Only A Novel

Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Posted in Books, Charlotte Brontë, Fiction, Literature, Reading, Review by onlyanovel on July 6, 2008

Where my soul went during that swoon I cannot tell. Whatever she saw, or wherever she travelled in her trance on that strange night, she kept her own secret; never whispering a word to Memory, and baffling Imagination by an indissoluble silence. She may have gone upward, and come in sight of her eternal home, hoping for leave to rest now, and deeming that her painful union with matter was at last dissolved. While she so deemed, an angel may have warned her away from heaven’s threshold, and, guiding her weeping down, have bound her, once more, all shuddering and unwilling, to that poor frame, cold and wasted, of whose companionship she was grown more than weary.

—Lucy Snowe

Villette
Where to begin. Corny as it may seem, at one point while reading, to describe how I felt, forgive me but I came up with the words, “I have died and my soul has seen literary heaven.” This was somewhere in the beginning of Volume II, where the novel really took off in terms of Brontë’s writing and, from that point on, it never came back down from the clouds.

I would describe Brontë’s writing in this novel as passionate, as if every thought was first felt before it was written. Brontë holds none of her writing talents back, as if she was saying, “Reader, you shall feel the full force of my genius, and I will not apologize for it. Brace yourself.” And the patient reader who is able to survive the brunt of this relentless force is amply rewarded. I also found myself blown away by Brontë’s profound observations and knowledge of human nature, which were all exquisitely expressed and written.

Lucy Snowe is Brontë’s unlikely protagonist who doubles as our unreliable narrator. Lucy has neither beauty nor fortune, is lonely and prone to depression. She was once content to be shrinking, to be forgotten by the world, diffident and cowardly, until circumstances force her out of her comfort zone and to take steps necessary for survival, and then for the sake of budding aspiration and independence. For almost the entire novel, I was in heartfelt anguish reading about Lucy’s aloneness, but it was inspiring to watch her summon the courage to move forward on her own—I appreciated the novel most for these two themes. Yes, Lucy has a few friends, but friends, even good ones, just don’t cut it sometimes.

…peril, loneliness, an uncertain future, are not oppressive evils, so long as the frame is healthy and the faculties are employed; so long, especially, as Liberty lends us her wings, and Hope guides us by her star.

 

The story is set in Villette, capital of the fictional kingdom of Labassecour, where Lucy eventually finds herself as a teacher in a Pensionnat de Demoiselles, which might as well be a prison castle in a gothic novel (and the novel does feel very gothicy). But don’t be misled by what I’ve written so far into thinking that Villette is a somber tome in every way. The chapters, rather, take the reader on a roller coaster ride of ups and downs, lightheartedness and seriousness, hopefulness and hopelessness. My favorite chapter, Monsieur’s Fête, is in fact quite a funny one. Monsieur in this case is M. Paul Emanuel, Lucy Snowe’s eccentric colleague. Reading this chapter was like watching a romantic comedy film, only better. It was really funny, as well as touching, and it showed that Brontë had a wicked sense of humor. Why, the plot even satirically includes the ghost of a dead Nun.

The novel has very strong anti-Roman Catholic sentiments (another gothic element?), almost like a propaganda. At first, I was surprised about this. But then, I vaguely recalled my history lessons, and then I wasn’t as surprised. But then again, I’m still a little puzzled, and my question remains whether the strong sentiments could have been left out without doing harm to the novel.

I do have a few minor irritations:

  1. The ending. The notes at the back of my Penguin edition says that Charlotte had originally meant this novel’s ending to be written in another manner, but that her father asked her to change it. Well, Mr. Patrick Brontë, your daughter was doing very well, thank you, and you should not have intervened. I happen to think that the ending would have been much better if Charlotte had written it the way she originally intended!
  2. What on earth did Lucy Snowe tell Père Silas in the confessional? I suspect that Ms. Snowe told the priest more than she told her reader, and it is typical for Ms. Snowe, unreliable narrator that she is, to leave out this rather important detail! Arrrrgh!
  3. I briefly cringed at one particular point in the novel, when Lucy Snowe was offering “homage” to one who had been generous to her. I thought it was a bit much.
 

Do you read French well? This novel has a lot of dialogue in French, so if you don’t read French well, make sure to get a copy which has full translations at the back or you will miss out on a lot of lively conversation. My Penguin edition, for example, includes full translations along with copious notes.

And finally, one more reason why I think Villette was worth reading—Brontë’s extensive vocabulary. If I did not know the existence of half of the big words in the English language before, I do now. Forsooth! What was equally impressive was that the big words fit right in.

 

Peace, be still! Oh! a thousand weepers, praying in agony on waiting shores, listened for that voice, but it was not uttered—not uttered till, when the hush came, some could not feel it: till, when the sun returned, his light was night to some!

—Charlotte Brontë, in Villette

 
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