Villette by Charlotte Brontë.
Sadly for me, however, I could never quite get into it. I first read it a few years ago, I think actually it was for Allie's last Victorian Summer, and I hated it. The second time around I felt I was always on the precipice of falling into it, in the first half I came oh so close but never quite, then suddenly without no discernible reason any hints of Brontë magic packed up and left and I spent the final 250 pages either praying for it to return, or just for it to finish. Last year The Telegraph published an article on Villette,
It is also an astonishing piece of writing, a book in which phantasmagorical set pieces alternate with passages of minute psychological exploration, and in which Brontë’s marvellously flexible prose veers between sardonic wit and stream-of-consciousness, in which the syntax bends and flows and threatens to dissolve completely in the heat of madness, drug-induced hallucination and desperate desire.This is what I wanted, but I was left with the unfair conclusion that (for me), Villette's problem was Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre is almost universally loved and is consistently in the Top Ten books on most lists. It is one of my all time favourites (top five, I'd say) and there's always a hope that the author of our favourite book will write just one more - just one more incredible book that spins our minds. Shirley (1849), I think, was outstanding but didn't quite get there either (far closer than Villette did, though) and that leaves The Professor, which, to be fair, people are very polite about but there's few if any who think it's great literature. So that left Villette. Had Jane Eyre not been written, Villette still wouldn't have made my top ten, but I would have loved it all the more. This is the nearest I can get to explaining why I didn't love it.
But enough of that, what of the plot? Well, it's about Lucy Snowe, a rather difficult narrator who reveals things not as they happened but as she deems appropriate (if at all). It begins in England (in the fictional Bretton, presumably West Yorkshire but there are a few Brettons in England) with Lucy staying with her godmother Mrs. Bretton, her son John Graham Bretton, and another visitor - a little girl called Polly (her character I will never forget). When Lucy leaves she goes to live with and work for Miss Marchmont, however she dies, and so Lucy decides to quit England all together and go to Belgium in the fictional city of Villette where she works in a boarding school for Madame Beck. There we see her adapt to her life in a foreign country, fall in love, and sees others fall in love, though she never leaves her past behind - it very much stays with her with the reappearance of the early characters.
It's possibly Brontë's most autobiographical novel (Charlotte lived in Belgium for a time and fell in love with a married professor, M. Héger), it's very well done, and though there's a strong element of the Gothic, it's more (as The Telegraph suggested) about psychological realism. It is not an easy book, and by that I mean all the elements are not simply presented to the reader, it does involve more work than usual. It's full of twists and turns which later make sense but not so much at the time, and as I say Lucy Snowe is not always as forthcoming with facts as perhaps a reader would like. This is a good novel, and I enjoyed it more than is perhaps coming across, but it was painful and draining ,and I would quickly get tired of it as I read through it. I suppose what I felt was it wasn't quite worth it, and for that I feel bad.
On a lighter note - some illustrations! This first set are by the wonderful Edmund Dulac, but oddly enough they were not easy to track down. There are twelve illustrations for Villette however I could only find eight:
And the second set are by John Jellicoe and can be found in the 1906 edition of Villette (published by Andrew Melrose):