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Monday, March 22, 2010

"Villette" by Charlotte Bronte

Villette by Charlotte Bronte (1853, 656 pages-Vintage Press)

Villette is the story of Lucy Snow who we first meet at age 14 living in the house of her god mother, Mrs Bretton in rural England.   Villette is about what happens to her in the next nine years.   I tried to check Amazon.com sales ratings on Jane Eyre sales versus Villette without luck but my guess is for every twenty people that reads Jane Eyre, one reads Villette.  (Virginia Wolff considered Villette to be Charlotte's master work.)   If I were to guess why I would say it is  because Villette does not have the powerful romance between the central female character and a man with many layers to his character as we do find in Jane Eyre.   I read some goodreads.com posts on then novel after completing it and some did complain that Villette is annoying in its use French in some of the conversations (translation in footnotes or brackets would be nice!) and some found the vocabulary too difficult.    I just told myself  Tolstoy does the same thing in War and Peace and did not worry overly much about the conversations in French.

I think the quality of  much of the writing in Villette is a good bit higher than in Jane Eyre and that is saying a very lot.   Villette is narrated by Lucy and she is an unreliable narrator both by her own intentions as well as by the limits of her perceptions and self knowledge.   The story is told self consciously as a written story to the reader down to the "dear reader" remarks and Lucy purposely misleads the reader at times as she is embarrassed or reticent to reveals some of her thoughts as she feels they maybe viewed as indecorous.

Lucy has to leave England at a relatively young age because of an unexplained by her family tragedy.   She takes ship to France and ends up in Villette.   Villette is said to be based on  a city in Belgium.   Speaking no French Lucy gets a job at boarding school for girls from well off families run by Mrs Beck.    I have to say the sections of Villette in Volume One set in Mrs Becks school were just a pure delight to read.   Those portions of Villette are for sure better done than anything in Jane Eyre.    The school sequences in Villette are to me as least as convincing as the schools in any Dickens novel.    The character of Mrs Beck is perfectly done.   We see deeply into her through the perceptions of a 20 year old woman looking at woman at least twice as old with much more experience of the world.   Lucy starts out working for Mrs Beck as the companion for Mrs Beck young children and later as she learns French is promoted to instructor in the school.   Most of the students are from wealthy families and  Charlotte Bronte has done a great job making  the pupils come to life for us.   Some of the students we really like and some are spoiled brats of the worst order!    

I loved the chapter of  Villette devoted to Lucy's first day in the class room.    The students sense she is very nervous and unsure of herself.    Some try to be nice but many enjoy the idea of rattling the new teacher (who they know to be of a social class quite below that of  themselves).    One of the girls seems to be near psychotic and begins to stand up and yell and scream at Lucy challenging her in every way.    I laughed out loud when I saw how Lucy handled her ( I do not want to say what happened as it is just so much fun).   Lucy grows about a foot taller that day!  


Life goes on in the school and we get to know some of the other teachers, maids, cooks, a local doctor and even some of the parents of the children.   One of the fathers of a student sees what a good teacher and person Lucy is after his daughter tells him all about her that he offers her three times her current salary to become the private tutor of his daughter at his grand estate.   The power of the ethics and depth of personality of Lucy come through when she explains why she feels she must remain at the school.    

As Volume Two (there are three volumes) of the book opens we enter a new phase of Lucy's life.   The plot does begin to take some perhaps convoluted turns.    A Gothic element is introduced in the form of a mysterious nun who may be either an apparition or the result of a minor break down on the part of Lucy.   The suggestion is that the nun may be either a real ghost returned from the grave or a projection of the repressed sexuality awaking in the psyche  of Lucy.    Lucy has two romantic interests though it takes her a long time to figure things out and it seems to me she may have made the wrong choose and not know it (yet-she is only 23 when the novel ends).    I do not want to reveal to much of the plot and the love stories as it is fun to see them develop.    I do think Bronte has increased  the depth of her portrayals of characters since her first novel, Jane Eyre, especially of the female characters.    In terms of male characters, the characters of Lucy's loves are sketched in a very subtle fashion.   One of the powers of the use of  Lucy as unreliable narrator is it forces the reader to see others through her perceptions and work from there to the reality of others in the novel.   The characterization of the men in Villette seems more subtle than that in Jane Eyre but many will long for a powerful male lead and not find it here.   Jane Eyre is more an action packed novel than Villette.    An awful lot of Villette is taken up with very exacting observations on small events around the school.    To me these portions of Villette were a pure joy to read and flawless in every way.    Lucy Snow is a good English Protestant and she is not comfortable in the Catholic atmosphere of the school and France.   I do not, others disagree, see this as anti-Catholic rhetoric, it is just the perceptions of a woman with really very little experience of the world who sees Catholics as exotic near pagans!.    Her prejudice to me comes across as more amusing and I sense no hate in her attitude and I can see her out growing it.  

I am sure that portions of Villette are truly great.     As  to the question is it better than Jane Eyre, I really think any one seriously interested in the Brontes, the Victorian Novel, women writers or just a lover of quality novels owes to themselves to  read all seven of the Bronte novels, at the most around 3000 pages. 
I think I need to reflect a bit more about the device of the mysterious nun in Villette.   Sometimes the nun seemed like a contrived plot element to add excitement to the book (Gothic novels very big at the time) and I am not sure I totally liked as a plot device what the nun in fact turned out to be.  I have three more Bronte novels to go in my personal challenge to read all of novels in 2010.    I will next plunge into what many say is the deepest part of the Bronte Ocean, Wuthering Heights

Villette is about loneliness, longing to belong, about a young woman growing up alone and making her own way in the world and a novel of growth.   We can see all  this as Lucy's perception of things deepen.   I think this is part of the power of the narrative mode of the novel.
There is a very perceptive review of the Villette at English Major's Junk Food

I also recommend highly Judy's comments on Villete at Cover to Cover

Amateur Reader of Wuthering Expectations  has some very insightful remarks on Villette

I am reading this novel for these challenges:

Chunksters (now completed)
Typically British
Mutual Reads (Victorian Era novels)
All About the Brontes Challenge (6 of 6 for second level)
The Gothic Novel Challenge.


I would like to hear from other Villette readers as to their feeling about the Gothic elements of the novel.   My Thanks to Laura for hosting The All About the Brontes Challenge for hosting this challenge.   I am enjoying all the great reviews that it is producing.  

8 comments:

Bethany said...

Jane Eyre was a book that I read as a 14 year old girl - it has that charm to it and, as you say, the romance to keep it interesting for a young girl. So perhaps that is the appeal. Villette I have always considered but never gotten round to - I'm very interested now! Thanks for the review! I love Victorian literature.

And Wuthering Heights is an absolutely beautiful read! If you haven't read it before, I'm very sure you will enjoy it!

Rebecca Reid said...

I really like the romance in Jane Eyre but knowing this isn't about that is good. I still hope to read it some day. Thanks for this post!

claire said...

I'll probably reading Villette this year as I've already a copy. Loved all others I've read so far. It's hard to disappoint me when it comes to the Brontës. :)

Emily said...

Great Review! Charlotte's first novel was The Professor, although I don't believe it was published until after her death. Jane Eyre came second. I read this one a couple of summers ago and don't remember liking it quite as much as Jane Eyre.

Jeannie @ Pine Cottage Books said...

I love your review! This book is on my winter reading list and I just haven't gotten around to reading it yet. I'm thinking it would be a good idea to get to it sooner rather than later, thanks to your review!

Christy (A Good Stopping Point) said...

Great review - I knew of Villette, but hadn't felt compelled to read it. It's on my goodreads to-read list now. :)

Monica said...

Great review!!! Thanks for joining my challenge, I look forward to more great reviews!

Ash said...

I like your description of Jane Eyre as more action packed than Villette. Thanks for linking to my review!