The below contains minor spoilers.
Villette by Charlotte Brontë was first published in 1853. It is the story of Lucy Snow. We first meet the book’s protagonist at age 14 when she is staying with her godmother, Mrs. Bretton, Mrs. Bretton’s son, John Bretton, and Polly Home, who is a child temporarily staying with the Brettons. The narrative eventually jumps ten years into the future when Lucy, who has lost her family and is penniless, sets out for France on a quest to secure work. She eventually obtains employment at a girls’ school run by Madame Beck. After a few months, Lucy is reunited with Mrs. Bretton and John, who is now a doctor, as the mother and son have emigrated to France. Polly also returns to the circle. For a time, Lucy is romantically interested John, but he eventually falls in love with Polly. Later, Lucy and Paul Emanuel, a professor at Madam Beck’s school, become attracted to one another. Several characters conspire to keep the two apart, however. There are numerous twists and turns in the story, including the appearance of what seems to be the ghost of a dead nun who haunts the school.
There is a lot going on in this novel. At the center of it is the remarkable character of Lucy Snow. Lucy is very complex, and this complexity is difficult to summarize. On one hand, she is unassuming and unpretentious. She does not try to inflate herself or put on airs in any way. When she occasionally begins to fall into self-pity, she rouses and steels herself as she becomes more determined to push on in life. On the other hand, she is extremely spirited and articulate. When others try to lecture her, criticize her, demean women in general, etc. she responds with vigor and defends herself. Paul Emanuel is a very virtuous man who is also very flawed. Initially, he tries to browbeat Lucy for what he perceives as her immodesty and strong personality. Lucy gives it back to him and then some. Eventually, she begins to enjoy her verbal sparring and him and even goads him at times. As time passes, the verbal sparring between the two turns to something that they both seem to enjoy, and the pair fall in love. Paul Emanuel is a fascinating character is his own right. I could devote a separate post to him.
Lucy tends to see through people and pretention. She has a biting wit that she directs at bad behavior and shallowness. At one point, she turns her attention to art criticism. She is unimpressed by a picture called Cleopatra that she encounters in an art museum,
“It represented a woman, considerably larger, I thought, than the life. I calculated that this lady, put into a scale of magnitude, suitable for the reception of a commodity of bulk, would infallibly turn from fourteen to sixteen stone. She was, indeed, extremely well fed: very much butcher's meat— to say nothing of bread, vegetables, and liquids— must she have consumed to attain that breadth and height, that wealth of muscle, that affluence of flesh. She lay half-reclined on a couch: why, it would be difficult to say; broad daylight blazed round her; she appeared in hearty health, strong enough to do the work of two plain cooks; she could not plead a weak spine; she ought to have been standing, or at least sitting bolt upright. She, had no business to lounge away the noon on a sofa. She ought likewise to have worn decent garments; a gown covering her properly, which was not the case: out of abundance of material— seven-and-twenty yards, I should say, of drapery— she managed to make inefficient raiment. Then, for the wretched untidiness surrounding her, there could be no excuse. Pots and pans— perhaps I ought to say vases and goblets— were rolled here and there on the foreground; a perfect rubbish of flowers was mixed amongst them, and an absurd and disorderly mass of curtain upholstery smothered the couch and cumbered the floor.”
I find the above passage very amusing. It illustrates much in Lucy’s personality. Her keen intellect, her strong opinions and her tendency to be critical of excess and silliness are all on display here.
Lucy is also a realist who does not believe in sugarcoating the truth. Later, she contemplates the benefits of facing up to what can be harsh reality,
“I always, through my whole life, liked to penetrate to the real truth; I like seeking the goddess in her temple, and handling the veil, and daring the dread glance. O Titaness among deities! the covered outline of thine aspect sickens often through its uncertainty, but define to us one trait, show us one lineament, clear in awful sincerity; we may gasp in untold terror, but with that gasp we drink in a breath of thy divinity; our heart shakes, and its currents sway like rivers lifted by earthquake, but we have swallowed strength. To see and know the worst is to take from Fear her main advantage. “
The above passage says a lot about Lucy and the way that she thinks. I also find it to be illustrative of Brontë’s wonderful writing. I think that the imagery is sublime.
There is a theological conflict going on here between Catholicism and Protestantism. Lucy is Protestant. Paul Emanuel is a Catholic who is influenced by theologian friends and acquaintances that try to convert Lucy to Catholicism. The strong-willed Lucy will have none of it. There are some interesting descriptive passages that delve into the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism. Here, it becomes evident that Lucy is capable of thinking for herself as she rejects the arguments made to her. She also recognizes that some of what she is being presented is highly biased and sometimes downright silly. It becomes obvious that Brontë herself is critical of Catholic ideology and the actions of the Catholic Church.
Lucy is not simple, however. There are other times in the book when she shies away from confrontations with others. Like a real person, she reacts differently in different situations. Brontë manages to convey this in a very believable way.
These assertive personality traits embodied in a female character seem to be far ahead of their time in the 1850s. Plenty of strong female characters were portrayed in literature before Lucy, but the verbal assertiveness and reason embodied in Lucy seem unique, at least for a romantic heroine.
This book is not perfect. The plot moves slowly and seems to go off in various directions that I did not always find interesting. While the character development is excellent, that also seems to develop slowly at times.
I have just scratched the surface above. I chose to concentrate upon Lucy’s personality, but many other aspects of this novel would support separate posts. Though I did not think that this work is the monumental metaphysical masterpiece that I found Jane Eyre to be, there are times when Brontë reaches out in a few passages and delves into some of the big universal stuff. The prose in this book is also superb. Many of the characters are interesting and enjoyable to read about. The ending is poignant and crafted in a creative and unique way.
A Google search indicates that several critics have observed that they find this to be a better book then Jane Eyre. I would argue that is not the case. However, I found this to be a superb character study that was well ahead of its time. The book is full of other things to recommend it. Ultimately, this is a very worthy read for those who want to go beyond Jane Eyre.