Bassompierre when she is almost crushed by the crowd at the theatre. As he tends to her, she observes him closely. In a scene in which the gaze is triangulated and refracted, Lucy explains how “I saw her large eyes settle on his face like the solemn eyes of some pretty, wondering child. I know not whether Graham felt this examination”. Our narrator also characterises her look as a “serious, direct gaze” [emphases added]. That Dr John is subjected to such scrutiny at the very moment when he is supposed to be exercising his professional powers makes this reversal or inversion of the ‘gaze’ all the more striking: it is his female patient who examines him, rather than he who really sees her.

As it is revealed in the next chapter, Paulina de Bassompierre is the curious “little Polly” from the early chapters of the novel, the seven-year-old girl taken in by Mrs Bretton and cared for by Lucy and Graham. Although she admits she was “puzzled” by her first encounter with the grown-up Dr John, unable to quite put a face to a name, it is clear she had already begun to feel the stirrings of recognition. As she tells Lucy, this feeling of familiarity grew over time. Paulina, like Lucy, proves to be a far more perspicacious observer than Dr John, the man who makes his living from observing and recognising signs and symptoms, yet fails to recognise his own family friends.

Although Paulina finds herself falling for Dr John, Lucy’s perspicacity has the opposite effect. As Torgerson argues, Bronte depicts her heroine “seeing his limitations” [emphasis added]. When reading Villette I felt that the reader’s growing awareness of Dr John’s flaws and shortcomings were intended to make us more accepting of Lucy’s second love, the difficult M. Paul Emmanuel. Certainly, Dr John’s romantic heroism seems to be undercut by his repeated attraction to childlike women. Although he shifts his attentions from the spoilt Ginevra Fanshawe to the more likeable, virtuous Paulina, he remains firmly susceptible to conventional feminine charms rather than the psychologically more complex Lucy. This seems to suggest his superficiality. Furthermore, readers (modern, at least) might feel some discomfort that the women he falls for are a schoolgirl, and his former “playmate” whom he first encountered as a seven-year-old girl when he was sixteen.

Despite Dr John’s comparative maturity, Brontë seems to trace the ways in which Paulina’s love helps him to flourish and grow as a man. He is described as falling “under [her] dominion […] without loss and even with gain to his manly honour”. As Lucy later assures Paulina’s protective father, Graham “feels her finest qualities, and they influence him worthily”. Arguably, the reader concludes him ill-suited for Lucy, who needs someone who can help her to develop in her own right. The irascible M. Paul might not be the most attractive of romantic heroes but he coaxes her out of herself, as is evidenced early on when he persuades her to perform in the theatricals.

However, it would be simplistic to present Dr John as a wholly flawed character. While Lucy recognises that “the sympathetic faculty was not prominent in him”, she also insists that he is “a kind, generous man”. Indeed, his success as a doctor is clearly associated with his gentleness and benevolence. Brontë herself appeared to idolise him. In correspondence to her publisher, she noted, “he is far too youthful, handsome, bright spirited and sweet tempered; he is a ‘curled darling’ of Nature and of Fortune, and must draw a prize in life’s lottery. His wife must be young, rich and pretty; he must be made very happy indeed”. In Brontë’s conception of fate, Dr John must see none of the turmoil and frustrated hopes that befall Lucy and her later love, M. Emmanuel. As evidenced through her letters, Brontë was fundamentally uncertain about the prospect of Lucy and Paul enjoying a happier fate.

The slippery, ungraspable, happy ending that eludes them epitomises a novel which seems fragmented and unstable. The fractured quality of Villette has been noted by several critics. Shuttleworth characterises Lucy as “a figure whose psychological stability is permanently in question”, while Dolin emphasises how the novel “appears to lack unity and coherence”. Brontë toys with the fragmented nature of her narrative: she asks her readers to assimilate (with varying degrees of success) Graham Bretton with Dr John and Polly with Paulina, and then invites them to take an even greater imaginative leap and reconcile M. Paul with their ideas of a romantic hero. They struggle to make sense of a fractured narrative, underpinned by feverish episodes, from the sightings of the nun, to Lucy’s collapse and her disorientating drug-induced midnight wander.

Dr John seems suspended in a liminal world between this disunity and unity. Is his straightforward, materialist diagnosis reassuring and consoling, or does it threaten to coup and constrain the patient’s sense of self? Is he an idealised romantic hero, or superficial and self-serving? Brontë seems undecided. Although certain he required a happy ending, his final appearance at the carnival is ominous and unnerving. Indeed, he ultimately seems as fractured in his character as the narrative is in itself.

Image taken from National Portrait Gallery website and reproduced under Creative Commons.


Brontë, Charlotte, Villette, with an introduction by Tim Dolin (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Gaskell, Elizabeth, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (London: Smith, Elder, 1870)

Shuttleworth, Sally, “Villette: ‘The Surveillance of a Sleepless Eye’ ”, in The Brontës, ed. by Patricia Ingham (Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2014 repr.)

Torgerson, Beth, Reading the Brontë Body: Disease, Desire, and the Constraints of Culture (New York and Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)

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