Charlotte Brontë’s “Villette” – book review

Villette is a weird book.

And in some ways, it’s hard to put one’s finger on what’s quite so weird about it. Is it the unreliable narrator, Lucy Snowe? The book’s wavering balance between the realist and the supernatural?

Charlotte Brontë’s contemporaries could not make up their minds about it.

Matthew Arnold, on the contrary, hated Villette and wrote that the mind of Charlotte Brontë “contained nothing but hunger, rebellion, and rage”.

George Eliot was delighted with Villette and she wrote that “there is something almost prenatural in its power”.

Both of these statements are in their way true, although I would revise Arnold’s to Lucy Snowe’s mind contains “little but hunger, rebellion, and rage”.

I’ve been planning to read Villette for a long while (more or less 8 years, I think, scarily enough). I think I would perhaps have enjoyed the book more had I read it a few years back – but more because I would have identified unhealthily with the depressed heroine than anything else. Of course, Nabokov would tell me that to read to identify yourself with the characters is wrong. So perhaps it’s for the best that I only got round to reading Villette now.

Lucy Snowe is an orphan, a heroine in some ways similar to Jane Eyre- though far more -introverted. She is also, rather judgemental (and you know it’s true when I say it–  because struggling with my judgemental streak is a pastime of mine). But the problem with Lucy Snowe’s judgemental streak is that an awful lot of it is directed specifically only at other women, which  I found somewhat annoying. Although perhaps given how Lucy feels about her own appearance, it is only natural that she finds ways to censor all the other women that surround her (especially if they seem to be competing with her for the attention of Dr. John or M. Paul). Lucy is often angry, and very little disposed to make friends. She might even be described as a little misanthrope. Charlotte Brontë in a letter to her publisher writes of one Lucy’s love interests ” The cruel-hearted will on the contrary [pitilessly impale him… marrying him without ruth or compunction to that — person–that–individual — ‘Lucy Snowe’.” (if you know the ending, do look up the rest of the letter – it’s 18 March 1853, written to her publisher George Smith).

Somewhat more amusing is the book’s anticatholic bias and its preoccupation with phrenology- both very much of its time.

So much for Arnold’s comment.

But Villette is one of these incredible books that can be read simply for the quality of the prose. It is beautifully written. The whole atmosphere of the book with the struggle of intellect and self-control against the darkness (both literal and figurative) of superstition and the supernatural. It is hard to resist Lucy’s own reading of her life as somehow predestined for misery in a Calvinist sort of way, a reading made more poignant by one’s knowledge of the Brontë sister’s lives and their respective fates. And yet despite of this suspicion of an almost malevolent destiny, it is Lucy’s determination to stand fast and be faithful to her principles. She writes

“With self-denial and economy now, and steady exertion by-and-by, an object in life need not fail you. Venture not to complain that such an object is too selfish, too limited, and lacks interest; be content to labour for independence until you have proved, by winning that prize, your right to look higher. But afterwards, is there nothing more for me in life — no true home — nothing to be dearer to me than myself and by its paramount preciousness, to draw from me better things than I care to culture for myself only? Nothing, at whose feet I can willingly lay down the whole burden of human egotism, and gloriously take up the nobler charge of labouring and living for others? I suppose, Lucy Snowe, the orb of your life is not to be so rounded: for you the crescent-phase must suffice. Very good. I see a huge mass of my fellow- creatures in no better circumstances. I see that a great many men, and more women, hold their span of life on conditions of denial and privation. I find no reason why I should be of the few favoured. I believe in some blending of hope and sunshine sweetening the worst lots.”

I’m glad I read this book. Highly recommended- but try to be full of optimism as you encounter it- if you’re in feeble spirits, I doubt it will help…

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