Lucy Snowe, flees England and a tragic past to become an instructor in a French boarding school in the town of Villette. There she unexpectedly confronts her feelings of love and longing as she witnesses the fitful romance between Dr. John, a handsome young Englishman, and Ginerva Fanshawe, a beautiful coquette. This first pain brings others, and with them comes the heartache Lucy has tried so long to escape. Yet in spite of adversity and disappointment, Lucy Snowe survives to recount the unstinting vision of a turbulent life’s journey — a journey that is one of the most insightful fictional studies of a woman’s consciousness in English literature.
I love Jane Eyre. It is without a doubt one of my favourite books (competing with all of Jane Austen for the title of absolute top book). However I had never read any of Charlotte Bronte’s other books. So to kick of my Women’s Classic Literature challenge (hosted by The Classic’s Club) I decided it was time to delve into some of her other work. Villette caught my eye with a quote on the back of my edition by George Eliot (whom I also love).
“Villette! Villette! Have you read it?” exclaimed George Eliot when Charlotte Brontë’s final novel appeared in 1853. “It is a still more wonderful book than Jane Eyre. There is something almost preternatural in its power.”
I’m going to be upfront on this. I did not enjoy it more than Jane Eyre. I enjoyed it but I did not love it the way I love Jane Eyre. I had issues with the writing which at times found my attention waning and my eyes skimming over sections. Part of this was due to the large amount of french. I don’t speak french. What french I once knew is long forgotten (along with German, Irish and all mathematical theorem). This poses a bit of an issue when reading a cheap un-annotated edition of a book set in french speaking Belgium by an author who is fond of throwing french into her books. It is one of those hazards of reading classics. There are certain things which would have been assumed for contemporary readers, like a knowledge of the Bible, Classics and french, but pose a problem for modern readers.
French aside I enjoyed it. The plot overall held my attention and managed to surprise me. Like all genres, if you read a lot of classics it can often become easy to see where the plot is going. Most end in marriage and it is often not difficult to pick out who will marry who. However I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. On reflection perhaps I shouldn’t have been, but to my mind there were few indications if the first half of the novel of how things would play out. To my mind up until the just after the half way mark I was sure the plot would go in a different direction.
Is it similar to Jane Eyre? Undoubtedly. There are topics, themes and tropes to which Charlotte Bronte can not but seem to help but to return and which provide clear evidence of the degree to which she drew on her own life. Villette in particular is believed to be extremely autobiographical. Charlotte Bronte both attended and worked in a Belgium boarding school where she developed a relationship with the Professor of the school (the extent of this relationship is unknown. His family claimed it was entirely one sided on Bronte’s part). Back to the similarities with Jane Eyre; we have a friendless poor girl who must work as a governess or teacher to earn her living, both will discover long lost friends, both are somewhat down trodden, both cling firmly to their faith.
On the issue of religion, Villette is rather more forceful. Bronte is scathing of Catholicism, and many a battle is pitched over the religion of Lucy and the other characters. Nowadays many of it would be termed borderline sectarian. However it is very much of it’s time and no doubt to be expected of the daughter and later wife of clergymen. On the other hand the comments on the “foreignness” of many of the characters is rather sedate for the period. Victorian novels could often be very scathing and what we would now term racist about those who were not English. I find when reading classics, it is advisable not to be too sensitive to these matters however. They are the views of their time, nothing more.
It is a more sedate novel than Jane Eyre, more in the mold of her younger sister Anne. There is still a heavy dose of the Gothic and superstition to which both Charlotte and Emily seemed to be drawn. But it is also calmer and less passionate than either Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. There is no passionate avowal of love. No;
“Do you think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. – Jane Eyre”
“Oh! you said you cared nothing for my sufferings! And I pray one prayer—I repeat it till my tongue stiffens—Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; you said I killed you—haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul! – Wuthering Heights”
There is something of a demonstration towards the end but nothing which touches those passionate declarations.
It is undoubtedly an excellent book, and from what I have been lead to believe certainly far surpasses Charlotte’s other works (Shirley and The Professor). While I would recommend this novel to fans of Charlotte, or indeed any of the Bronte’s, I would not recommend it as a introduction to their work. Definitely more one for those who already love the Bronte’s.