My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Englishwoman Lucy Snow strikes out for France and becomes a teacher at a boarding school; but her lonely life is soon interrupted by friendships with a handsome doctor and a mercurial professor.
It took me ages to get through Villette, and even as I rounded the final turn I worried that Charlotte Brontë was planning on breaking my heart. Lucy Snow reminds me of the Little Matchgirl, always looking in at the warmth of other lives with barely anything to keep herself going. It's a compelling character study, not only of Lucy but of the people around her.
One character tells Lucy, cruelly and with mixed accuracy: "I suppose you are nobody's daughter, since you took care of little children when you first came to Villette: you have no relations; you can't call yourself young at twenty-three; you have no attractive accomplishments - no beauty. As to admirers, you hardly know what they are; you can't even talk on the subject [...] I believe you never were in love, and never will be: you don't know the feeling, and so much the better, for though you might have your own heart broken, no living heart will you ever break."
Lucy Snow's life is difficult and lonely, but she is a coolly self-possessed young woman and doesn't give in to self-pity. In an attempt to gain a better life and secure her independence after the death of her employer, she leaves her country behind and goes Villette, a town in the heart of Catholic France (she is a devout Protestant, doesn't speak French, and has no money or friends). Though she finds work teaching English, she is desperately isolated and falls into a deep spiral of depression that is only broken when she strikes up a friendship with a handsome English doctor.
Brontë shows off her knack for funny, insightful social commentary, skewering Victorian hypocrisy and weak art. Her description of a sensual painting of Cleopatra is priceless, and an amusing scene follows between Lucy and an acid-tongued Frenchman who commands her not to look. He directs her instead to a series of insipid paintings that supposedly depict the stages of a woman's life, while he himself is free to admire the Rubenesque queen at his leisure.
This tyrannical Frenchman is M. Paul Emmanuel - a fellow schoolteacher of mercurial temperament who may berate her (and everyone else, for that matter), but soon shows that he has depths of goodness that offset his Napoleonic failings. Lucy wonders at his contradictory nature: "Never was a better little man, in some points, than M. Paul: never, in others, a more waspish little despot." But Lucy and M. Paul are equally spirited, and their battles are funny and occasionally poignant as their friendship deepens.
Not to say it's a perfect novel, but it is more complex and sophisticated than Jane Eyre (while sharing similar Gothic elements). There are a few flaws: a long opening that seems utterly irrelevant and casts initial doubt on who the main character is, with a delayed payoff; our thoroughly English heroine is incredibly anti-Catholic and anti-French (many of her observations about the people around her echo old British propaganda); and you'll definitely need an annotated version or to have Google Translate at hand for a lot of the important exchanges between Lucy and M. Paul, which take place in French.
The ending is far too abrupt. I felt cheated after experiencing Lucy's suffering and only getting a tiny look at her joy. So Brontë did break my heart a little, but she could have done much worse, and the experience of this novel paid me back in full. Her genius and feminism is present throughout Villette even more than Jane Eyre (though it's easier to love the latter, I'll admit).
Brontë has a few other lesser-known works, but I think the best follow-up to Villette is Shirley, her most feminist novel. Or you could go on to Elizabeth Gaskell's romantic North and South.
- "Several very well executed and complacent-looking fat women struck me as by no means the goddesses they appeared to consider themselves."
- "Really that little man was dreadful: a mere sprite of caprice and ubiquity: one never knew either his whim or his whereabout."
- "No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure."
- "Of course I did not blame myself for suffering: I thank God I had a truer sense of justice than to fall into any imbecile extravagance of self-accusation; and as to blaming others for silence, in my reason I well knew them blameless, and in my heart acknowledged them so: but it was a rough and heavy road to travel, and I longed for better days."
- "If life be a war, it seemed my destiny to conduct it single-handed."
- "He was born victor, as some are born vanquished."