It’s been a while since I’ve written a nice, simple book review – or, in fact, any kind of blog post at all – for which I apologise. Sometimes, when I set about writing blog posts, I see them as obligations, which isn’t right, and I want to get back to a time when I wrote blog posts purely for my own enjoyment. In the spirit of this, I’m going to give you a review of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, her lesser known, and generally less popular, novel.
A Bit of Context
Most people will associate the name Brontë with either Emily’s Wuthering Heights, or Charlotte’s Jane Eyre. More fervent readers may also think of Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but only a few will consider Villette. This isn’t necessarily because it isn’t any good, however; George Eliot herself noted: “I am only just returned to a sense of the real world about me, for I have been reading Villette, a still more wonderful book than Jane Eyre.” Before I plunge into the full-on glorification of this book though, I want to give you a little bit of context.
Charlotte Brontë published Villette in 1853, under her pseudonym, Currer Bell. This was six years after her release of the infamous Jane Eyre, however, and by this time it was widely known that the author who went by the name, “Currer Bell”, was, in fact, a woman. Nevertheless, Charlotte associated herself with her pseudonym and tended to use it as a way of distancing herself – and her reputation as a female writer – from her work, and so published Villette under her male persona, despite the circulating knowledge that the man named Bell did not exist.
Villette is composed as a semi-autobiographical work; just as the governess figure is considered in Jane Eyre, it is again explored by this second novel. Ten years before Villette was published, Charlotte had spent some time in Brussels, where she had worked as a foreign governess, an identity also assumed by Lucy Snowe in Villette. It is also suspected that Monsieur Paul, the head of English in the school that Lucy takes up work, was based on either Constantin Heger, or James Taylor, two men Charlotte had romantic associations with during her time in Brussels. That’s quite enough context for now, though, so let’s get on with talking about the text!
Going Deeper into the Text…
As I mentioned earlier, Villette tends to be less popular than Jane Eyre, and there isn’t a definite reason for this, other than, perhaps, that Lucy Snowe, the narrator of Villette, isn’t quite as memorable as Jane and Cathy Linton. Whilst these heroines distinctively enforce their personalities throughout their novels, Lucy is often depicted as shying away from her own appearance and as concealing her opinions, even from us, her readers. There are often moments when Lucy withholds information from us, waiting for a time when it better suits her; she plays with us, constantly tricking us and concealing her true motives.
One reason for this concealment may be that Villette teaches the importance of desiring the ‘right’ person. Lucy, who originally admires the handsome and mysterious Doctor John, soon learns that her feelings for him will never be returned, and that the letters he sends to her convey only friendship. She thus moves her affections onto the more suitable, although sometimes unbearable and clearly antagonistic, Monsieur Paul. I won’t give away much more about the plot, because I really do recommend this one, but the idea is that Lucy is forced, through a mixture of personal misfortunes and social conventions, to move onto the more suitable love-interest, suggesting that this is a message for all women reading Villette.
Life is still life, whatever its pangs; our eyes and ears and their use remain with us, though the prospect of what pleases be wholly withdrawn, and the sound of what consoles be quite silenced – Villette, Charlotte Brontë
This isn’t necessarily a very positive outlook to the text, but this is only one reading, and it could be that Charlotte is viewing this need to marry the ‘right’ person ironically, and, in reality, she may completely disagree with it. Another reading of the text is its focus on the self, and this one is perhaps less controversial and more universally accepted. In typical Brontëian fashion, Lucy is forced to move away from England due to a personal tragedy (including the death of her mother, an experience shared by Charlotte). She sets off, completely alone, to an unknown country, where she is valued as a foreigner. The text thus opens up into discussions regarding the human mind, different cultures, women, and education, as Lucy is accused of possessing a writing ability that couldn’t exist if she hadn’t been gifted a classical education – which she hadn’t. As Lucy’s readers, we experience the sights of Villette as she describes them, and come to learn as she does, as we follow her journey from the innocent, English girl, to the successful Frenchwoman, her vulnerabilities and ‘fragilities’ (concerning her love-interests), seemingly eradicated.
As you have probably gathered, I really enjoyed reading Villette. It’s not quite as Gothic as Wuthering Heights, which remains my favourite Brontë novel, but it does have some gothic elements that I very much appreciated. It also considers much of the same social contexts explored through Austen’s works, but, whilst I have never… let’s say, adored Austen’s writing style, I found Brontë’s portrayal of them much more engaging. Whilst some people don’t like it because they don’t like Lucy’s character, I actually found that she made the book all the more impressive. Whilst she is by no means perfect, we can understand her actions; she is accessible, and she is real.
Maybe Villette‘s just one of these ‘Marmite’ books, and you either love it or hate it, but, regardless, I thoroughly recommend that you give it a read. I am yet to find a fusion of Gothicism and the romantic love story that is quite as satisfying as the Brontë sisters’ works. So, my advice: give it a chance (because it does take a while to get going), keep reading until the end (because the last few pages will make you shiver), and don’t judge Lucy too harshly, just because she’s not perfect.
Thanks for reading, and please do comment below if you’ve read Villette or have any other comments regarding the Brontë sisters, or pretty much anything else that takes your fancy!
If you have time to check out my (somewhat old) review of Wuthering Heights, you can view this here. Thanks again!