Author: Charlotte Bronte
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):”With her final novel, Villette, Charlotte Bronte reached the height of her artistic power. First published in 1853, Villette is Bronte’s most accomplished and deeply felt work, eclipsing even Jane Eyre in critical acclaim. Her narrator, the autobiographical Lucy Snowe, flees England and a tragic past to become an instructor in a French boarding school in the town of Villette. There, she unexpectedly confronts her feelings of love and longing as she witnesses the fitful romance between Dr. John, a handsome young Englishman, and Ginerva Fanshawe, a beautiful coquette. This first pain brings others, and with them comes the heartache Lucy has tried so long to escape. Yet in spite of adversity and disappointment, Lucy Snowe survives to recount the unstinting vision of a turbulent life’s journey that is one of the most insightful fictional studies of a woman’s consciousness in English literature.”
Thoughts: Villette is a novel that makes more sense when the reader has knowledge of Charlotte Bronte’s biography and understands the turmoil in her life at the time she wrote it. Written after her sisters’ deaths, Charlotte’s anguish is written into almost every word of the novel. As a reader, it is difficult to remain impervious to the pain and depression that is apparent on each page.
In fact, the entire novel is a struggle to read. There are clear inconsistencies in the behaviors and attitudes of the main characters that can be extremely frustrating for a reader if read without the background knowledge. With this knowledge, however, the inconsistencies can be excused as a result of her struggles to console herself after tragedy and are at least understandable.
While Villette is no Jane Eyre, it remains as close to a self-portrait of the authoress as one will ever get. The loneliness one can imagine Charlotte feeling is present in Lucy Snowe as she loses every family member and must strike out into the world completely alone. Her love-hate relationship with M. Emanuel is symbolic of the relationship Charlotte maintained with M. Heger. Her love-hate relationship with being a teacher is indicative of her thoughts on her own experiences as a teacher in a foreign country. As much as Lucy proclaims how satisfied she is with her life, the reader cannot help but feel that Charlotte thought the exact opposite of her own experiences.
Surprisingly, much about Lucy is quite forward-thinking for the time period. She is a single woman traveling to a foreign country with no chaperone or concrete plans, a woman who prefers to remain single and proprietress of her own business versus getting married, and someone who does not succumb to the pressure to wear the latest fashions or attend the hottest events in town. This all could be an indicator of an enlightened woman. However, the overall impact is the suggestion that Charlotte was actually trying to convince herself that it is okay to be alone. There are hints given through Lucy’s thoughts and speech that she truly does not prefer the life she leads that suggest Charlotte’s struggles at this idea.
In the end, Villette is enjoyable to read if only because it allows the reader a clear glimpse into the mind of the author and allows the reader to feel a level of intimacy and sympathy with Charlotte that is typically not generated in novels. Lucy is admirable in her strength of character and her composure, even if her thoughts do not mirror her declarations to others. Indeed, Lucy is not a typical Victorian heroine and well worth the pain and effort it takes to get to understand her while simultaneously understanding the author’s need to write such a heroine. For those readers looking for another Jane Eyre, Villette is one to be avoided. For those looking for exposure to a Victorian novel unlike any other, written by a member of one of the best Victorian writing families ever, Villette is one to add to their repertoire.