Villette, Charlotte Bronte (1853)

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?

 

villetteJane Eyre is one of my very favorite books. As such it has cast a spell over any desire to read Charlotte’s other novels. But I broke that spell with Villette and while it didn’t knock down my favorite it was a wonderful reading experience.

But it is an odd book. The narrative is filled with the supernatural, with sounds and ghosts real and imagined, madness, creepy streets and gardens, a heroine who not only talks to herself but answers back. And it abounds with coincidence, serendipity or the saving grace of Divine Providence, however one might want to call it.

Lucy Snowe is like Jane, an orphan cast off and adrift in the world, although Lucy is a young woman, not a child, when she is forced by circumstances out of her godmother’s care and left to her own devices to find her way. Through a series of the aforementioned coincidences she is saved by acquaintances, old school chums, being in the wrong place at the right time to finally finding love and security.

Snowe is often convinced she will die when yet another position as a companion or as a teacher goes awry. Through inner dialog she is ready to meet her fate with a philosophic resolve. Her many conversations with Reason are quite profound.

Often has Reason turned me out by night, in midwinter, on cold snow, flinging for sustenance the gnawed bone dogs had forsaken: sternly as she vowed her stores held nothing more for me–harshly denied my right to ask better things…Then, looking up, have I seen in the sky a head amidst circling stars, of which the midmost and the brightest lent a ray sympathetic and attent. A spirit, softer and better than Human Reason, has descended with quiet flight to the waste—bringing all round her a sphere of air borrowed of eternal summer, bringing perfume of flowers which cannot fade—fragrance of trees whose fruit is life, bringing breezes pure from a world whose day needs no sun to lighten it.

Lucy fights with Reason and Divine Providence often, each whispering opinions to her weary mind. She has been made mad by them, but they have also healed her.

A little reading about the reception of Villette in Bronte’s time is fascinating. As a reader of this book in the 21st century, I see it as an honest portrait of a woman who has no family—male relatives—to support or protect her, she is like many in Bronte’s time. Snowe’s life is in her own hands to be made of what she can and at times it isn’t pretty. Bronte’s contemporary, Matthew Arnold, had a decidedly bitter experience with the journey of Lucy Snowe, calling the novel, “hideous, undelightful, convulsed, constricted…one of the most utterly disagreeable I have ever read. Her mind contains nothing but hunger, rebellion, and rage. Which the only response can be, “Exactly!” He did not understand that he proved Bronte’s point about women in Lucy Snowe’s situation.

If the novel was only about the Ginevra Fanshawe and Polly Home type, the lovely young girls of status and wealth, that would have made a “pretty novel,” but not a very interesting one. Bronte chose honesty over superficiality giving Lucy Snowe strength, instead of helplessness modeling a heroine that speaks to and gives hope not only to women in Bronte’s time, but to the situation of many women today.

_________________

My Edition
Title: Villette
Author: Charlotte Bronte
Publisher: Bantam Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1853
Pages: 474
Summary

Challenges: Back to the Classics, 2019 TBR Pile Challenge, Classics Club

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22 thoughts on “Villette, Charlotte Bronte (1853)

  1. I enjoyed your review (found it through the Classics Challenge, which I’m also participating in) — your love for, and understanding of, the novel are obvious! Although I can appreciate their work, the Brontes have always been a struggle for me; I think I was “force fed” the novels when I was too young to appreciate them. Although the last thing I need right now is another book on the TBR pile, I’m thinking that perhaps it’s time to do a Villette re-read!

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    1. The Brontes are indeed an interesting bunch, I think. While Jane Eyre is my favorite I thoroughly enjoyed Anne Bronte’s, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. But I could not finish Emily’s Wuthering Heights. We all have differing tastes that sometimes even age can’t cure, so maybe Villette just isn’t for you?

      On the other hand, the kind of psychological ruminations and experiences Charlotte puts Lucy Snowe through may just not be interesting to younger readers. I think that may be true for me. I love all that now!

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  2. Jillian

    This is one of the few books that has made me cry. I thought it was haunting and lovely and teeming with tension throughout. I’ll certainly need to revisit at some point. SO MANY BOOKS. (I still haven’t read Shirley! Did you know that Vera Brittain’s daughter, the incredible Shirley Williams, was named after Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley? And that Brittain was pregnant with her while writing Testament of Youth? And that Brittain adored George Eliot (especially The Mill on the Floss.) As well as Olive Schreiner? And that she was inspired by the Gaskells’s biography of Charlotte Bronte when she wrote her biography of Winifred Holtby — particularly its focus on female friendship?) #randomunrelatedfactsfortheday

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  3. You’ve inspired me to want to re-read Villette now. I read it years ago in my late teens, but don’t remember much, except for the Brussels setting, and Lucy’s deep and retiring nature, in keeping with Charlotte Bronte’s heroines. I did read Shirley a few years ago, and some of the characters fell short for me, although the writing was brilliant, of course. We’ll see how Villette goes.

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  4. It’s so interesting how books affect us in different ways. I was so disappointed with this novel because I expected at least a glimmer of Jane Eyre but I felt it was a completely different person writing it. Given what had happened to Brontë before this novel, perhaps it was. Here’s a link to my review, if you’re interested: https://classicalcarousel.com/villette-by-charlotte-bronte/ Thanks for yours because I think it’s helped me to appreciate the book a little morel than I did originally. I still have Shirley and The Professor to go. At least there will always be Jane Eyre! 🙂

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    1. I think what I learned here is that writers have to be given the freedom to grow and explore and if I hold them to what they have already done, because *I* liked it, it’s not fair to them. I hesitated too long in reading Charlotte’s other books, because of my love for Jane and that’s a shame.

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      1. I really appreciate you saying this. I adore Jane Eyre, but did not care for The Professor – it was so very different, and didn’t speak to me. That poor experience made me worried about reading Shirley and Villette. Personally, although Jane Eyre is my favourite book by any of the sisters, I find Anne’s writing to be the most consistent, and I feel the most comfortable with her as a writer. I’m glad you enjoyed it though, and I will definitely pick it up in the future.

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  5. Your insightful ‘thoughts’ about this make it crystal clear that Villette isn’t a rehash of The Professor but with the genders swapped. I’m reading Shirley at the moment but will definitely consider pushing this Lucy Snowe piece higher up in my reading priorities!

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        1. My first thoughts after reading your review, though not having read the book: I can see some parallels with Villette. But this reminds me that writers often use their novels to work through their own issues, even if subconsciously. How interesting for her if this is what she is doing, trying to see these challenges in her life from “both sides.” I don’t know…I hope I can remember this when I read the novel!

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Great review of this book. Jane Eyre is also one of my all time favorites. I liked this novel but I did not think that it reached the grand heights that Jane Eyre did.

    I completely agree that Lucy Snowe’s situation and the way that she reacted to it was portrayed in a brilliant and important way.

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