Prior to reading Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, I owned two copies of it. One was an antique-y harcover with black and white photo illustrations. The other was a pretty blue softcover in a slipcover that my husband G. Grod brought home for me one day because he thought I might like it. I certainly did. However, in typical fashion, the possession of both these lovelies did not induce me to immediate reading of said treasures. Like so many do, they languished on the Bronte shelf, gathering dust.
Until last month, when I pulled them off to show to my book group, and we decided to read Villette. And, with all good intentions, I ended up accumulating three more copies.
Alas, the blue volume in the slipcover was deceptively slim. Because of small type and thin pages, it, like most other editions, ran nearly 500 pages. Also, it was not an easy read for me, as I had found Jane Eyre. The text is rife with Biblical, mythical, and literary allusions, many of which I did not know. Embarrassing, since I have a degree in religious studies. However my seven years of French stood me well; I could understand most of the many passages in that language. If you do not speak French, be sure to get an edition that translates the phrases, or you will miss much of the dialogue when the scene shifts to Villette, France, a fictionalized, none-too-kind version of Brussels, Belgium.
I struggle with what to write about the book, because there is an ambiguity many have found at the beginning I don’t want to dispel, yet without which it’s hard to describe the book.
In the autumn of the year ____ I was staying at Bretton; my godmother having come in person to claim me of the kinsfolk with whom was at the time fixed my permanent residence. I believe she then plainly saw events coming, whose very shadow I scarce guessed; yet of which the faint suspicion sufficed to impart unsettled sadness, and made me glad to change scene and society. (Ch. 1 Bretton)
Is the narrator telling her own story, or that of another girl? This eventually becomes clear, and we follow a young woman from Bretton to London to “Villette”. She is tossed about on waves both literal and figurative; questions of fate, love, justice and imagination pervade the book. Taking employ at a school for girls, the young woman adjusts to her new surroundings and is a fierce and sharp observer of others. She is not, however, always a sympathetic character, and the narrator is a decidedly untrustworthy one, as the reader learns, right unto the end. Contrasts, in a character, or between characters and situations, are rife. These can be unsettling and feel jarring, yet made sense to me as I reviewed the book once I was done.
It is often noted that Charlotte Bronte criticised the work of Jane Austen for being passionless and mannered. No one could argue that the main character of Villette doesn’t have surging passions:
once breaking off the points of my scissors by involuntarily sticking them somewhat deep in the worm-eaten board of the table before me. But, at last, it made me so burning hot, and my temples and my heart and my wrist throbbed so fast, and my sleep afterwards was so broken with excitement, that I could sit no longer. (Ch. 13 A Sneeze out of Season)
And she barely disguises the sexuality she struggles to keep in check:
Conceive a dell, deep-hollowed in forest secrecy; it lies in dimness and mist: its turf is dank, its herbage pale and humid. A storm or an axe makes a wide gap amongst the oak-trees,; the breeze sweeps in; the sun looks down; the sad, cold dell, becomes a deep cup of lustre; high summer pours her blue glory and her golden light out of that beauteous sky, which till now the starved hollow never saw. (Ch. 23 Vashti)
Yet reading Villette, I was reminded strongly of two characters from Austen’s work. The narrator reminded me of Fanny Price from Mansfield Park, as she is a frequently judgmental observer of the more worldly characters around her. Further, the character of Ginevre Fanshawe, a vain, pretty girl, reminded me of Lydia from Pride and Prejudice.
This is a big, complicated novel that is nonetheless entertaining, though perhaps in a way less obvious than many find Jane Eyre. I loved Jane Eyre, and found many similarities in this book: cross-dressing, attics, and tyrannical religious types among them. (Jesuits fared especially poorly in Bronte’s estimation. They were repeatedly characterized as sneaky and less than truly charitable.) I found Villette more challenging to read than Jane Eyre, but also, in the end, more rewarding. The work I put into reading slowly, getting a good edition with thorough notes, following up on things that weren’t noted, left me with a deep respect and affection for the book. One benefit of having five editions of the book was five different introductions to read afterwards (of five, only the Oxford edition kindly notes: “Readers who are unfamiliar with the plot may prefer to treat the introduction as an afterword.”) Together, these helped reinforce basic biographical information, yet added insights unique to each edition.
For much more Bronte goodness, visit the Bronte Blog.