Villette — Charlotte Brontë's
Many reviewers describe Charlotte Brontë's final
novel, Villette, as her masterwork (or should that be mistresswork?). Published in 1853, six years after
Jane Eyre (and four years after Shirley), Villette showcases the matchless prose skills
for which Jane Eyre is more famous.
Villette is viewed as being more
autobiographical than Jane Eyre, with the main setting — a girls' school in a French-speaking city —
resembling the boarding school that Charlotte and her sister Emily attended (and at which they taught) in Brussels,
Belgium. The protagonist, a young Englishwoman named Lucy Snowe, represents Charlotte, and Lucy's two romantic
interests supposedly stand for a teacher at the Brussels school and Charlotte's publisher (and one-time
Jane Eyre readers will recognize some
familiar themes here, though. A young unattached woman, deeply emotional and spiritual but untutored in matters of
the heart, finds employment far from home. She develops feelings for an older man despite his brusque manner and
unimpressive appearance. Supernatural-seeming mysteries and wrenching plot twists keep her tale suspenseful, and a
belief-stretching coincidence plays a key role.
Charlotte clearly poured her heart into this
fictionalization of her own early adulthood (she had been 26 when she enrolled in the school in Brussels). She also
added an overflowing helping of her uniquely passionate writing abilities. After reading Villette — over
the course of several months! — I understand why it's praised so highly. However, it has not supplanted Jane Eyre as my favorite
book; that is still #1, while Villette may be #1a.
Here is an overview of what I loved about
Villette as well as the foibles that kept it from reaching my personal pinnacle.
Strengths. If Jane Eyre
was written unbelievably well, Villette strains the reader's credulity even more. How could one mind
generate this flood of sparkling imagery, overpowering (and yet repressed) feelings, sharp social commentary, and
wicked humor? As I read the book, I used a yellow highlighter to mark phrases and sentences and even entire
passages that stood out in their brilliance. My battered little paperback is now splashed with golden markings on
nearly every page, and often multiple times on one page.
Her skill is truly staggering. See a tiny
hand-picked sampling of her wondrous wordings here.
In addition, Brontë's fondness for the people on
whom her characters are based shines through. She is guilelessly enraptured by some of their actions and habits,
even as she brilliantly skewers the meaner motives of some other residents of the school. Meanwhile, the reader
feels just what it is like to live in Lucy's body and mind and heart.
Weaknesses. What's not to love
about Villette? More than a few aspects did not appeal to me:
- Characters often speak to each other in
French. My copy of Villette didn't contain translations of those phrases; I had to borrow an edition
that did. If you don't understand French, it's tedious to stop and look up the meaning of all that
- Brontë uses her alter ego to make many jabs at
Catholicism and at citizens of the continent (in comparison with her apparently superior British countrymen).
This is different from the way she pillories high-society folks in Jane Eyre; belittling someone's
religion or nation feels mean-spirited.
- At one point, Lucy reveals to the reader that
she had long ago realized who an important character really was. The reader, having been purposely left in the
dark for many chapters, is forced to wonder what other "secrets" Lucy (or the author) may be
- The ending is unsettlingly ambiguous. Lucy
awaits someone's return, but Brontë makes it unclear whether that person does return.
- Lucy is simply not as inspiring a protagonist
as Jane. Where Jane challenged convention and sought to carve her own path, Lucy suppresses her feelings and
ambitions and desires, leaving herself largely at the whim of those around her. For example, she quietly loves
one man without ever revealing that fact to him. Perhaps Lucy is Charlotte as she saw herself, while Jane is
Charlotte as she wished she'd dared to be. In any case, the spark of Jane's rebellion against society's
strictures is virtually absent from Villette.
In sum: I found the story less rewarding than
Jane Eyre, but it's told so exhilaratingly well that Villette still gets my near-highest