"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"!)
Other reviews have delineated the storyline; I'm just going to say that I was within five pages of the end (on tenterhooks as to whether our narrator, Lucy Snowe, ends up with a happy or unutterably wretched life) when I had to stop and go to work. I was yearning to come home and find out all the time I was there - must be the proof of a compelling work. Charlotte Bronte's descriptions of utter loneliness and inner, but hidden, torment make for a moving and unforgettable read. While her friends remark on "steady little Lucy...so quietly pleased, so little moved yet so content", she observes "little knew they the rack of pain which had driven Lucy almost into fever, and brought her out, guideless and reckless, urged and drugged to the brink of frenzy". Superb read.
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!