Villette begins with its famously passive and secretive protagonist, Lucy Snowe, age 10, observing her godmother, Mrs. Bretton, her son, Graham Bretton, and a young visitor, Paulina Home de Bassompierre. The child Paulina is devoted to the older Graham, who showers her with attention but fails to notice her in a romantic sense as she is only six years old. An unspecified family tragedy soon forces Lucy into action, however, and age 23 she boards a ship for “Labassecour” (apparently based on Belgium) despite not speaking a word of French. After arriving in the capital city of Villette, Lucy finds work as a teacher at Mme. Beck’s boarding school for girls (which can be seen as a literary representation of Hegers’ Brussels pensionnat), and thrives despite Mme. Beck’s constant surveillance of the students and staff.
Dr John, a handsome English doctor, frequently visits the school because of his love for the heartless coquette Ginevra. In one of Villette’s infamous plot twists, Dr John is later revealed to be Graham Bretton, a fact that Lucy has known but deliberately concealed from the reader. After Dr. John discovers Ginevra’s unworthiness, his attentions briefly turn to Lucy, who has fallen in love with him despite her usual emotional reserve. When Dr. John rescues Paulina from a burning theatre by chance, however, the two fall in love with each other and eventually marry, leaving Lucy heartbroken.
At the same time, Lucy has the first of several encounters with a shadowy nun in the attic who may be the ghost of a nun buried alive on the grounds for breaking her vows of chastity; in a highly symbolic scene, she finally finds the nun’s habit in her bed and destroys it. She later discovers it to be the disguise of Ginevra’s amour, de Hamal.
Lucy finds herself becoming closer to a colleague, the autocratic, fiery schoolmaster M. Paul Emanuel; the two eventually fall in love.
However, a group of conspiring antagonists, including Mme. Beck, the priest Père Silas, and the relatives of M. Paul’s long-dead fiancée, struggle to keep the two apart, and finally succeed in forcing M. Paul’s departure for the West Indies to oversee his plantation there. He nonetheless declares his love for Lucy before his departure, and arranges for her to live independently as the headmistress of her own day school or externat, which she later expands into a pensionnat.
Villette’s final pages are ambiguous; though Lucy says that she wants to leave the reader free to imagine a happy ending, she hints strongly that M. Paul’s ship was destroyed by a storm on his return from the West Indies, killing him. She claims, for example, that “the three happiest years of [her] life” were those before M. Paul’s return journey, which would suggest that he did indeed fall victim to the “destroying angel of tempest”. Brontë described the ambiguity in the ending as a “little puzzle”.
In many ways Villette is an improved rewriting of The Professor , which has similar themes and drew from the same experiences.