Book review: Villette by Charlotte Brontë (Wordsworth Classics, 1993/1999 )
Based on Charlotte Brontë’s personal experience as a teacher in Brussels, Villette is a moving tale of repressed feelings and subjection to cruel circumstance and position, borne with heroic fortitude.
Rising above the frustrations of confinement within a rigid social order, it is also a story of a woman’s right to love and be loved.
Being a bit short on time I opted to read Villette with my ears: through an audiobook. That way I could get some reading done even while driving – a time otherwise spent listening to some music. Why waste up to an hour every day just listening to music, when it can be spent reading a book? Time spent reading is time well spent!
Villette is about Lucy Snowe, who starts off the book aged 14, at her godmother Mrs Bretton’s house. There she meets 16-year-old Graham Bretton, and also gets introduced to Mr Home and his little darling daughter Polly, eight or ten years old at the time. Polly and Graham get on like a house on fire. After a few chapters, the narrator (Lucy) skips ahead in time eight years and decides to travel abroad to try her luck. At this point, I was thinking “seriously, she’s just spent 3-4 chapters about something that’s got nothing to do with the actual plot of the book? It’s The Professor all over again!”
I had heard that Villette was related to The Professor, so I expected a re-vamped version of it, but it’s not. To begin with, The Professor is about a man. The premises are similar, though: a person comes to Brussels in Belgium (here disguised as the city of “Villette” in the fictional country of “Labassecour”) and becomes an English teacher in a Pensionnat (boarding school) for girls, run by a scheming lady. That’s where the similarities end, more or less.
The Professor was frustrating in the fact that it took Charlotte Brontë half the book to introduce the semblance of a plot, and to some extent, Villette suffers the same problem. It’s not really about anything. Things happen, sure, but it’s more of an autobiography. It’s a telling of many little events that make up a life, but not a plotted story with a set beginning, middle and end, and everything that happens in the book is to do with that. Lucy’s life as a plot, fine. Lucy finding someone to love and who loves her in return as a plot, semi-fail. Takes ages for him to get introduced and it’s not until toward the end that their feelings are revealed.
Maria Grazia noted in her Villette review that Lucy is hiding her true feelings and some facts from the reader. She does, and it’s annoying when you come to realise it. You happily plod along and all of a sudden, Lucy admits “oh yeah, I knew who you really were ages ago” to another character – and yet the reader (that’s us) doesn’t know she known all about it until that point. Sneaky, Charlotte Brontë, sneaky! Some things we can work out ourselves before it’s revealed to Lucy, who is happily clueless. A better practice of writing, I feel, but maybe that’s just me. The whole “hiding things from the readers” (“unreliable narrator” as it’s called) just feels a bit snooty.
Lucy as a character is a bit bland for quite some time, but then we discover she’s also principled, and she’s fiercely Protestant. It feels dated with the we’re-better-than-you attitude that both Lucy and Brontë have toward Catholics and foreigners. The Continentals are little more than savages, the British are cultured and reasonable people. Catholics are more or less despised. Toward the end someone tries to persuade her to convert, but she’s having none of it. She comes to Pensionnat Beck and starts off as a governess to Mme Beck’s children, but then gets promoted to English teacher.
Madame Beck is an incredibly nosy lady. You’d hate to have her as a mother-in-law because she’s definitely the sort of person who would interfere in everything. Yuck. She spies on everyone and I completely fail to take a shine to her.
Dr John is a handsome Brit, and at first, he’s infatuated with the pretty but silly Ginevra Fanshawe, one of the girls of the Pensionnat where Lucy teaches. Ginevra is someone Lucy first meets on the ship from England, so they have a “connection”; one that Lucy isn’t too thrilled about. When he finally discovers Ginevra isn’t Miss Right, he then turns his attention to Lucy, and at this point I was thinking “finally! There we go, now get on with it!” – which doesn’t happen. He finds someone else to fancy instead.
My favourite character is without a doubt Monsieur Paul Emanuel. He’s not introduced in a very flattering way, and his mannerisms are peculiar. I couldn’t decide if he’s just really camp or not, but his temper and cutting remarks made me giggle. That he’s introduced a very bossy and disagreeable way made me think of Mr Rochester, which is always a good association in my head! Every time his name entered the scene I secretly punched the air in a “YESSS!” way, because I knew I was in for a treat. As the story unfolds, we find out more about him, and that doesn’t exactly make him less of a treat. Ohhh no. Devout Catholic or wannabe Jesuit (whatever) and he might be short (I prefer ’em tall, I do) but I’d still definitely agree to a little tête-à-tête with him in the berceau. Or go hunting after ghostly nuns. Either way.
Rochester was inspired by Constantin Héger, it is said (the pensionnat owner in Brussels whom Charlotte Brontë had a great big crush on), and no doubt M. Paul is also drawn from this man. Perhaps even more so than Rochester. I’m beginning to think that if M. Héger was the original for both Rochester and M. Paul, he must have been ludicrously attractive. Perhaps not in the sense of being a stunner to look at (I’ve seen pictures – he definitely wasn’t), but in general. No wonder Charlotte fell for him! And of course, because she was so much in love with him, she paints her literary Héger avatars with the paintbrush of love, so because she was passionately in love with him, we fall head over heels with her characters. Or at least I do …
So the events in Villette might not be memorable, but the characters are. Charlotte was good at characterisation. Well good. Still find her prose a bit rambling, but at the same time, I have warmed up to it. It’s rich, it’s lush, it’s why it’s remembered with such fondness a century and a half later.
The printed edition I have comes with helpful end notes, so all the French phrases are translated. As I was listening to the audiobook, though (at least for the vast majority of the book – some bits I read during lunch, as I realised I read quicker than the recorded people were talking), I didn’t have that luxury, so goodness knows what was said. The audiobook was downloaded from LibriVox, so it’s been recorded by a bunch of literary enthusiasts. That means that the quality of readers varied a lot. Some of them were brilliant, and I loved hearing them. Some were … less good. Mr T heard a bit of one and said she sounded rather monotonous. He should’ve heard a later chapter, it was tremendously monotonous! The level of French varied widely too. Some were very good, others were … “OMG, please, just stop!” I wouldn’t class my French as good, but I really hope I manage to read the French bits of Jane Eyre better than some of the Villette readers. But at least they gave it a jolly good go, and that’s all that matters.
Soooo, to sum up: I enjoyed Villette, although I did wonder when it would get to the point. Still, M. Emanuel makes up for it, so 4 out of 5 boarding schools.