Villette by Charlotte Brontë
I love Jane Eyre. It’s a book which I’ve loved for a long time and Jane is an important character to me. Objectively, I know that there are issues with it and, controversially, I would much rather Jane ends up happily single, but I still love it. However, I actually had not picked up any other Charlotte Brontë novels (despite having lived with Ruth (onthearmofthesofa) when she was trying to make everyone read Shirley) until a few weeks ago when I remembered that I had stolen my Dad’s copy of Villette. I am so glad that I finally got round to reading this book! I very much enjoyed it, and Lucy Snowe is now definitely one of my favourite female characters. Dad, if you’re reading this, I think your chances of getting the book back have slimmed somewhat.
Villette tells the story of Lucy Snowe who, on finding herself unemployed with few options available to her, decides to travel to the French-speaking town of Villette in the hope that a tenuous connection might lead to her finding a new job. She manages to find employment in the school of Madame Beck, where she becomes the English teacher, despite knowing little of the language, and there meets a host of interesting characters, unanswered questions, and secrets. From the mysterious Nun, which only she and one other character seem to see, to Madame Beck’s bizarre disregard for privacy, to the volatile Monsieur Emanuel, Lucy’s first two years in Villette are troubling. The pace of the novel is fairly slow for the most part, as Brontë works at establishing the characters and setting up the big mysteries of the narrative. However, I found that the slow pacing never led to me losing interest: the characters have a depth to them which Brontë explores through the minor plot developments just as engagingly as through the major.
I mentioned in the introduction that Lucy, the protagonist of the novel, has become one of my favourite female characters. Her first-person narration, at times addressing the reader in a similar way to Jane Eyre, is engaging and enjoyable; the character’s voice is strong and unique, never feeling like a copy of Jane despite the similarities. Lucy is inherently independent, actively searching for a means of income to keep herself alive. Yet she is also aware of her vulnerability as a young woman on her own in a country where she speaks only a little of the language. She is sensible but not afraid to speak her mind, whether it be to her student Ginevra or her colleague Monsieur Paul Emanuel, and her thoughts to which the reader is allowed access are wonderfully dry and funny. Throughout the novel, she is constantly told that she is such an ‘English girl’, not usually as a compliment but a comment on her sarcasm and behaviour: perhaps this is why she appeals to me so much!
One of the aspects of the novel, and Lucy’s character, which I appreciated was the undercurrent of religious tension which is never shied away from; Brontë instead confronts the issue explicitly on multiple occasions. Lucy comes to the very Catholic Villette as a Protestant, and is immediately put under pressure to conform. From comments she makes, it is clear she has not really thought much about religion previously, but it is the pressure she feels from Madame Back and others which forces her to think through why she identifies as a Protestant and whether she should continue as such. Her Protestant faith is strengthened and, throughout her friendship turned romance with Monsieur Emanuel, their biggest argument (of many!) is on the subject of faith. Monsieur Emanuel tries to convert Lucy endlessly before ultimately realising that she will not be changed. As a Christian, this was very interesting to me, and I liked that Brontë gave her protagonist such a strong, unshakeable faith.
As with many Victorian novels, Villette is full of bizarre connections and unlikely coincidences which can become a little wearing. The initial opening, in Bretton, seemed so disconnected from the Villette narrative, that it was clear this past was going to make a reappearance. I admit to being surprised when Graham was revealed, although in hindsight I probably should have guessed, but I knew Polly would be reappearing long before she actually showed up in the narrative. Whilst necessary in the sense of giving Lucy a sense of belonging and home which she previously had struggled to find throughout her life, their inclusion was a little too convenient for my liking.
As I said, I really enjoyed this book. My biggest issue with it was that I was not entirely happy about the romance between Lucy and Monsieur Emanuel, since he acted badly towards her and said some really terrible things to her face. However, Brontë won me over slightly by ending the novel not with a focus on the romance, but with Lucy fulfilling her potential as a fully-fledged teacher. I would still definitely recommend it, especially to anyone who enjoyed Jane Eyre. It has many of the same qualities as Brontë’s earlier novel, but reveals a growth in the strength of writing and character development which is wonderful to see.