Crossing the Channel for the first time, Lucy Snowe, the autobiographical voice of Charlotte Brontë’s 1853 Villette, beholds a vision:
In my reverie, methought I saw the continent of Europe, like a wide dreamland, far away. Sunshine lay on it, making the long coast one line of gold; tiniest tracery of clustered town and snow-gleaming tower, of woods deep-massed, of heights serrated, of smooth pasturage and veiny stream, embossed the metal-bright prospect. For background, spread a sky, solemn and dark-blue, and – grand with imperial promise, soft with tints of enchantment – strode from north to south a God-bent bow, an arch of hope.
Brontë’s description of Europe imagined, or seen, for the first time by a rootless, adventuresome British woman has often been taken as emblematic of the Victorian experience of the Continent: a quasi-Gothic, quasi-Romantic land offering pleasures both gemütlich and ‘imperial’, pleasures that promise a release from British social strictures. It accords well with our experience of a large number of Victorian writers, from the Brownings to George Meredith, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde, to name only a few, for whom ‘Europe’ represented both inspiration and refuge, whether that Europe be Bohemian Paris or the Italy of the Risorgimento. The passage does not end on such a rainbow-tinged note, however. Characteristically, Lucy Snowe retracts: ‘Cancel the whole of that, if you please, reader – or rather let it stand, and draw thence a moral – an alliterative, text-hand copy – “Day-dreams are delusions of the demon.”