Monday, 21 April 2008

Villette by Charlotte Bronte

It was my turn to choose what we would read for our book group: I'm usually the one who chooses a classic so by popular demand I did so again. Last time I chose Wilkie Collins', A Woman in White: a resounding success. Before that, George Elliot, Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens had all gone down well. But this time, Charlotte Bronte's Villette, was not such a wow. In fact it was a resounding thumbs down.

The story begins when 14 year old Lucy Snowe is staying with her godmother, Mrs Bretton, and her son, Graham. A widower's little daughter, Paulina, also comes to stay. Lucy returns to her family – we are told nothing of them but there are hints at sadness and loss – and eight years later has to earn her own living. This eventually leads to her becoming a teacher for a manipulative character, Madame Beck, at Pensionnat de Demoiselles in Villette.

Here she meets a strong minded but inspirational professor, M.Paul Emmanuel, with whom she has a difficult relationship. When ill she is befriended by the school doctor, who takes her to his mother's house to recover. The mother is Mrs Bretton, the doctor, her son, Graham, whom Lucy has loved since a child. The grown Paulina turns up in Brussels and she and the doctor fall in love. Resigned to this, Lucy begins to appreciate M.Paul, firstly for his intellect, secondly for his kindness to her. Finally she falls in love with him.

Villette was written as three volumes when Charlotte, lonely and dispirited, was still heartbroken at the recent deaths of her brother and two sisters, Emily and Anne; she was also suffering from debilitating illness. Encouraged by her editor – whom she was very fond of and used as the inspiration for the doctor - she finished the third volume in record time, and it was published in 1853.

It's impossible to read this novel and not draw parallels between the lives of Lucy Snowe and Charlotte Bronte. In 1842 Charlotte, mourning the loss of her beloved aunt, went to teach at a school in Brussles run by M. and Mme.Heger. She admired M.Heger for his intellect and his kind encouragement of her writing and she eventually fell passionately in love with him.

Everyone in our book group thought the first few chapters of Villette were fine, the last few the best of the book. It was the thirty odd chapters in between that were the problem. They trudged through them, they struggled, they gritted their teeth. But they didn't enjoy.

Unfortunately, they all found it simply too wordy: I have to give them that it is far too long. Bronte pads out the story and, like other authors of the time – more so than Austen, as much as Hardy – goes into long descriptions of character, place or opinion that modern authors don’t, can't do. Then the reader was trying to fill time, revel in introspection and search for stimulation. Whereas now we squeeze reading into the little time we have available.

And the groupies didn't like Lucy Snowe. Certainly she isn't a character one warms to: I have to give them that as well. She is stubborn, contrary, contained, perverse and parsimonious. But, come on guys, the novel slowly shows us that she is also passionate, rebellious, sensitive, observant and intelligent. Yes, she's a complex character: real people are difficult to pigeonhole, they are complex. Who said characters in a book can't be complicated too. But I guess that the reaction of the groupies shows that it's a difficult trick to pull off.

It's well documented that the perceived flaw of this novel is that Bronte fails to give the reason for Lucy Snowe's sadness, her hinted loss and quite apparent loneliness; whereas in Jane Eyre the reader is acquainted with Jane's background. Certainly the groupies thought it a major flaw: they felt cheated because they expected to find out the reason at some stage in the novel.

Too many co-incidences; not much of a story; unbelievable characters; obvious devices; a rushed ending – oh, dear, one criticism after another. But, surely, they could see some merit in the novel. No? But in Villette there are flashes of brilliant observation, a rich and powerful use of language, amazing character studies, wit and wry humour and truly wonderful descriptions of passion and pain.

Lucy Snowe is a character as strong as any modern heroine, one who will not "exist in another's existence", one who fights to be independent, who feels that no matter how unimportant a person, everyone deserves to be loved and to love. I grant it's twenty years since I last read Villette, and it may be another twenty till I read it again, but, read it again I will.


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