Villette

Monday, July 16, 2012


Villette
by Charlotte Bronte
★★★★☆


Lucy Snowe is an orphaned girl who finds herself taking a job as an instructor at a French boarding school in the town of Villette. Throughout the course of the novel we’re introduced to a wide selection of characters: the spoiled young Polly, handsome Dr. John, Lucy’s cruel employer Madame Beck and her nephew the cranky professor M. Paul Emanuel, the insufferable coquette Ginerva Fanshawe and more.

This novel is famous in literary circles because of the illusive heroine. Lucy keeps secret from the reader and never lets us completely into her world. There’s so much we don’t know about her and at times that can be frustrating, but I do love her acerbic nature. She’s often short or condescending; she sometimes calls people out on their bad choices in love or challenges them in other ways. Lucy is beyond interesting. I also love the fact that her job is important to her and that throughout the book the pursuit of education is valued.

Lucy’s character reminds me so much of Esther from Bleak House. I’m sure it has something to do with the fact that I read both books in the same year, but it’s not just that. Both women are quiet and reserved, never giving the reader a complete picture of who they are. Both are instrumental in getting to close friends together, both fall for someone, but assume they can’t ever be together for one reason or another. I just kept having flashbacks. I checked the dates and the books were actually published in the same year, though Dickens’ was serialized the year before. I doubt either author was aware of the other’s novel when they were writing their own.

In so many ways I can understand why Villette is considered Charlotte’s masterpiece. The characters and their relationships are much more complicated and the tone is much darker. I also think the writing is exquisite, even better than in her earlier work. Villette really was way ahead of its time. But I will also say it didn’t impact me in the same way that Jane Eyre did and I think a big part of that is my own personality.

Most of the people I know who have loved Villette more than Jane Eyre identify with Lucy in a very personal way. They are usually quieter, more introspective and reserved and that’s just not me. I’m a bit of a chatterbox and I tend to be incredibly social. I do love being at home alone and curling up with a good book, but I like being out and about with my friends just as much. So it was harder for me to connect with Lucy. It’s not that Jane Eyre is Miss Social Butterfly, but she does stand up for herself and she’s a bit of a rebel. I love her open dialogue with the reader. I felt like I knew her in a way that I never did with Lucy.

I missed the humor you find in Jane Eyre. I felt like the chemistry between Jane and Mr. Rochester was palpable and I never felt that way with Lucy and either of her love interests. I also couldn’t connect with the all-encompassing loneliness that plagued Lucy. I think it’s unfair to judge this book entirely in comparison to Jane Eyre, but I can’t help myself. I couldn’t seem to stop.

I think Villette really embodied the pain Charlotte was going through at that time. It was the last novel she completed and at that point all of her sisters had died. She was alone and heartbroken and that darkness seeped into her writing.

SPOILERS

The ending totally took me by surprise. I know some people say it’s ambiguous, but to me it was pretty clear (maybe that makes me pessimistic). I couldn’t help thinking WTF on that last page. It’s not that the writing wasn’t beautiful or fitting, but still I felt like I was punched in the stomach. I wanted Lucy to have a bit of happiness in the second half of her life and I felt like she was so close but never quite got it. Her happiest years were those anticipating the life she was never able to have with M. Paul Emanuel; that broke my heart.

SPOILERS OVER

BOTTOM LINE:
It’s a must for anyone who loves the Bronte sisters or Victorian classics. It didn’t trump Jane Eyre as my personal favorite, but it’s a more challenging book in many ways and one that I know I’ll reread in the future.

“If there are words and wrongs like knives, whose deep-inflicted lacerations never heal-cutting injuries and insults of serrated and poison-dripping edge-so, too, there are consolations of tone too fine for the ear not fondly and for ever to retain their echo; caressing kindnesses-loved, lingered over through a whole life, recalled with unfaded tenderness, and answering the call with undimmed shine, out of that raven cloud foreshadowing Death himself.”
 

I read this as part of the Victorian Celebration hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey.

Check out this great article comparing Jane Eyre and Villette
A few months ago Wallace at Unputdownables hosted a read-along of Villette. If you read it I’d recommend following her posts on each section here.

Also, Chrisbookarama’s review was a great reflection of my own thoughts.
Kristi’s wonderful review gives a wonderful perspective on Villette being better than Jane Eyre.

9 comments:

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I started this book quite a while ago and had to put it down for some reason. I remember liking it immensely and I probably got sidetracked because of a review commitment. Which thankfully, I'm not accepting review requests anymore, so that means I can read whatever I want! Especially this one, and hopefully soon!

Melissa Mc (Gerbera Daisy Diaries) said...

I've read that this should be required reading...more so than Jane Eyre. I have an old battered copy I bought at a used book store. My goal this summer was to read at least one classic, I picked another Bronte sister, Anne and Tenant of Wildfell Hall...maybe I should change my mind?!

Jillian said...

I adore this book -- I think more than Jane Eyre. I'm going to check out the links you left. So glad you liked this one!

To Melissa MC -- No! Read Tenant. It is incredible. I highly recommend it. (And Villette. Just don't leave Anne behind. She is worth the read.) :)

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Natalie - Isn't it freeing to start saying no to review requests!

Melissa Mc - Tenant of Wildfell Hall is next on my list! I've read Agnes Grey, but not that one.

Jillian - I think I wanted to love it more than I did. It's still wonderful, but Jane Eyre has a special place in my heart.

Kristi said...

Thanks for linking to my post. I'd read Jane Eyre twice before reading Villette and never really connected to it though I enjoyed the story. For some reason, I really connected with Lucy. Maybe it is as you said, I'm more like Lucy in being shy and reserved.

I don't think you're pessimistic because of how you assumed it ended. It is probably more clear than I thought and because it wasn't explicitly stated, maybe I was hoping that it didn't end that way?

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Kristi - I think that sometimes that's why we are attracted to certain books, we see bits of ourselves in the characters.

Anonymous said...

Hello, I love Villette to. Have you read anything about the Brontes? There's a very good book called "The Secret Diaries of Charlotte
Bronte" that tells all about what her books are based on (why Villette has that ending etc. And a very interesting romance in Charlotte's own life.)

adamsbibliomania said...

I am hoping to read this book soon - I loved Jane Eyre and enjoyed Wuthering Heights and it's time for another Bronte!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Anon - I actually own that book, but haven't read it yet. I'll have to pick it up soon!

adamsbibliomania - I get a Bronte craving every so often, but I'm running out of new ones to read!