REVIEW: Villette by Charlotte Bronte
I 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
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-.
I really think this book changed my life. I read it for the first time in graduate school, when I was reading so much Victorian fiction it was more like I was swallowing it than experiencing it. Then I read Villette, and I had such a profoundly emotional response to it that I literally couldn’t read anything else for a week. I still feel my chest clench whenever I think about it. There are only a few books that left me feeling like I was somehow a different person on the other side of them. Little Women is one. GGK’s Tigana is one. Endo’s Silence is one. And Villette is one.
Nothing will ever match Jane Eyre in my heart (or my mind), but even that book didn’t rock me like Villette did.
I really think there’s something theological going on with the ending, but I’ve never read an interpretation of it that rings true to me and I’ve never been able to articulate a convincing argument about it myself.
The Professor is a bit Vilette-lite, so you may regret not having read it first. The anti-Catholic sentiment is very strong in it as well. I’m fond of it, though, it’s sweet.
The ending of Vilette was a compromise, from what I’ve read. Bronte herself felt sure that a certain Very Bad thing happened. However, either her publishers didn’t want that ending or she talked herself out of it, I no longer remember which, so it was made more ambiguous.
Villette is my favorite Bronte after Jane Eyre (but I haven’t read all of them, perhaps four or five so far). BTW — I believe the name is Ginevra (not Ginerva).
@Noelle: It’s interesting that you had such a powerful response to it. I think it’s one of those books that can sneak up on you – quiet, but with hidden depth. Kind of like Lucy herself.
@Willaful: The thing is, it’s not really *that* ambiguous; she just doesn’t come out and say it. Maybe that’s why it felt wrong to me, though in retrospect I think it adds a wistful tone to the book.
@autonomous: Wow, you’re right! Sorry about that – I think “Ginerva” made more sense to me, so my eye must have just “corrected” it each time I read it. I really thought that was her name!
A few years ago I did this – all the Brontes although with the exception of Wuthering Heights. I couldn’t do it, because I read that book at 19 and it was the first time I ever finished a book and started reading it right through from page one. I have this awful feeling that it could never move me as much, so many years later, as it did then.
My rankings are, after #1, different to yours, but I hope that you love Shirley. For me, it’s such a strong book about women. There is a wonderfully bittersweet scene where a group of women discuss how women cannot declare their love before the man does, that they cannot be in love, until they are loved first. In fact, they must be unconscious that there is even a possibility of love until the man says that it is so.
I also love their/her Angria novellas and shorts. If you aren’t Bronte’d out after Shirley and The Professor, I’d suggest giving them a try.