Warning: Spoilers for Villette possible, but it’s really late and I’m really cracked out so I don’t know if they’ll even be in there.
I tried and failed to finish Jane Eyre several times before I finally did. And whenever I’d angst on Facebook over the fact that I was getting nowhere or whatever, one of my friends from college would say Villette was better and Lucy Snowe was a better narrator. Others would chime in as well from time to time and sing praises of the novel.
Now I have also read Villette and I think I mostly understand what all the fuss is about. While Jane Eyre is a Gothic romance, and Jane Eyre herself is almost always at a rolling boil, Villette is a much more realistic novel, and Lucy Snowe has strong emotions but typically remains much more reserved. If Lucy Snowe had been stuck with Aunt Reed, I don’t think she would have gone quite to “YOU’RE DEAD TO ME.” But Lucy is rarely mistreated the way Jane is either—at their worst, the other characters annoy her, but she just keeps rolling along.
The basic summary of Villette is very similar to that of The Professor, since the former is basically a re-telling of the latter: an English national’s experiences abroad as a teacher in Brussels (or a fake version of Brussels called “Villette” in a fake version of Belgium called “Labassecour”). But while I pretty much hated The Professor, I really enjoyed Villette. I don’t think the male perspective suits Charlotte Brontë well—she really shines for me when she presents these proto-feminist, complex, emotional characters. And it’s nice that she lays off the phrenology talk and extreme hatred of Europeans and Catholics (like…why did you even go to Europe, William Crimsworth?). There are plenty of lol-worthy trashings of popery, Romish wizardry, etc., mind you.
Given that most people know Charlotte Brontë for Jane Eyre, I was surprised by the more realist mode of Villette. There are some Gothic elements: a couple of storms, creepy Catholic castles, a nun’s ghost—but these are all dealt with in a very straightforward manner and the novel eschews supernatural explanations in the end. For the most part, Jane Eyre offers pretty rational explanations of bizarre goings-on, but the feel of JE is different; much friendlier to the unexplained. I was also surprised by the pretty broad social world of Villette: Lucy does spend a lot of time in more or less social isolation, but there’s a whole cast of characters running around her at almost any given moment. In fact, she often has to go to great lengths to seek solitude.
Truthfully, I wasn’t a big fan of the romantic subplots—but I never am. There were really two: Lucy becomes very close with the handsome young Dr. John, but he keeps becoming enamored of younger, prettier, richer women. Then there’s also M. Paul Emmanuel, one of the other teacher’s at her school. The two of them….uh….enjoy one of those we-hate-each-other-or-do-we routines that are so popular in contemporary romantic comedies. Neither of these men are as dashing (or as creepy) as Mr. Rochester, but without them Lucy would almost never leave the grounds of her school, so there you have it. I had kind of a literary crush on Dr. John, but in my defense he sounded pretty hot.
I’m really not entirely sure how to comment on this novel to be honest. There were times when my eyes glazed over, but there were also those Jane Eyre-like moments where I thought, “MY GOD I AM LUCY SNOWE!” And I’ll admit some of the novel kind of creepily coincided with my own life: I’m emotional but no-nonsense at the same time, I spend a lot of time alone, I sometimes feel overlooked, and I have pretty strong moral convictions. But there were even weirder things: there’s a scene where Lucy finds the director of the school pawing through her personal belongings—a scene I read on the very same day I discovered my own landlord had put a bunch of food in my fridge while I wasn’t home without asking me (that’s another story for a different blog).
As usual, the way Brontë writes emotions resonated with me deeply. I’m hoping to do a pan-Brontë post when all is read and done, but for now I’m very tired and I work in the morning and kind of dazed from reading so much the past two days. So I will leave you with one of my favorite passages, in which Lucy and I had the same feelings:
My spirits had long been gradually sinking; now that the prop of employment was withdrawn, they went down fast. Even to look forward was not to hope: the dumb future spoke no comfort, offered no promise, gave no inducement to bear present evil in reliance on future good. A sorrowful indifference to existence often pressed on me — a despairing resignation to reach betimes the end of all things earthly. Alas! When I had full leisure to look on life as life must be looked on by such as me, I found it but a hopeless desert: tawny sands, with no green fields, no palm-tree, no well in view. The hopes which are dear to youth, which bear it up and lead it on, I knew not and dared not know. If they knocked at my heart sometimes, an inhospitable bar to admission must be inwardly drawn. When they turned away thus rejected, tears sad enough sometimes flowed: but it could not be helped: I dared not give such guests lodging. So mortally did I fear the sin and weakness of presumption. (225-6)
And with that….onto Agnes Grey!