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Charlotte Brontë – Villette

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Where a sound story is hindered by its length.

Publisher: (Numerous, but I’d wager Vintage would be a good one)
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1853
Date Reviewed: 18th February 2011
Rating: 3.5/5

Lucy Snowe leads a mundane life, looking after other people and staying with friends. When the chance to move to France presents itself, she takes it on impulse. An encounter with a fellow compatriot leads her to employment as an English teacher in the town of Villette. Lucy’s life at once goes back to monotony but it appears that one teacher may be interested in her, even if the interest seems negative.

On the whole, Villette isn’t a bad book. The story is good, and although not up to the standard of Jane Eyre, it is nevertheless enjoyable. The characters are interesting and there is a similar variety of genres used throughout, including a small mystery.

Apart from the obvious parallels that come from them sharing a creator, Lucy Snowe couldn’t be more different to Jane Eyre. Lucy, too, addresses the reader in that beautiful way Charlotte applies to her writing, drawing them into the fold as intimately as a friend, but she has none of the strengths of her predecessor. Lucy is always saying that her life is dull and thus it becomes very irritating when she turns down offers of, for example, a dance, which would make her more interesting – and then later reasserts her position as a person living a mundane existence. Lucy has every opportunity to improve herself but for most of the book she does not take it.

Unfortunately this means that the psychology Charlotte uses – the way she has Lucy often spending ages wondering on her life – doesn’t quite make the impact it should. To speak personally, I found myself happy that Lucy had learned something, thinking she would remember it for next time, and finding my hopes dashed again and again. Lucy is her own worse enemy and it is thanks to the goodness of other people that she develops later on. If left to her own devices entirely she surely would never have got anywhere.

Charlotte writes about her characters in a way unique to her. Maybe it’s in part because the length of her books allows for good development, but it’s more just the way she appropriates time. The best way to explain this would be to provide you with a quotation:

A constant crusade against the “amour-propre” of every human being but himself, was the crochet of this able, but fiery and grasping little man. He had a strong relish for public representation in his own person, but an extreme abhorrence of the like display in any other. He quelled, he kept down when he could; and when he could not, he fumed like a bottled storm.

The array of difference between all the characters is quite something. Lucy spends a lot of time thinking and shying away, whereas most of her acquaintances make nothing of sharing their feelings with everyone. A particularly fantastic character, for her distinct oppositeness to Lucy, is Ginevra Fanshawe, a girl at once annoying and yet so full of life that the reader cannot but love her as the antidote to a dull heroine.

There is a romantic element to the plot, for the most part subtle, one can never be sure if it will develop or not. And, as seems to be the norm with Victorian writers, there are a great many coincidences that make the story unfortunately less realistic.

Now there are three major bones of contention I must deal with. The first I will discuss briefly because otherwise I could end up talking on it at length.

Charlotte’s Protestantism. It becomes impossible to separate a personality from the book they have written when a lot of the work is clearly a lecture. Lucy is so vehemently against Catholicism that at times it makes the book impossible. Villette can come across as a sermon, and in suggesting it is a sermon I look to Charlotte’s situation as the daughter of a clergyman as my evidence – she would know well how to word her feelings. The hatred is just too much, Lucy goes on about how her “ears burned” as she was “forced” to listen to stories of the saints, and the silly thing about it is that in doing so and in going on about it frequently, Charlotte produces the opposite effect – indeed I felt sorry for those she scorned – and not only that, but she makes her Catholic characters, through their lesser strength of feeling for their opposites, or at least for the lesser amount of time afforded to them, the preferred group of people. Perhaps, then, it is in realisation of this, in realisation of the fact that Catholics could well be among the number of her readers, that makes Charlotte’s joining of the denominations later on through her characters, important.

The application of French. In my review of Jane Eyre I said that one could get by with a very basic knowledge of the French language; in Villette whole paragraphs are written in it and I presume that even an intermediate knowledge would not suffice. It’s odd really because Charlotte switches back and forth, during conversations, between English and French, where she could have just used English. Her method renders her work impossible to read in its entirely without knowledge of French, and therefore unless you possess it you will likely find yourself, as I did, skipping over large chunks of text, much of which it’s obvious is important to know for a clear understanding of the characters.

The last thing is the length of the book. The length is what makes it so dreary a read because there are chapters upon chapters of needless content, and although it effectively expresses Lucy’s mundane life, it makes a desire to read the book difficult to kindle for any long periods of time. The last third is very worthy of heralding, and the last few chapters are magnificent, the characters introduced interesting, but, because the wait for it is so long, that wait puts a damper on the novel in its entirety. It may have suited Charlotte to describe at length a profession which she had first-hand experience of, but for the monotonous routine she should have thought twice about how much she said.

I reckon that with a quick look at the back-story, one could easily skip the first half or so of the book. Villette may tie up it’s subplots well and have a brilliant cast of characters, but for the time it takes it’s not a patch on Jane Eyre.

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Erin

February 23, 2011, 11:13 pm

I just finished and really enjoyed Jane Eyre. Villette is on my list, but from what I’ve been reading, I’ll try not to approach it as another Jane Eyre.

Charlie: That’s the best way to go about it I think. There are parts where the connection is evident, and certainly the writing style is similar, but Villette could have been written by another for the differences.

Bellezza

February 25, 2011, 1:01 am

I found myself stopping to think about this line in your post: “Lucy is her own worse enemy and it is thanks to the goodness of other people that she develops later on.” She is very passive, and I wonder if that is in part due to the era. But, not really, because Ginevre is such a forward witch (in my opinion). I think Lucy is passive because she has not any one to fight for her; I think it robs her self confidence. Poor Lucy, I still admire her. Sympathize with her I guess would be the better word.

Chrisbookarama

March 3, 2011, 8:02 pm

I had conflicting feelings about Villette too. She is so different from Jane. She was hard to take at times.

My edition had the French translated in the back. Thankfully. My French just wasn’t up to it.

Charlie: I wondered if there would be a translated edition but thought that maybe it might have been left as part of the “charm” of the book. A difficult charm though…

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