Lucy Snowe has nearly always had to fend for herself. Her family were not rich, and they suffer an unexplained tragedy that leaves Lucy to pursue employment. She worked as a caretaker for a cranky old woman. The old lady stiffed Lucy in the end, so Lucy fled to Villette, in the fictional country of Labassecour (based on Brussels, Belgium). She initially finds work as a nanny to Mme. Beck. Beck eventually presses her into service as an English teacher. Beck likes to spy on her employees. Lucy knows full well, but doesn't object. Her place at Mme. Beck's school is comfortable enough. She succeeds with her students and Beck can find no fault with her. Mme. Beck's cousin, M. Emmanuel, finds plenty of faults with Lucy. They spar regularly.
Constantin Héger, the probable
model for M. Emmanuel
The relationship between M. Emmanuel and Lucy is somewhat akin to the relationship between Mr Rochester and Jane in Jane Eyre. Emmanuel teases and prods and goads Lucy and she seems to enjoy it (for the most part) and provokes him to get more of his incandescent reactions. Emmanuel is harsher than Rochester, and takes the game a lot farther than the master of Thornfield does. The game is much more unsettling here, and I have to wonder what happened between Charlotte and M. Héger before she had to return to England. It's impossible not to read autobiography into the relationships in Brontë's novels.
It took me a very long time to get through Villette. Unless you're prepared to watch your main character sit on the sidelines (and suffer through an unhappy ending) and narrate the activities of the cast, you're going to get board. You're going to want to yell at Lucy to stop putting up with Mme. Beck and Ginevra's behavior. You're going to want to take Lucy aside and tell her that she's better than M. Emmanuel's emotional games. She's a singularly frustrating character. As I read Villette, I got some of the same feeling that I got reading Agnes Grey: a Brontë is working through her feelings and troubled life in fiction.