Villette — Charlotte Brontë's Masterwork?

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 suitor).

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 dialogue.
  • 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 keeping.
  • 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 recommendation.