Villette by Charlotte Brönte

“My godmother lived in a handsome house in the clean and ancient town of Bretton.”

What on earth have I just read?  This book simply cannot be written by the same author who wrote Jane Eyre!  The mind rebels!  The heart rebels!  It cannot be!  Am I sounding very dramatic and flourishing and vocal?  That’s because I’ve spent 572 pages being lulled catatonic.  What happened …..??

Brönte begins with introducing the reader to Lucy Snowe, an unassuming educated young woman, who is left alone after the death of her family, with only her godmother, Mrs. Bretton as a familiar contact.  In the house of her godmother, she knows her son, Graham Bretton, and on one visit meets a lodger, a little girl named Polly who is quick-witted, yet bordering on rude and displays an unusual attachment to the Bretton son.

As Lucy returns home, this story is left hanging and we follow Lucy to a job as a companion and then, at the death of her employer, Lucy decides to set out for the country of Labassecour (thought to be modelled on Belgium, where Brönte herself taught at a girl’s school) to search for work.  Miraculously, she is immediately taken on as a teacher at a respectable school in the town of Villette.  Through Lucy’s eyes only, we meet the headmistresses, Madame Beck; teachers at the school, in particular the fiery M. Paul Emmanuel; Polly’s cousin, Ginevra; and finally an astounding secret about the local doctor, Dr. John, is discovered.  Coincidence piles up on coincidence, until one no longer puzzles but simply must move on.  Two important relationships occur in Lucy’s life, yet nothing seems to truly touch her as she remains the passive and faithful narrator, except when it comes to the collision of Catholicism and Protestantism, one of which she attacks with a vitriolic vehemence and the other which she lauds as the only way to heaven.

School for Peasant’s Children in Verkiai(1848)
Vasily Sadovnikov
source Wikiart

The writing meanders all over the place and the characters appear chiselled with a hacksaw.  Polly who is mean-spirited and selfish as a child, suddenly appears, not only in a completely different city but in a different country and, as a young woman, is now pleasing and thoughtful and wise.  And she has developed this warm and winning character in spite of having a father who is rather petty, obtuse and slightly vindictive. Her great love for him appears to be the only explanation as to her transformation. Characters are often described by Lucy as having certain traits and then later are bestowed with either oppositie traits, or the original ones are highly magnified in melodramatic fashion to serve authorial purposes.  The process is problematic, to say the least.

Astraea, the virgin goddess of
Innocence and Purity (1665)
Salvator Rosa
source Wikipedia

Lucy herself is our greatest conundrum. She is like a wraithful spirit who hovers over the drama in the story and participates in narration and judgement but barely with action.  Like the Greek goddess Astraea, she pronounces moral, religious and ethical judgement on each character, yet in her zeal, often appears to forget that she is on the same level as those around her.  Nevertheless, she is a complex character and while her sentences can often be harsh, we also at times sense a softening of her manner and a deeper generosity in her character.

Brönte does display some fine writing in parts of the novel and there is a peculiar weaving of a wild, melodramatic narrative into a character who is quiet, aloof, reserved, and very nearly lifeless.  Brönte also employs contrasting themes but I would have enjoyed them more if I felt that they came from superior writing aptitude instead of displayed prejudices.  I also was irritated with her penchant to play with the reader.  She seemed to be saying, “oh, so you’d like to see this scenario play out?  Well, too bad, I’m deliberately going to give you this.”  Quite frankly, I finished feeling rather offended, as if someone had just been rude or discourteous.  An excuse for her approach may be found in the successive deaths of three members of her family within eight short months, five years before Villette was published, and there is some suggestion that Brönte was struggling with depression. With this fact in mind, I honestly tried to stick with this novel and find some sort of redeeming feature, but the inconsistencies and coincidences were simply too insurmountable, and the meek yet God-like character of Lucy too unpalatable.  Certain reviews claim that this book is a psychological masterpiece, and as I said, Brönte certainly seems to play with psychological aspects of both the characters and the readers’ perceptions of them.  Yet this experiment is conducted in an unnatural way, one that is ripe with preposterous manipulations and improbable fluctuations in both personalities and circumstances.  I was psychologically exhausted after finishing the novel, not for its fine crafting, but in an effort to grasp its implausibilities.  If that brand of psychology is admirable, I would rather treasure the simplicities of Jane Eyre.

Woman Reading (1894)
Henri Matisse
source Wikiart

I must say the only benefit gained from reading Villette is perhaps the personal insight it gives into Wuthering Heights.  The raw, wild, startling prose of the latter, while not necessarily obvious in the former, exists in echoes, while the ghostly apparition and the darkness in the souls of men stand out in stark relief.  Villette was an unsettling novel certainly, but more importantly it was unsatisfying, and I was left with a sense of emptiness and time wasted.  Fortunately there are rumours of read-along of Jane Eyre coming up at the end of May, hosted by Hamlette at The Edge of the Precipice.  Thank heavens!  I will be able to cleanse my palate with one of my all-time favourite novels and hopefully regain some of the deep respect I had for its author.

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0 thoughts on “Villette by Charlotte Brönte

  1. I actually haven't read Jane Eyre (shocking I know) but I read one of Charlotte Bronte's other novels (The Professor) and it turned me off her. Also the fact that she wrote scathing comments about Anne and Emily's novels…well I'm not in a hurry to read Jane Eyre or Shirley or Vilette. I should read Jane Eyre though it seems like a rite of passage or something.

  2. i actually feel split about this novel. in one way, i think she abandoned the hack saw for an axe, and on the other i kind of admired lucy in her phantasmagorical traipsing through the situations that life threw at her; in particular i thought the scene at the end, in the creepy/uncontrolled tornado-like festival was pretty striking. it kind of tapered off after that, sort of flattening out at the end. i really didn't think it was much worse than wuthering heights, which i thought was rather disjointed and unreal. some of the events that lucy was involved in seemed, although surrealistic, true to life. weird things happen in the world and i see charlotte as being aware of that…

  3. It's not so shocking. I enjoy the Brönte sisters' novels but I haven't been over the moon about any of them, except for Jane Eyre. With JE, I love how Charlotte crafted the characters. They were so very real. I know Rochester gets a hard time from people but he behaved very much like he was —- a wealthy man who was used to getting his own way. That Brönte could show his humanity and pair him with a character who could handle him, and a very unexpected character, speaks to her wonderful writing ability. She had such a balanced touch with JE. Which is why I wondered where it went with this one. I felt that she was rather angry …. at life I'm sure ….. and took it out in her story, affecting both characters and reader. It was an interesting experience, but not one I'd like to repeat.

    It's good to see you virtually out and about! I hope your semester is going well and is not too stressful! I am so enjoying the Greek challenge and have read six books/plays read already.

  4. I don't expect a book to be perfect, but when it's labelled a "classic" there are definite expectations I have for it. I could admire certain skills in Brönte's writing, or certain parts of the novel, but then she would completely change a character's nature or how she felt about them, or have a sheltered, isolated girl run off to a completely different country where she doesn't speak the language, then she is immediately hired ……. well, let's just say I couldn't keep up my appreciation over my dissatisfaction. It wasn't the weird things I objected too (although I will admit that I have a hard time appreciating Gothic in the classic sense), it was the inconsistencies of the characters ….. and that ending …… I mean what was that? I had assumed it was coming because by that point I was pretty disappointed, but to a faithful reader …… I just didn't get it at all.

    But in spite of this experience, I still have The Professor and Shirley to go and I'll approach them with an open mind, I promise! 😉

  5. I haven't read this book in years and remember little about it except that it had a yucky ending and I found Bronte's anti-French prejudice heavy-handed.

    I'm curious why Villete gave you insight into Wuthering Heights, since they were written by two different authors.

  6. Perhaps Brönte's personal experience left her with a bad taste in her mouth about Belgium. She certainly came across as prejudiced against anything or anyone non-British and non-Protestant. Considering the time in which she lived, I can certainly understand that feeling and normally it doesn't bother me in books like this. What disturbed me was the sentiment beneath the surface of her comments ….. anger, cruelty, hatred ….. I'm not sure which and how much was actually directed against her target and how much was simply general feeling that the target inadvertently received. I think what bothered me most was that, in these cases, she never backed up her observations. She'd make a sweeping generalization, which I could work with, but then that would be it. I was left thinking, okay, that's rather a harsh statement … did you come to that conclusion ……? Brönte never explained.

    The Gothic flavour (complete with the ghostly figure) and the wild melodrama had such resounding echoes of Wuthering Heights. Since the authors came from the same family, and shared some of the same experiences and probably interests, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised.

  7. I guess the Protestant/Catholic comparison didn't register with me back then, although I don't doubt it. I certainly saw her anti-Gallic bias. That even comes through in Jane Eyre. If you recall, Rochester's little ward, Adele, comes across as shallow and coquettish until she is "sobered up" by a "good English" upbringing.

    Of course, reading the mores of the French culture, at least from a literary stand point, I can kind of see where she is coming from. It seems par for the course that every French man must have his mistress.

    I don't say it's really like that in France, but the French authors certainly enjoy depicting their society so.

    To your last paragraph: I can't remember anything Gothic or otherwise in Villette but Wuthering Heights is one of my very favorite books and I've read it several times. I know what you mean by "wild melodrama". There is so much in that book to glean.

    I would love to read a good biography of any of the Bronte sisters or good analysis of their books. Let me know if you come across any or have read any.

  8. my bad… i tend to(i know you're not going to believe this)get the sisters confused in the brainpan; hard to recollect who wrote what. sometimes. sorry…

  9. I had started reading this novel couple of years back and stopped because I just could not digest anything! When I saw you reading it, I thought maybe a good time to re-visit; now I think, I will keep it on the back burner forever! I thought I was the only one finding the book torturous!

  10. Well, you found a rotten apple in the 'classic barrel'.
    I've been there…done that!
    I try (difficult as it may be) to find some positive thing in a book so I won't feel I've wasted my time, as you mentioned. I tell myself…I have to learn the difference between good and bad books. I'll have to read some 'bad' for comparison. Don’t you need badness in order to
    know goodness? Even some 'bad' books win Nobel Prizes! (How it is by S. Beckett). At least Villette had punctuation!
    Great review, valid points and I enjoyed reading it!

  11. Ah, good point about the Adele comment. I was hoping Brönte had simply had a bad experience in Belgium and it was coming out in Villette, but perhaps she began to perceive all French in the same light.

    I was really surprised that you liked Wuthering Heights so I popped over and read your review. Fantastic! It's the only review that's helped me try to gain an appreciation for it (in addition to Marianne's comments in my review). If you have time, I'd really appreciate if you could read my review and see if you can illuminate anything for me, and perhaps start me on the road to being a WH convert. I wanted to like it, but I just found it fell short in so many areas …… mostly because of Emily's immaturity and lack of life experience, I'd say, but I still couldn't get past it. The good news is that if you enjoyed WH, you just might like Villette. I still think there are too many weaknesses to label it an excellent novel, but I'd be interested to hear what you think about it.

    As for biographies, I haven't read any yet, but I've heard that the ones by Juliet Barker and Elizabeth Gaskell are excellent.

    Not your bad at all, Mudpuddle! Because the authors were sisters I think that it's fair to compare the two, no matter who wrote them. I used to get them confused but recent reading of their novels has sorted them out more in my head ….. not that they won't get mixed up again though …. :-Z

  12. No, you are not the only one at all. I've been reading along with a GR's group and most people are struggling with it. There are those who are being kind and are trying to focus on Brönte's depression as an excuse, or the Gothic element, or the positive sides to Lucy's character, but it's more like a grasping at straws. If the book had been a short book, I might recommend reading it, but at 572 pages, unless someone can come along and convince me otherwise, I'd say that it's fine to give it a pass.

  13. "..Don’t you need badness in order to know goodness?"

    That's an excellent point, and very philosophic of you (did Plato rub off? 😉 ). This experience is certainly going to make the Jane Eyre read-along a more pleasurable event, that's for sure. And, in spite of disliking the novel, there are elements of it that were well-done. I think the length was part of the issue. If it had been a smaller book, I wouldn't have been so bothered, but to invest so much time and then have a poor experience is very disappointing. Thanks for your comments, Nancy!

  14. I read Villette a few years ago. I found it fascinating because I thought Lucy Snowe was such a bundle of contradictions – this puritan uptight, frightened woman who is besieged by deep loneliness and yet she has this wild, mysterious side to her that longs to be released. She's almost insane from the tension she lives. And she has all this vitriolic anti-Catholicism and yet falls in love with a Catholic. I enjoyed the meanderings of her mind. I think I was the mood for a long Victorian novel when I read it. I have a love/hate relationship with all the Bronte novels. They irritate me to no end, but I am magnetically drawn to them! So I guess I have this same tension as Lucy. . . .

  15. There was certainly the melodrama woven together with the reserve with Lucy, and you're right, it was complex and interesting. There was the anti-Catholicism, yet at the beginning she goes to confession and actually seems to respect the priest. However, later on, he's the devil incarnate for his actions. She has Puritan standards, but Madame going secretly through her belongings seems to amuse her. Brönte obviously made her a character in isolation right from the start, from her last name (Snowe — cold & frigid) right to the end when she often highlights her remoteness in the narrative; she refuses to speak or be seen in a couple of instances.

    All this was very interesting and perhaps creative, but the lack of reason behind it prevented me from enjoying it. To stand on drama and interesting contradiction alone, didn't do it for me; to what point was it all for? But your reference to timing is true; I think if I'd read it with the expectations I have for a Wilkie Collins, for example, I would have enjoyed it more but I expected something at least recognizable to Jane Eyre.

    I certainly understand the irritation, but I also understand the magnetism of their works. The read sometimes becomes more about figuring them out than about the story.

    Thanks for your comments, Faith. They've made me appreciate the book a little more than I did when I closed the last page. Perhaps some introspection will increase that appreciation a little more. We'll see …… 🙂

  16. I love your opening paragraph – it perfectly captures my own feelings when I first read the book several years ago. I remember being very disappointed because I'd identified very strongly with Jane Eyre, and liked her as a character, and I just could not muster up any sympathy for Lucy Snowe. I'm glad I'm not the only person who felt this way! 🙂

  17. Exactly! And I can't escape the feeling that Brönte was playing out some unsettling personal emotions, that I didn't quite get. Other comments have helped me to a greater appreciation of the bits and pieces, but I still think the novel suffers as a whole. I've just been hearing some good comments about Shirley, so I think I'll leave that one until last and hopefully end with a better feeling about her writing.

  18. Aww, that's a bummer. I've wondered about this one, as I've seen it on reading lists. But maybe I won't wonder anymore, since you are a good judge of writing style.

  19. I read what I was able to find of your review of Wuthering Heights, which was only about half of it. I'm not very techno saavy.

    I think your comments are great. You make the book sound very interesting to me and I like how you're able to describe the book from your point of view and what you got out of it.

    You should read the prologue that Emily's sister Jane wrote in my edition. She really didn't like the novel either and doesn't think her sister should have wrote it.

  20. I would almost say it's worth one read, my only hesitation is its length. There are certainly components in it that are interesting, but there are also many that are frustrating. It might pay to read some more reviews and then decide.

  21. Glad you finished it! It is my least favourite CB novel. Jane Eyre was basically perfect, I enjoyed Shirley, and The Professor was canny enough. Villette was unbearable! 🙂

  22. Ah, so good to hear that I've scraped the bottom of the barrel and now there's nowhere to go but up! You've read it twice too, so you certainly gave it a fair shot. When Faith mentioned the wild contradictions, I thought for a moment of Virginia Woolf, except in spite of the wild interesting ramblings, Woolf's work does seem to go somewhere, whereas this novel didn't. I'm glad that I read it, but I'm glad that I'm finished too.

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