BOOK REVIEWS

Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Even after a third reading I am still surprised by how much this novel resonates with me. A lot readers will start Villette expecting a rehash of Jane Eyre—a novel which I enjoyed but wasn’t particularly taken by—which is a pity given that the narrative of Villette takes its reader through a much more labyrinthine path that the straightforward Bildungsroman of Jane Eyre.

“No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, ant tilled with manure. Happiness is a glory shining far down upon us out of Heaven. She is a divine dew which the soul, on certain of its summer mornings, feels dropping upon it from the amaranth bloom and golden fruitage of Paradise.”

From the first few chapters I fell in love with Villette.
Brontë’s writing is so insightful that it is hard not to highlight, or make a note of, every single paragraph. She has a way with words, managing to orchestrate long yet fluid phrases, that beautifully convey the many nuanced feelings and thoughts of her protagonist as well as the different landscapes she navigates. She offers her readers intricate and sharp observations, vivid descriptions, thoughtful asides and complex character studies that struck me for their realism.
Villette‘s plot rests upon its narrator’s interior struggle. In fact, this novel, is all about Lucy Snowe. A study of her psychology and of her shifting sense of self. Yet, even upon a third reading, she remains somewhat unknowable to me as she is careful to keep her feelings in check, and on more than one occasion she refrains from sharing certain knowledge with her readers (speaking of, there is an almost meta aspect to her narrative as she directly address readers and refers to scenes occurred in previous ‘chapters’).
Her self-division

“Oh, my childhood! I had feelings: passive as I lived, little as I spoke, cold as I looked, when I thought of past days, I could feel. About the present, it was better to be stoical; about the future–such as a future as mine–to be dead.”

Her unreliability seems a natural outcome of her not wanting to reveal herself completely to us and others, and perhaps by lying to her readers, she can also deceive herself. We never know why she has become so alienated from her feelings but given that even as a child she was self-possessed and quiet observer, it seems that it is merely an aspect of who she is.
This divide between duty and self-fulfilment, reason and feeling, is the main focus of the narrative. Brontë’s Lucy, similarly to her more famous literary sister Jane, is a woman living on the social margins of her society: an orphan with few living relations and or friends, she lacks conventional beauty and the wealth necessary to be respected by society.
Lucy minimises the loss of her family, not wanting to dwell on how this affected her nor on the difficulties she experienced as an orphan, dismissing that period of her life as “a long time—of cold, of danger, of contention”. Her hardships go unheard since “to whom could [she] complain?” and so she grows accustomed to solitude believing that “there remained no possibility of dependence on others” .
The narrative that follows will see her confronted with different forms of femininity and womanhood
which are often embodied in the women she meets in England and in Villette.

“When I looked, my inner self moved; my spirit shook its always-fettered wings half loose; I had a sudden feeling as if I, who had never yet truly lived, were at last about to taste life: in that morning my soul grew as fast as Jonah’s gourd.”

One of my favourite scenes sees our narrator rejecting ideals of femininity in a museum. One painting features a Cleopatra-like figure whose sumptuous body makes our protagonist at ill at ease; the other one demonstrates the traditional life of woman: a young and demure bride, a wife and mother, and finally a widow. Lucy, in the course of this maze-like narrative will demonstrate a headstrong will in that in spite of the concealment of her feelings she remains true to her self.
Her character is so real that I was inevitably drawn to feel what she felt: I wanted what she wanted, for I couldn’t stand to see her unhappy.

“My state of mind, and all accompanying circumstances, were just now such as most to favour the adoption of a new, resolute, and daring–perhaps desperate–line of action. I had nothing to lose. Unutterable loathing of a desolate existence past, forbade return. If I failed in what I now designed to undertake, who, save myself, would suffer? If I died far away from–home, I was going to say, but I had no home–from England, then, who would weep?”

The ending is ambiguous and somewhat open-ended yet those last bittersweet pages soften the story’s final blow.
The cast of characters is not necessarily likeable but I grew fond of them nonetheless, Lucy’s banter with a certain professor and a rather spoiled pupil made for some truly entraining scenes. I appreciated how imperfect and sometimes idiosyncratic these characters were as these things made them all the more believable.
This novel is a beautifully written character study that plays around with Gothic and Romantic elements. There is great character development, shifting dynamics between friends and acquaintances, a painfully concealed and unrequited first love, and a series of feverous experiences which blur the line between reality and fantasy…Villette is a compelling portrait of a woman’s shifting individuality.

DISCLAIMER: this novel is decidedly of its time so expect a lot of phrenological references (or viewing someone’s physiognomy as indicative of their character), the majority of Catholics in this novel are definitely a wee bit fanatical, many annoying remarks—usually by men, but sometimes by women as well—regarding women (the weaker sex etc…), a major character owns a plantation in Guadeloupe and no one bats an eye about it (I definitely recommend Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy for those interested in postcolonial sort of retelling of Villette, it is a short but truly captivating read), people from France and Spain are often portrayed as ‘other’, even ‘alien’, and a little girl with learning disabilities is referred to as a ‘cretin’ and some other unpleasant terms.

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