Villette is a much harder book than Jane Eyre. It is significantly darker in tone, with a clinically depressed protagonist of questionable veracity. Lucy is not really as passionless or as passive as she makes herself out to be, and at times, her first-person narrative skims over her own outbursts and the moments in which she lashes out at her acquaintances. And Villette has a deliberately vague conclusion, one that is easily read as tragic – but tragic for whom? It’s up for debate (and a number of English scholars have indeed debated it). I don’t want to spoil the entire novel by revealing the ending, but suffice it to say that beyond Villette’s theological themes, I spent the most time contemplating the ending, and I even looked up a few essays on it. Though dense and slow-moving, this novel is beautifully written and well worth the time.
Villette is the only one of Charlotte Brontë’s novels that is not named for a character (Jane Eyre, Shirley, The Professor) but for a place: the fictional town of Villette, based on Brussels. So already we have a book that is very different than the England-based Jane Eyre. Englishwoman Lucy Snowe, an orphan due to unspecified reasons (possibly a shipwreck?), finds herself alone and desperate for an occupation, so she ends up teaching English at a girls’ boarding school in Villette. Lucy is an outsider, longing for England, “that dear land of mists” (141).
Villette’s themes, political, religious, and psychological, are very much a product of the novel’s historical context: nationalism, imperialism, and slavery; conflict between Lucy’s dour and prim English Protestantism which leans extremely Puritan and the extravagant continental Catholicism; physiognomy and changing perceptions of race; and isolation and clinical depression. All of these conflicts are bound up together. For example, Lucy struggles for self-respect among her students, who not only lack self-respect themselves but welcome a teacher’s sarcastic blow to their own dignity. They only warm to Lucy after she makes them feel shamed. Lucy muses on the difference between them and English children (and incidentally, this was the quote I displayed when I took Villette as part of my exhibit for the book-collecting contest):
Imprimis – it was clear as the day that this swinish multitude were not to be driven by force. They were to be humoured, borne with very patiently: a courteous though sedate manner impressed them; a very rare flash of raillery did good. Severe or continuous mental application they could not, or would not, bear: heavy demand on the memory, the reason, the attention, they rejected point-blank. Where an English girl of not more than average capacity and docility, would quietly take a theme and bend herself to the task of comprehension and mastery, a Labassecourienne would laugh in your face, and throw it back to you with the phrase, – ‘Dieu que c’est difficile! Je n’en veux pas. Cela m’ennuie trop.’ [‘Goodness, this is difficult! I don’t want to do it. This really bores me.’] (91-92)
But she also considers the difference between their religions. She cannot understand why Catholics privilege failing to go to mass as a greater sin than lying, and when all of the other teachers and students attend evening prayer each night, she takes to wander alone in the garden. Lucy, and by extension, Brontë, clearly knows her Scripture; Lucy quotes the Bible a lot, often to make associations that you won’t pick up on unless you know more of the stories she alludes to than just the phrase itself. Most interesting to me was the fact that the fearful apparition that so scares Lucy was a ghostly nun! That whole thread ended up clarified in a very different manner than I was expecting, but even with the tidy explanation, I think it spoke to a deep-seated suspicion and fear of the Other within Lucy. Because I had such a focus on the Protestant/Catholic conflict throughout my whole reading experience, I thought the book could have safely ended sooner than it did – towards the end was a remarkably cathartic chapter in which all of these theological differences were resolved on a small scale, when it is determined that Lucy and her Roman Catholic friend worship the same God. It was a stunning chapter and, to me, a more satisfactory conclusion to the many themes of the book than the actual ending itself.
You’ll note I haven’t actually talked about the plot much. There’s a lot of thematic discussion packed into this novel, which results in it having a fairly minimal plot despite the nearly 550 pages. Lucy’s actions and personal growth are important, but not as important as the greater points the book makes. Villette is a fantastically atmospheric, continually thoughtful, and often terribly sad novel. Just perfect for winter. Now I need to find a copy of Shirley or one of Anne’s novels for next winter break’s annual Brontëfest.
Have any of you read Villette before? What was your response? Did you focus on different aspects than I did? If you’ve read it multiple times, did you find that your focus was different each time?