2012 Challenges, Books, The Classics Club

Book 157: Villette – Charlotte Brontë

I’m starting to get an inkling as to why Charlotte Brontë was so bent on keeping Emily and Anne’s writings out of the public eye, but I will save that pronouncement until I read more of her novels. Villette counts as my 8th (of 9) novel for the Back to the Classics challenge, is on my Classics Club list and is my final novel for the 2012 Mount TBR Reading challenge (keep an eye out for my wrap-up post).

Villette is Charlotte’s third published novel and the fourth she wrote. It is the second novel, Jane Eyre was the first, that I’ve read by Charlotte. As with all of the Brontë’s works a portion of this novel comes from Charlotte’s life and you can definitely see the influences in the themes of loneliness and even with whom Lucy Snowe falls in love with. It was an interesting read and rather long, but overall I would say I enjoyed it, but am not in love with it the way I was in love with Anne and Emily’s work. For me this would definitely change if the novel were grouped differently.

There were a lot of chapters and the story meandered along at times and I feel that if the some of the chapters were shuffled and the novel divided into distinct volumes it would’ve been easier to read. I also think the book was about 100-150 pages to long, but we all know that’s a common issue I have with the classics.

The highlight and the lowlight of this novel is Lucy Snowe. I wanted to love her and even did most of the time, but in the end I felt that she was a weaker character than I wanted especially with some of the views Charlotte expressed through the character. I couldn’t help but think how much more of an impact Lucy would have had if she were an Austen character. At the beginning of the novel and in a very few specific scenes, locking one of the students in the cupboard is a great example, Lucy shows so much potential and sass, but ultimately I feel she falls flat.

I also just wanted to shake Lucy and tell her to wake up and sort her shit out. She is not a stupid woman and has clearly made a huge step in the right direction of supporting herself in the future, but she really needed a rude awakening to really sort herself out. There were many other characters that were fascinating, but I just can’t be bothered to write about them. Mrs. Beck and Ginerva annoyed me, Polly and Dr. John were infatuating, Paul Emanuel infuriated me and the numerous other characters provided an interesting backdrop for the story.

However, it wasn’t all bad! I appreciated how Charlotte took a leaf out of Anne’s books, literally, and actually worked in some social criticism of the church and of how some women were treated. Although it was neither as harsh, nor as subtle, as Anne’s, she did include it and I appreciated it. She was very much not impressed with Catholicism, its rites or its clergy and this came across in Lucy Snowe’s persona and dialogue. But what I most enjoyed was the following quote,

“The love born of beauty was not mine; I had nothing in common with it: I could not dare to meddle with it, but another love, venturing diffidently into life after long acquaintance, furnace-tried by pain, stamped by constancy, consolidated by affection’s pure and durable alloy, submitted by intellect to intellect’s own tests, and finally wrought up, by his own process, to his own unflawed completeness, this Love that laughed at Passion, his fast frenzies and his hot and hurried extinction, in this Love I had a vested interest; and whatever tended either to its culture or its destruction, I could not view impassibly.” (432)

If there is one thing all of the Brontë sisters can do, it is write about solitariness. Although this quote is about love, a certain kind of non-romantic long discovered love, it just strikes me with a pure sense of solitariness and trekking through life until at some point love happens when least expected. I believe this comes from being raised on the Moors of Yorkshire. Living in such a secluded solitary place gave all three sisters a sense of epic solitariness while at the same time providing them with this eerily beautiful, and yes romantic, back drop.

Recommendation: Don’t tread lightly. It’s a bit of a tough read, but there are definitely enjoyable parts which make you laugh out loud. Give it a go.

Opening Line: “My godmother lived in a handsome house in the clean and ancient town of Bretton.”

Closing Line: “Madame Beck prospered all the days of her life; so did Père Silas; Madame Walravens fulfilled her ninetieth year before she died. Farewell.” (Whited out.)

Additional Quotes from Villette
“I had wanted to compromise with Fate: to escape occasional great agonies by submitting to a whole life of privation and small pains. Fate would not so be pacified; nor would Providence sanction this shrinking sloth and cowardly indolence.” (31)

“We should accept our own lot, whatever it be, and try to render happy that of others.” (34)

“Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars–a cage, so peril, loneliness, an uncertain future, are not oppressive evils, so long as the frame is healthy and the faculties are employed; so long, especially, as Liberty lends us her wings, and Hope guides us by her star.” (46)

“Besides, I seemed to hold two lives–the life of thought, and that of reality; and, provided the former was nourished with a sufficiency of the strange necromantic joys of fancy, the privileges of the latter might remain limited to daily bread, hourly work, and a roof of shelter. (64)

“There, as elsewhere, the church strove to bring up her children robust in body, feeble in soul, fat, ruddy, hale, joyous, ignorant, unthinking, unquestioning.” (107)

“It seemed to me that an original and good picture was just as scarce as an original and good book.” (170)

“If life be a war, it seemed my destiny to conduct it single-handed.”(258)

“There is, in lovers, a certain infatuation of egotism; they will have a witness of their happiness, cost that witness what it may.” (371)

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19 thoughts on “Book 157: Villette – Charlotte Brontë”

  1. This was required reading for a class I took in my major. I actually used LibriVox a lot for this book because I commuted a lot and that cut into my reading time for the very loaded semester. Anyway, I think that added some charm to the story. LibriVox is a volunteer based free audio book website and people submit chapters from all over the world. Some would do the voices of the characters. Others nailed the French phraseology. It made the novel a little more something.

    And I completely agree with you about Lucy Snowe. Loved her, was annoyed by her, hated her… Something about someone choosing to be so grumpy is sad. Much of our discussion in the class was how much of Lucy was Charlotte, how much was who Charlotte wanted to be, and how much was purely fiction? It was illuminating as I tend to cross those lines as a writer… Everything becomes semi-autobiographical.

    Anyway, I’m glad to know someone else who has made their way through this lesser known Brontë. 🙂

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    1. I bet that would be interesting. I might have to check it out. I didn’t comment about it, but the French definitely messed me up a little bit. I only ever had two semesters and was surprised at what I knew, but reading a pre-1923 version with no translations was difficult.

      And the three sisters I think pulled a lot from their own stories. I was reading Wikipedia (gasp) and she apparently didn’t get engaged until after this novel, so that made me wonder if she was a little bitter about it at the time…who knows.

      Hope you’re well, haven’t seen you on or posting in a while!

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    1. I know what you mean. I haven’t read Plath yet, but she’s on my list and will definitely be surrounded by happiness on all sides when I do read her work. I flagged your post to read this evening.

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    1. Yeah – the Brontë sisters are definitely an acquired taste. I didn’t really appreciate them until I read Wuthering Heights multiple times and then it just clicked. And I would recommend a re-read of Jane Eyre before I’d recommend Villette, but don’t get me totally wrong, there were some good points too.

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      1. I read Wuthering Heights years ago and love it! So was surprised when I found I didn’t love Jane Eyre. I don’t dislike it either…I just found Jane as a character really infuriating! I definitely think it I need to re-read it.

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        1. I could see that. I felt it trudged on just a little bit too much. But if you thought Jane was infuriating you probably shouldn’t read Mansfield Park who I could see comparing the two characters for their lack of agency/desire to change.

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              1. I just read Mansfield Park for the first time & had the same feeling — that Fanny Price is like Jane Eyre. I wonder if Charlotte Bronte ever read Mansfield Park, given how little she seemed to like Austen’s work.

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  2. Lucy Snowe as an Austen character. That is an interesting idea!

    I love Villette so much more than Jane Eyre. Not more than Wuthering Heights, though.

    PS I may steal the whiting out the last line thing. So often I want to quote an awesome last line but can’t bring myself to do it!

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    1. Thanks for commenting. I don’t know when I did it but if you can code it in CSS it’s probably better as I’m forever limited to a white background unless I change them all manually.

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