Thursday, October 13, 2011

"villette", or: "what happens when you put jane eyre in a small european town"

*Warning: Here Be Spoilers for the novel Villette. Do not read if you do not want the book ruined for you.*

Villette. The last novel written by Charlotte Brontë, the eldest and longest living of the famous Brontë sisters.  Before I start this review, I do think that there are several things you need to know about my biases, so you can reprimand me for not giving an entirely fair review if you see fit:
  • Jane Eyre has been my favorite novel for the past eight years.  
  • The strong female character, alone and friendless in the world who manages to avoid temptations and succeed nearly independently (well, Jane Eyre does depend on the goodwill of others in her moment of poverty, so she doesn't completely succeed on her own) is something that I find inspiring.  
  • Strong, intelligent men who admire and clash with the above-mentioned sort of women are amusing interactions for me.  They don't have to be good-looking.
  • I hate Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, mostly because no one character is likable.  Note, however, I have actually read it more times than Jane Eyre and admit that the former novel is probably a better work of literature than the latter.
image source: The Blog of Oddments and Curiosities
Published in 1853, it is a strange and beautifully written novel that most critics call the most autobiographical of all of Charlotte Brontë's works.  The story surrounds the life of one Lucy Snowe, a poor, educated young woman with no family who must work to support herself.  On a whim she travels across the English Channel and arrives at the (Belgian?) town of Villette, where she obtains a post first as a nurse to the children of one Mme. Beck, and eventually becomes an English teacher at Mme Beck's pensionnat (boarding school) for girls.  The story then focuses on Lucy's relations with the school's staff and the English friends she eventually finds living in Villette.

Several of Charlotte Bronte's favorite themes pop up in this novel- unrequited love, religion, female independence, and the working woman of the 19th century.

The quite, the shy, the depressed, the physically unattractive, and the socially awkward will find much in common with Lucy Snowe.  She spends months in the presence of one Dr. Bretton, her godmother's son, without revealing her identity as the adolescent girl who used to visit the Bretton's house in England ten years earlier.  It takes Mrs. Bretton, the doctor's mother, to suddenly recognize the identity of her goddaughter after Lucy is confined to the Bretton abode in Villette after suffering a nervous breakdown.  

Yes, nervous breakdown.  During an idle summer vacation Lucy becomes depressed, wandering the halls of the empty boarding school haunted by her own terrible thoughts.  There is something very human about Lucy and not only her depression, but also her own reaction to being outside her comfort zone.  She is afraid of failure.  She does not push herself- Mme Beck has to force her to be an English teacher, throwing her almost entirely unprepared into an English class full of students for her first lesson.  Mrs. Bretton forcibly makes Lucy attend a ball with herself and her son, even purchasing the pink dress she will wear (a more frivolous color than Lucy would have picked herself had she been given the choice.)  When one of the professors at the school, M. Paul Emmanuel, endeavors to give Lucy a more detailed education in the evenings, she fights him tooth and nail, claiming her own inability to learn and not wishing to be put on the spot.  It is rather frustrating to read about someone who is so adverse to changing and growing, but one has to admit that most people are not too different.  

In the course of the book Lucy harbors a secret, unrequited attraction for Dr. John Bretton, one that she finally gives up as hopeless when a mutual acquaintance and prettier rival for the doctor's affections comes along.  Another example of not pushing herself outside her comfort zone, in my opinion- Bretton does like Lucy, and if she had given him any sort of hint of attraction, who knows what might have happened between them?

Meanwhile, Lucy's interactions with the eccentric professor, M. Emmanuel, become more frequent.  An intelligent, very Catholic, temperamental little man, has many humorous clashes with her.  The stubbornness of both results in a kinship that is eventually verbally sealed as a mutual friendship between the two.  And, despite the machinations of Mme Beck, M. Emmanuel's cousin, and Père Silas, M. the professor's mentor and priest, to keep the little man away from the heretical English Protestant, Emmanuel and Lucy fall in love with each other.  

Here Lucy discovers, more so than in any other part of the book, cross-cultural struggles of being a foreigner in a foreign land.  Her religion and her habits are constantly criticized and set her apart from true friendship with the native people of Villette.  But when there is a danger of M. Emmanuel loving Lucy those who oppose the match hold it up as a fight of Heaven versus Hell.  Her status as a woman who must work for her bread, has no money to bring to a marriage, and her lack of physical charms also appear to be raised up as potential issues, in her mind, to her marriageability.

Toward the end true love prevails in settling these differences.  When M. Emmanuel is sent by relatives to oversee a West Indies plantation (in an attempt to take him far from Lucy) he buys Lucy the start of her own pensionnat with the promise that he will return and marry her in three years' time.  

All seems picturesque and happy.  And then, at the end of the three years, something happens that leaves the happy ending forever in limbo for the reader.  A deadly storm springs up just as M. Emmanuel's ship is coming home.  But the reader is never graced with the result of the storm.  Although many ships are destroyed, the narrator never reveals whether M. Emmanuel's ship is one of the lost number.

Charlotte Brontë, you ended a novel on a never-to-be-resolved cliffhanger!

The main issues with the book that I had was that Lucy Snowe seemed more to me like Jane Eyre than a separate character in her own right.  Considering that Charlotte Brontë was known to have been socially awkward and both Jane Eyre and Villette are said to be quite autobiographical (with the latter being much more so than the former) it is not surprising that Lucy and Jane are most likely the authoress under different names.

Also, unless the book edition of Villette you may be reading has footnotes translated into English, a working knowledge of French is necessary to read some parts of this story without consulting a dictionary or typing the words onto an online translator.  I guess Brontë thought that it would be more realistic if the French-speaking characters actually spoke French a great deal of the time.  While most of the dialogue spoken in French is not that important to the progression of the story, and Brontë drops the French almost entirely in the French-speaking characters by the end of the novel, it was rather time-consuming for me to pause at each French sentence and search my brains for the remnants of my French education to discover the meaning of a sentence.  That sort of work interrupts the flow of the story.

The one other complaint I had was the little "ghost story" of the nun Brontë imposed in the novel, which seemed too much like the crazy woman in the attic of Jane Eyre.  While it was rather creepy and had both the narrator and some characters thinking that Lucy was quite unhinged and hysterical, and it ended up being a convenient plot device, I am not sure it was totally necessary.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the book.  I strongly suspect that this book is a rarity in that it delves so much into the Victorian English woman's mind- her thoughts, her fears, her views on society, and her worries over doing things right and not putting herself out there.  It was a strong character novel that, despite its lack of a resolution for the relationship between Lucy and M. Emmanuel, does give Lucy something rare for Victorian woman- the ability to financially support herself, independent of family or an employer.  She is also eventually accepted as a valued member of the community, despite her foreign and heretical status in the town of Villette. 

1 comment:

  1. Jane Eyre is my favorite book, too! I hadn't heard of Villette. I didn't read this post (yet, because of the spoiler warning) but I'm glad you posted it, as I was running out of classics to read. I'll be downloading this to my Kindle this weekend!! Thank Heaven for free classics on Kindle! :-D