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REVIEW:  Villette by Charlotte Bronte

REVIEW: Villette by Charlotte Bronte

villetteI have been slowly making my way through the Bronte sisters’ oeuvre, having read Jane Eyre twice (in high school and college) and then tackling the frankly batshit Wuthering Heights a few years ago. Since then, I’ve read Anne’s two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and now have returned to Charlotte with Villette.

The opening few chapters of Villette were a little confusing to me, because our narrator, Lucy Snowe, barely speaks about herself or her thoughts and instead focuses entirely on the family she’s staying with and the other young visitor that comes shortly after she arrives. It’s almost like she’s an omniscient narrator; the effect is odd.

Lucy is staying with her godmother Mrs. Bretton and Mrs. Bretton’s son Graham. Lucy seems to be an adolescent (Wikipedia says she’s 14), but since she never talks about herself it’s hard to be sure. Graham is maybe 18 or so? Again, I’m not sure; if his age was pinpointed, I missed it. Polly is a young child (maybe 5 or 6?) who is brought to stay with Mrs. Bretton by her father, and at first, in her passionate devotion to her father, is distraught to be left there. (Why Mrs. Bretton’s home serves as a way station for homeless children, I’m not sure; I think it’s just a 19th century English thing.) Polly soon develops a strong attachment to Graham, who treats her devotion with a sort of careless affection.

Polly is a precocious, willful child and Lucy tries to help her deal with her fluctuating emotions: grief when her father leaves and then again when he returns and she’s parted from Graham. Again, it’s hard to know what Lucy is even thinking during this time; her focus is so entirely on the characters around her rather than her own thoughts or actions.

So it’s a bit strange when the action switches and Lucy becomes a more active participant in her story. For unspecified reasons she has to leave Mrs. Bretton’s (it was never clear to me where Lucy’s family was but it seemed they were all dead). She is hired as a companion to an older woman, Miss Marchmont, and passes the rest of her youth there, in quiet but fairly contented fashion.

Alas, Miss Marchmont dies, leaving Lucy again without employment. In an uncharacteristically impulsive move, she leaves England altogether and travels to Labassecour, a fictional country based on Belgium. On the ship over, she meets the spoiled and vain Ginerva Fanshawe, who later turns out to be a pupil at the school in the town of Villette where Lucy finds employment. She is first employed as a nanny to the children of Mme. Beck, the school’s proprietress. Later she is elevated to the position of English teacher at the school.

The rest of Villette takes place here, and eventually the connection to the opening chapters with the Brettons and Polly is revealed.

The characters are what make Villette, in my opinion. There is Mme. Beck, who is controlling and possessive (she frequently rifles through her employees’ possessions, searching for dirt on them), but never entirely a villain, even when her actions are somewhat villainous. Dr. John is an English physician who visits the school to treat Mme. Beck’s children and the boarders, and falls into a shallow love with the flighty, capricious Ginverva. He draws Lucy’s interest for reasons that weren’t entirely clear; I was never sure if she were really romantically drawn to him or interested in him for another reason (one that is a spoiler and only becomes clear later in the book).

Ginerva herself is a familiar but entertaining character. She’s a staple of 19th century English literature – the beautiful coquette who is appallingly self-centered and heedless in her treatment of others. Such characters never quite ring true to me – they are so over the top in their callousness and ego. But they can be amusing nonetheless, and Ginerva amused me (and Lucy, I think, to some degree). We also come to know and slowly appreciate the severe professor, M. Paul Emanuel, first an antagonist and later a friend to Lucy.

Lucy herself is an interesting but also a frustrating character. So self-contained in the early pages of the novel that in her narration she is sometimes referred to in the third person, she opens up somewhat after arriving in Villette. She reveals a character that I think of as very Bronte-ish – sensible and plain-spoken, with an unbreakable core of strength and moral rectitude.

Still, it isn’t until the middle of the novel that some of Lucy’s hidden depths and innermost thoughts are revealed. One summer she driven almost mad by loneliness; the school is closed for summer break and Lucy has no one to talk to except, occasionally, the porter and a mentally handicapped child left to languish there. Lucy takes long walks to try to stem her restlessness; one day she ventures far out into the country and comes upon a Catholic church. Desperate for someone to talk to, she tries to unburden her mind upon the priest there, but he tells her to come back the next day. She resolves not to, wary of being taken in by his wily Popish ways. On the way back she is caught in a storm and finds refuge in a house that happens to belong to old friends.

After this, Lucy’s life opens up somewhat as she renews relationships and begins to come out of her shell. But there are those who have reason for wanting Lucy to maintain her current station, and some (pretty obvious) machinations attempted to accomplish that.

There is a fairly benign strain of anti-Continental prejudice in Villette – the French and other Europeans are portrayed as too sensual, lazy and overly emotional, in contrast to the sober and abstemious English. This seems to be the norm for 19th century novels that I’ve read, and I couldn’t take it too seriously. Less benign is the anti-Catholicism, which has been the subject of some criticism since Villette was published. Again, I placed it in the context of where and when the novel was written, but the “Protestants rule, Catholics drool” theme may offend some. Bronte doesn’t quite accuse Catholics of eating babies, but her view of them is fairly harsh. On the other hand, Lucy does not ultimately let that view interfere with her friendship with Professor Emanuel, even when he advocates for his religion over hers.

If I had to rank the Bronte novels, I’d probably do so thusly:

1) Jane Eyre
2) Villette
3) The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
4) Wuthering Heights
5) Agnes Grey

I still have The Professor and Shirley left to read. Jane Eyre has to be first because it’s so iconic and Jane is such a wonderful heroine. I would say Villette and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are pretty much neck and neck, though they are very different stories (they do contain some similar themes, though, having to do with female independence). In some ways Villette is more enjoyable, because TToWH is such a serious book, but neither is a light read. Wuthering Heights could really go anywhere on the list because it such a crazy book; I kind of loved it and hated it all at once. Agnes Grey, compared to the other works I’ve read, is a bit pallid, and I still haven’t quite gotten over what a goody-two-shoes Agnes was.

One note on the ending to Villette: it’s ambiguous, leaning towards unhappy. I don’t think I have a really strong prejudice towards unhappy endings if they fit (and after all, Villette is not a romance, where an HEA is more or less promised). But this ending seemed unnecessary and not quite right. It didn’t mar the book for me, but I kind of wish it had ended differently.

My grade for Villette is an A-.

Best regards,

Jennie

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REVIEW:  Sweet Disorder by Rose Lerner

REVIEW: Sweet Disorder by Rose Lerner

Dear Ms. Lerner,

Your third historical romance, book one in your Lively St. Lemeston series, begins in October of 1812, with a knock on Phoebe Sparks’ door. Phoebe, an author of Improving Tales for Young People, is contemplating what fate to inflict on the protagonist of her current story, who gives birth to an out of wedlock child in a ditch, when the knock interrupts her.
Sweet-Disorder1
At her door is Mr. Gilchrist, a Tory election agent. Mr. Gilchrist has come to call on Phoebe at her home in Lively St. Lemeston because the Tories and Whigs are battling for every vote in the Lively St. Lemeston district. As a woman, Phoebe cannot vote. But she can have some impact on the outcome of the close election because as the eldest daughter of a deceased freeman—a man whose “freedom of the city” entitled him to vote—she can, according to the Lively St. Lemeston charter, bestow her father’s freeman status on her husband.

Phoebe is a widow. Her husband, a newspaper editor and printer, was a Whig. But Will died two years earlier and Mr. Gilchrist is sure he can persuade Phoebe to marry again. When he insists he knows her taste in men, Phoebe all but shoves him out the door. After a bad marriage and a heartbreaking miscarriage, she has no interest in remarrying, especially not for the sake of an election, and even if she were, her sentiments are on the side of the Whigs and not the Tories.

Meanwhile in London Nick Dymond, the middle son of an earl, is in bed when his mother, Lady Tassell, descends on him and demands that he too involve himself in the matter of Phoebe’s marital status. Nick’s younger brother Tony, a Whig, is running for the same seat Gilchrist wants for the Tories, and since Lady Tassell is campaigning on behalf his older brother’s Stephen’s behalf – yes, this is a political family – she expects Nick to help Tony win the Lively St. Lemeston district seat for the Whigs.

As it happens, Nick is the only member of his family who doesn’t give two flying figs for politics. He hates that the good of the party has been put ahead of the good of family members, and that his mother is always sure she knows what’s best for him.

But even more than that, Nick hates that his mother winces when she looks at him. Nick served as an officer in Wellington’s army and took a bullet in the leg at the battle of Badajoz. His leg was broken and healed weak and now Nick walks with a limp. And he can’t stand the way people – family members especially—have looked at him ever since.

So Nick makes a bet with his mother. He will get Phoebe to marry the Whig baker whom Lady Tassell has picked out for her, and if he is successful, Lady Tassell will never wince when she looks at him again. After an all-too-brief moment of empathy with her son, Lady Tassell agrees.

Of course, Phoebe still has no interest in marrying, but when Nick offers to help her with the laundry, she takes him up on his offer. An attraction develops as Nick continues his campaign for the vote to which Phoebe holds the key, but it’s not as though it would be appropriate for Nick and Phoebe to marry, or even indulge in an affair, when their stations in life are different and he is trying to get her to marry someone else.

To Phoebe her decision to meet Nick again is nothing more than a reason to leave the house after years of staying cooped up inside. And then—disaster. Phoebe’s sixteen year old sister Helen is cast out of her home by their mother. Helen is pregnant, but the father of her child refuses to marry her.

To save Helen’s good name and spare her suffering, Phoebe would do anything. Even marry a man she doesn’t love and has little hope of loving. Even struggle to suppress her growing attraction to Nick.

Since her miscarriage and the death of her husband, Phoebe has felt dead inside, but as she opens up to Nick about the conundrum she faces, something inside her begins to stir.

Nick too begins to come out of his depression and sense of loss at being unable to fight alongside his men. He sees that Phoebe and Mr. Moon, the baker, are all wrong for each other, even though to save his bakery, Mr. Moon desperately needs the money Nick’s mother has promised him in exchange for his marriage to Phoebe and his vote.

Both Phoebe and Nick are used to putting others’ needs ahead of their own desires. With family members and the outcome of the election depending on them doing just that, will Phoebe and Nick learn to shut out the clamor and listen to – as well as follow—their hearts?

I thought of some of my favorite historical romance authors as I read this book – authors like Courtney Milan, Judith Ivory, and Cecilia Grant – because of the good writing, the realness of the characters, and their psychological depth as well.

Nick and Phoebe are richly drawn, wonderfully complex characters with messy emotions that include hopes, fears, dreams and understandable resentments. Nick for example, can’t stand that he since his injury, he has had no control over the way others see him. Phoebe couldn’t wait to escape her critical, perennially dissatisfied mother by marrying Will, but feels guilty for having left her sister alone under their mother’s thumb.

Their attraction is almost a magical thing in that it gives them a new sense of power, not just the power of being attractive to someone you desire, but the power to recognize and express your own desires.

The ideas the novel communicates are at ones simple and complex. Here for example, is an excerpt from a scene in Nick’s viewpoint in which Phoebe confides in him about her sister’s pregnancy and her consequent need to sacrifice her freedom to salvage her sister’s reputation.

She drew in a deep breath and steadied like a raw recruit given a few encouraging words and a clap on the back. “I believe in my sister.”

He was going to win his bet with his mother. He looked away. “Talk to your sister. She’s apologizing because when she looks at you, she sees her guilt that she’s forcing you into marriage. And when you look at her, you see your father’s disappointment. I don’t care whether he would have been disappointed. He would have been wrong.” He couldn’t turn his gaze back to Mrs. Sparks’s face. When he looked at her, he was supposed to see his chance to show his mother the truth of himself. He wasn’t supposed to see her.

The writing in Sweet Disorder is thoughtful and fresh, with a subtle sense of humor woven throughout. The novel takes its title from the poem “Delight in Disorder” by the 17th century poet Robert Herrick. The poem closes with these two couplets: “A careless shoe-string, in whose tie / I see a wild civility; / Do more bewitch me than when art / Is too precise in every part.”

Nick quotes these two couplets during one of the sex scenes, but they serve as more than a charming, seductive line. They also function as a metaphor for Phoebe and Nick’s relationship, and for the book itself: a bewitching, disorderly whole.

As I try to think of what the flaws in this novel might be, I can’t think of many. I don’t enjoy mental lusting in books, although here it’s written with some freshness and there’s a later payoff for it during the earthy, original and character-specific sex scenes in the novel’s last third.

Perhaps too many of the novel’s characters have critical, disapproving or manipulative parents, but this is contrasted by Phoebe’s lovely (if deceased) father, and also ties into the theme of being true to oneself and one’s own needs, rather than to the expectations and needs of others.

A final flaw I can think of is that the epilogue mentions the possibility of reconciliation with a family member I think Nick and Phoebe might be better off keeping at arm’s length.

Other than that I love this book. I love that Phoebe is an ordinary, middle class woman. I love that she is heavy. I love that Nick is not an heir, nor does he ever become the heir. I loved that his limp pains him and that he finds some workarounds for dealing with it, but it is never miraculously cured.

I loved that Nick and Phoebe bring disorder into the other’s life. They agitate, distract, and fluster each other in the best of ways. The chaos their relationship creates extends from within them to without, and to others. If Phoebe allows herself to fall for Nick, she may endanger her sister’s happiness, and that of Mr. Moon, the anxious baker whose desserts are works of art and whose shop is part of the heart of Phoebe’s town. If Nick allows himself to express his desire for Phoebe, what will happen to the election and to his relationships with his family members?

The novel immerses its readers in the life of the Lively St. Lemeston community, and I loved the minor and secondary characters too. There are more of them than I can mention here, but each person is real, and each is both ordinary and extraordinary. Even the villains, such as they are, are human and unhappy. And all the characters are tied to others, entangled in their community, knit together – if one thread is pulled, everything can unravel.

Is there room for honest desires, then? The book answers with a resounding yes. Phoebe and Nick’s muddle is resolved not through order and obedience, but through the disorder made up of their messy emotions and rebellious epiphanies.

It wasn’t his leg that kept him from feeling like a whole man, he realized. It was something far deeper, a lack within himself. He had never wanted anything with such a bone-deep conviction. Sometimes, it seemed, he could go all day without wanting anything at all.

Like the poet Robert Herrick, I am bewitched. A-.

Sincerely,

Janine

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