Villette by Charlotte Brontë.

Villette is Charlotte Brontë's final novel and was published in 1853. Virginia Woolf referred to it as Brontë's "finest novel" (in The Common Reader First Series: '"Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights"'), and George Eliot wrote, "Villette! Villette! It is a still more wonderful book than Jane Eyre. There is something almost preternatural in its power."

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):

Comments

  1. When I read this novel (or maybe I should say "tried" to read it) I got about 90 pages in and just couldn't make myself keep reading. I just didn't like it. And, sad to say, I've never gone back. I guess it's just not my cup of tea.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I actually liked the first part the second time around - I didn't the first time around, though! But I know what you mean, it was rather oddly structured. :)

      Delete
  2. I have very complicated feelings about this novel. Think I may have to read it again some day, though I think I'll understand it better but not love it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That was more or less my feelings for it. I get it, largely, but... Not a favourite.

      Delete
  3. I reread Villette, Shirley, and Jane Eyre earlier this year (in that order). I can admire Villette but not love it. I love parts of Shirley but other parts are a mess. And Jane Eyre remains close to my heart. I know the hip thing is to prefer Villette but I guess I'm just unsophisticated. I do like those Dulac illustrations though. I didn't know he illustrated the complete works.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. One thing I can't help but think hipsters forget - Jane Eyre, and Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, and all those books frequently in everyone's favourites - they are favourites for a reason! Not always, but often. Villette's very clever, and I loved Shirley (not as much as Jane Eyre, as I said), but as I said I could never get into it. I think I actually read War and Peace faster than this.

      And yes, Dulac illustrated most if not all the Bronte works. Not so easy to find online, however! :)

      Delete
    2. Well, my favourite Austens are Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Emma.

      Delete
    3. It's not about being a hipster. I'm not one. Can see why people like Pride and Prejudice, but the 3 latest works are a lot greater and more complex.

      Delete
    4. I was thinking of those who deliberately trash the big names and pick the slightly more obscure / lesser read ones to make a point, not saying anyone who actually prefers the less read ones are trying to be a hipster - I don't think I made that clear in the last comment :)

      Delete
    5. Okay, now I see what you mean.

      Delete
  4. I read Villette years ago and didn't enjoy it much. Perhaps I was expecting it to be too much like Jane Eyre (which is why I didn't like Wuthering Heights at first, either but now it's my favorite). I found her caricatures of the French to be a little too prejudiced and it didn't end well at all. However, that was years ago so I should probably reread it.
    I don't know anything about hipster but I do see a trend where certain authors past or present will use hyperbolic language (such a Woolf's comment) that fool me in to mistrusting my own opinions. I've come to the conclusion that it's OK to disagree with the likes of Virginia Woolf and the others. Maybe they're seeing something I'm not, but it could be they're not such shining oracles either. Love the Dulac illustrations.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've had a few disagreements with Woolf, most notably The Small House at Allington. I think she said either that was his best novel, or it was one of the best novels ever written. Either way I totally disagreed! :)

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Getting up on Cold Mornings by James Henry Leigh Hunt.

The Book Tag.

20 Books of Summer.