on 13 April 2001
I do not in any way mean to say that this book is bad; indeed, I mean the very opposite. It is criminal that "Villette" is not widely recognised as Charlotte Brontë's tour de force. Overshadowed by the tremendous success of "Jane Eyre" - which is, in itself, a wonderful novel - "Villette" has been largely ignored. Yet, in my opinion, it is superior: it has a better structure, a better heroine and a well designed plot. In what can only be described as an "aesthetically satisfying work," we engage with the main character, Lucy Snowe; we feel her passion, her isolation, her desperation - in fact, it is a highly autobiographical work. It is the story of unrequited love. It is the study of the development of a character put into adverse circumstances. It is the expression of , as never seen in English before, of the complexities and subtleties of a woman. It is poetical, beautiful. We follow Lucy as she grows up: living with her aunt, becoming a teacher in a school called Villette, standing up to the hostility of many other teachers and finally ... I think that anyone who loved "Jane Eyre" - there are not many of us who don't - will appreciate this criminally overlooked novel. Moreover, it is the perfect novel for a first-time Brontë reader - followed very closely by "Jane Eyre". Please do not take my word for it - read it and be mesmerised in a vividly painted world that will haunt you forever!
"Villette" is not so well known as "Jane Eyre", but it has much in common with it and is every bit as interesting. Our heroine and narrator is a young woman called Lucy Snowe: poor, possessed of no special talents, and left to her own resources, she takes a startling gamble with fate by sailing to France, and there finds a living as a teacher in the eponymous town. To avoid spoilers, I'll say only that we are much concerned with the men she meets.
Lucy Snowe is a well named, for she hides her extraordinary passions beneath a cool exterior. Her nature is contrary, elusive and contradictory, puzzling even to those closest to her: even we, her readers, are but qualified confidantes, often left in the dark by her reticence. Whilst doing what she must to make her way in the world, Lucy somehow remains uncompromising, aloof and self-sufficient, earning respect even from those she most confounds. She is perhaps the most intriguing female character I've ever read about.
Just as in "Jane Eyre", Charlotte leans shamelessly on coincidence to work her plot, but a little cunning telegraphy sweetens the pill, providing this reader with a satisfying oh-I-see! moment. Just as in "Jane Eyre", different kinds of potential suitors for our narrator are juxtaposed and contrasted; and different styles of womanhood are presented, demonstrating what Lucy is not. But the arc of this book is less obvious than in "Jane Eyre": we are very far along before we even understand what kind of story this is (and the saucy intrusion of classic gothic elements keeps us guessing).
Speaking of technique, Charlotte's prose is superbly controlled, whether lofty and fanciful or sharp and deft, as here:
"...it was not my godmother's habit to make a bustle, and she preferred all sentimental demonstrations in bas-relief."
It's also frequently a novel of high humour, through Lucy's dry observations. Here we catch her in catty mood:
"[I was] paired with Ginevra Fanshawe, bearing on my arm the dear pressure of that angel's not unsubstantial limb - (she continued in excellent case, and I can assure the reader it was no trifling business to bear the burden of her loveliness; many a time in the course of that warm day I wished to goodness there had been less of the charming commodity)..."
I could have done without swathes of dialogue conducted in French, but I suppose Charlotte was not to know that half-educated barbarians like me might paw at her books a century later!
"Villette" is an impressive achievement, beautifully constructed, relentless in its focus, concerned with the affections and interior lives of complex and atypical people, and with much to say about both religious disagreement and transcending those disagreements. It insists on its own careful, measured pace, even as it treads through the most surprising situations and revelations, and sure enough it arrives punctually at its intended, yet long unsuspected, destination. Excellent stuff.
(Incidentally, the Gutenberg/Kindle freebie edition has lots of typos, mainly wayward punctuation; but I would be fascinated to observe "Madame Beck's fist classe"!)
on 27 April 2011
Villette was written by Charlotte Bronte, and published in 1853. It follows the adventures of Lucy Snowe as she leaves her home and England to go teach at an all-girls school in the fiction town of Villette, in Europe.
Like with Jane Eyre, Bronte draws on alot of her own experiences to write this book, working in a Pensionnat in Brussels. The book really explores Lucy Snowe's psychology as she deals with living abroad, meeting new people, both good and bad, and falling in love. There is a great many gothic elements in the book, ghostly nuns included and it is a really enjoyable read.
My only complaint would be the ending. Not wanting to spoil the book for potential readers I won't elaborate too much, but I felt it was unnecessaraly sad and almost half hearted. According to the introduction, Bronte adappted her original ending at the request of her publisher who felt it was too sad, and so changed it to what it is, leaving it up to the reader to decide.
on 31 March 2006
On the back of the book it says this:-
Based on Charlotte bronte's personal experience as a teacher in Brussels, Villette, is a moving tale of repressed feelings and subjection to cruel circumstance and position, borne with heroic fortitude. Rising above the frustrations of confinement within a rigid social order, it is also a story of a woman's right to love and be loved.
I note from some reviews that many people missed the point of this wonderful book. It is a beautifully written, poignant story. It is not supposed to be a fast-paced, modernised tale, but a beautifully written, richly embroidered account of the young life of a woman alone in the world seeking peace and independence. In a society where women did not normally go out alone and where rank and wealth were important, our heroine struggled with life. Charlotte Bronte graphically describes the heroine whose strength of character and kind, long-suffering personality earns rewards in the end. I did not feel the ending was uncertain or lacked meaning, but had I felt unsure of it, I would still define this book as one of the great reads of my life. I found it a privilege to read about characters who lived in an age long forgotten, and brought to life so colourfully, as told from one who lived it.
Villette has always suffered in comparison with Jane Eyre, and it's certainly a less romantic read - but all the better for that. Where Jane Eyre exists as a female fantasy, Villette gets to grips with the uncomfortable real world, where men don't miraculously fall in love with plain, earnest, clever girls and instead prefer the beautiful and dumb! From the painful depiction of unrequited love, to the ambiguous and open-to-interpretation ending, this is a more mature, assured and challenging novel than any other that Charlotte Bronte wrote.
on 5 April 2007
Then definitely read this!
I liked Jane Eyre very much, but it was Villette that really captured my imagination and heart. In my opinion (though I realise it is verging on this criminal to admit this) it is better than Jane Eyre - it certainly has more depth, the plot is far superior, and it's just... more enjoyable. I admit that JE has the irreplaceable Mr Rochester, but Villette has Mousieur Paul, a Rochesterian (?) character himself - idiosyncratic, harsh, domineering, austere, and yet simultaneously attractive. I preferrd him to Rochester as he, and his love for the protagonist Lucy Snowe, is more believable, and has more depth.
The only thing I would say is that unless your French is pretty good don't buy the Oxford edition - there is a lot of French dialogue, and OUP clearly didn't want to spend the money on paper and ink to translate it all - which I found extremely frustrating.
Overall - a fantastic book to curl up with and lose yourself in - it is one of my favourites!
on 6 November 2000
I would just like to add my praise of this book to that of the other reviewers. For whilst we may be enticed be the romance at the heart of Jane Eyre, Villette, as a later novel shows far better writing both in structure and description. In Lucy Snowe C.B also finds a narrator through whom she can successfully 'speak'. It is an unusual novel in its plot, setting and ending; far less 'victorian' than Jane Eyre (even if we allow C.B. the happy coincidences that litter the novel) ,this is a work which deserves to be more widely read.
By the time I had forced myself through the first volume of Villette I was seriously concerned I would not be able to finish it, which bothers me as I hate it when I feel defeated by a book. I persisted, however, and am so glad I did because Volume 2 was a massive improvement and Volume 3 utterly captured my heart. I finished the book last week and cannot stop thinking about it, so much has it grabbed hold of my imagination. I wont summarise the plot as others have done so, but instead will give my thoughts on the what I disliked and what I loved about Villette.
Firstly, the dislikes. It is a shame that Volume 1 is a let down, because asides from this then Villette would probably be more highly thought of than Jane Eyre. I found Volume 1 simply too relentlessly depressing for even my serious literary tastes. At this stage of the book Lucy Snowe, well and truly lives up to her name - she is a cold, unsympathetic character reluctant to give away her feelings and thoughts which is never appealing in a narrator. The first few chapters regarding Lucy's time in Bretton feel very disjointed from the rest of the volume, and it is only once you get into Volume 2 that their presence in the novel make any sense. I can see that Bronte was trying to create an element of suspense and suprise here (which I won't give away here), but to me those chapters could still have been better integrated into the rest of the volume.
Now the likes. Bronte's prose is a delight to read, and sits well even to the modern reader. Sometimes the direct appeal to the "reader" can be a bit jarring but on the whole her style is very appealing. The best thing about Villette, though, is the characters. The plot is pretty thin, as is often the way with literature of this period, but that matters not a jot as the characters are more than enough to hold the interest. As I have already said, I found Lucy a hard to like character in the first volume but after that I really grew to love her. Bronte peels away layers of Lucy's psychology like peeling away layers of an onion, gradually revealing more and more about her to the reader until you really come to feel like you know and understand her. She is also quite an unusual character for this period - a woman who takes control of her own life and earns an independent living, unreliant on anyone else for anything - and this makes her very appealing. There are a number of other characters who make fascinating reading. For me I thought M. Paul was easily able to stand up to Mr Darcy and Mr Rochester in the annals of romantic yet moody leading men. Dr John and Mme Beck are also full of character and come to life on the page.
I think I liked the ending, despite it's ambiguity, although I am still debating this with myself internally even now. Whilst Bronte has left the ending up to the reader's imagination, to me it is quite clear what her intention for the ending was and she was put off from it by the publisher who felt it would be too sad. I really wish she had had the courage of her convictions and written it the way she wanted. Whilst I don't mind an ambiguous ending normally, here I felt here that the reader deserved and needed a more definate ending given that by this point the reader has invested so much in Lucy's fate.
All in all though, Villette is a splendid read which, if you can persist past the first volume, will very likely capture a place in your heart and for this is is well worth a read.
on 29 April 2015
I first read this when I was fourteen. I picked it up again recently and read a completely different book to the one I remembered. I'd like to think that I can now understand the dichotomy, the internal struggle, the unreliable narrator who is the soul of honesty and the subtle references to sensuality and love in all their forms which can only be referred to obliquely.
There is an element of autobiography to this story but I disagree that Charlotte Bronte drew largely on the death of her three ( actually FIVE) syblings. There is material from her stay in Brussels. There is a great deal of well reasoned discussion on the stifling of women's senses and faculties - including the great but almost inevitable betrayal of young woman growing up to believe that there is no merit except in being ornaments and baby-factories and house keepers, scorning intellectual pursuits. The heaviest heaping of scorn for these women, is heaped on those who speak as if they need not improve their minds firstly because men would find that unattractive and secondly because they are pretty enough to secure husbands without resorting to having a thought of their own.
In such respect, this novel is deeply feminist before the term was dreamt of - although I think Bronte was giving vent to thoughts and opinions she had felt deeply since childhood. It's cleverly done - pointing towards the absurdity of such opinions rather than falling into an 'it's not fair' refrain.
The things which annoy me about this novel? The beginning and the end. The beginning because it is very slow and although it all slots into place later, has the double lack of attraction of Lucy being a somewhat closed off, cold and shuttered character ( she is 14 at the time). Also because we never find out what the family disaster is. The end because it is heartbreaking and bloody annoying! No doubt as Bronte intended. However I acknowledge the clever use of the double uncertain ending ( 100 years before Faulkner 'invents' it in The French Lieutenant's woman). As far as satisfaction goes it is lacking however.
However as the story goes on, we get glimpses of Lucy's character almost despite herself. Lucy attempts not to confide in the reader and fails - it's genius. On the surface this is a book where not much appears to happen. It is not a light read - you need to want to delve deep. (Jane Eyre is a master piece and much more popular - I think this is largely because it is more accessible. The two books don't occupy the same niche at all. ) This depth is entirely by design - the happenings occur within Lucy, a marginalized woman without wealth, family or connections who strives for independence. Lucy is so correct and circumspect that we don't know what she really feels until she cannot hide it.
You find yourself growing find of her especially when compared to the painfully accurate portraits Bronte mercilessly paints of all the other female characters. ( she is just as pitiless with the men!)
This book is actually hilariously funny. It really had me laughing out loud. Lucy's self possession and common sense is seasoned with a heavy dose of irony. During her truly sarcastic moments she is superb. The eventual explanation of the nun, when it comes is very entertaining. ( Charlotte why do you put your men in drag?!)
Both potential male love interests are sharply probed with wit and inspected. While both seem hopeless cases, the careful drawing of the relationships building up is very engaging. Bronte plays with our sympathies - shifting us with skill from hoping for Dr John to rooting for Monsieur Paul without losing interest and disliking the former. It's an incredible portrayal of maturing tastes and judgement. The isolation and melancholy are also well captured.
So five stars though the ending and the beginning will always annoy me. This is very clever , deeply felt and accomplished - though strangely underrated.
Don't read this just because you love Jane Eyre, read it because you want a true and faithful representation, with humour and feeling, of the mindset if a clever woman of the time. Read it to understand how marginalizing and stifling any group of people damages not just the individual but society as a whole. And if you're catholic, well bite your tongue and remember what Rome's church has said about all others!
on 5 August 2013
The art of Charlotte Bronte is the antithesis of the art of Charles Dickens. Where Dickens grandstands, Bronte speaks to the reader as an intelligent confidante. In place of ravishing rhapsodic rhetoric, we have a prose style as plain as a Quaker's dress. She exhibits no awareness of the large social issues, no interest whatever in promoting social justice; her mission is the search for personal integrity and salvation, with little interest in conventional piety. Where Dickens dazzles us with broad comedy, sensational melodrama and memorable caricature, Bronte offers only understatement, quiet irony and nice observation. In place of his broad canvases peopled by a cast of hundreds of colourful types, we are given insights into a select handful of individuals. The main difference between Charlotte Bronte and perhaps any other nineteenth century novelist is that her principal characters have an intense, compelling and credible inner life as they search for decency and meaning without reference to prescribed norms and conventions. She is the first psychological novelist, the first existentialist.
Villette is a huge advance on Jane Eyre: in place of its moments of romantic fantasy, we are offered an adult love story in which love is explored as something rather more complex and interesting than Hollywood could understand. Like the best parts of Jane Eyre, Villette is largely autobiographical: the situations and emotions do not feel not simulated but acutely and honestly recalled. It is also one of the best constructed novels in the canon.
Mandy Weston's reading is compelling. She is an excellent actress who brings to life all the major characters, male and female: no mean feat since they have a tendency to lapse into French frequently and occasionally into German. If her enunciation is a tad plebeian for an English teacher, her dramatic intelligence is ample compensation. Unfortunately for non French speakers, there are no subtitles.