The usage of dashes to obscure personal/place names and dates in Victorian literature has been widely noted, but I don't feel that the reasons that are usually given help me understand this case. I'm curious what people make of a specific redaction in Chapter 36 of Villette, particularly because there's an initial substitution as well.

A fly-leaf bore in small, but clear and well-known pencil characters: 'From P. C. D. E. to L—y.'

Is it that

  1. Paul Emanuel wrote L—y rather than 'Lucy' (as abbreviation or more deliberate redaction)? Did people abbreviate names like this at the time (I know of the Biblical name abbreviations)?
  2. Lucy's name (and maybe M. Emanuel's) is being anonymised as a stylistic choice (Villette is narrated by an old Lucy Snowe reflecting on her youth, and it might be that she, out of modesty or tact, elides her own name when quoting the message?)
  3. It's just being done because it's quoting a written context, and it adds verisimilitude, etc.

I don't know if case 1 is a conceivable thing someone might do, even with poetic license - my impression it was more commonly a literary device (e.g. Austen omitting real names and places; dates being obscured). Is it possible that M. Emanuel would have avoided writing Lucy's given name? I've never encountered this usage before, but it seems possible to me he might use this substitution alongside his own initials. Maybe it's an abbreviation or represents missing letters in his own hand? I'd run with this explanation, but I don't actually know if it's a reasonable expectation wrt. historical context.

As for case 2, it strikes me as really strange, even for Lucy, because she gives full names of people when it's relevant, and it's not some withheld fact that Lucy Snowe is Lucy Snowe (even if Lucy Snowe were meant to be a pen name on the part of the narrator, why redact it here and only here?). But this is a sensitive context (the document trying to persuade her to convert to Catholicism), so maybe it's different?

As for case 3, a letter from Ginevra Fanshawe is reproduced later on in the book, replete with uncensored names.

Why it matters - well, I don't know if M. Emanuel or Lucy did it, and it seems to me the reasons would be different either way.

  • 1
    Interesting question! You may be interested in this earlier Q&A - it's related but doesn't answer your specific query here.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 11:03

1 Answer 1


As you note in the question, it makes no sense for “L—y” to represent an editorial redaction, because Lucy’s name appears hundreds of times elsewhere in the novel. So the only interpretation that makes sense to me is that Paul wrote the name like this on the fly-leaf of the book.

Can we imagine a reason for him to write “L—y” rather than “Lucy”? I think we can. The context is that at the end of chapter XXXV Lucy and Paul declared their love for each other, or came as close to declaring it as their characters and situation allowed. But at the beginning of chapter XXXVI, Lucy found Paul reserved and distant (“I expected a smile, if not a word; I got neither: to my portion fell one nod—hurried, shy”). She “swallowed whatever other feelings began to surge” and waited for their private lesson in the hope of getting an explanation. But when the day came, Paul snubbed her completely: he spent the time allocated for their lesson watering the garden and petting a spaniel. After this humiliation, Lucy finds in her desk “something new, this pamphlet in lilac”. It is a tract by Père Silas (a priest, and Paul’s tutor and mentor) which sets out to persuade the reader to convert to Catholicism.

A mortal bewilderment cleared suddenly from my head and vision; the solution of the Sphinx-riddle was won; the conjunction of those two names, Père Silas and Paul Emanuel, gave the key to all. The penitent had been with his director; permitted to withhold nothing; suffered to keep no corner of his heart sacred to God and to himself; the whole narrative of our late interview had been drawn from him; he had avowed the covenant of fraternity, and spoken of his adopted sister. How could such a covenant, such adoption, be sanctioned by the Church? Fraternal communion with a heretic! I seemed to hear Père Silas annulling the unholy pact; warning his penitent of its perils; entreating, enjoining reserve, nay, by the authority of his office, and in the name, and by the memory of all M. Emanuel held most dear and sacred, commanding the enforcement of that new system whose frost had pierced to the marrow of my bones.

Paul has been told by his priest that he must not marry Lucy unless she converts to Catholicism. This places him in a bind: he accepts the authority of his religion, but he feels that telling Lucy to deny her own conscience would be contemptible. Thus, out of shame, he avoids her, until finally he comes up with the idea of planting the tract in her desk.

So the reason that Paul writes “From P.C.D.E. to L—y” and not “From Paul to Lucy” is that he is ashamed of his behaviour, and the elision of their names is a kind of psychological defence or semi-denial of what he is doing.

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    Thank you so much for looking at this! It means a lot to me to get some additional insight on this; Villette is a book where much is encoded in this manner. I agree that the most compelling explanation is Paul redacted it himself, and your interpretation of why makes a lot of sense, given the distance placed between them psychologically, socially, spatially. Thinking on it, I've abbreviated addresses similarly (e.g. 'L.') when overcome by shyness or out of modesty in letters and in diaries, so it's not a strange premise at all. Great answer! :)
    – Alice
    Commented May 14, 2021 at 23:38

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