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.
There are so many books I see your commentary on that I normally wouldn't pick up but I always find your words/reviews peek my interest. xxx
Lucy Snow does sound like a remarkable character with a keen intellect! I enjoyed reading your terrific review, Brian Joseph, and will keep this book in mind for the future.
Your review really gave me the feel of this book, which I found not to my preference. I prefer books with balancing focus, where both the characters and the plot were simultaneously developed. Jane Eyre would have been better than Villete, but even that (Jane Eyre) was not my favorite. :)
Thanks Lainy. I find such interesting things in most books that I read.
Hi Suko - Lucy's character is what makes this book.
Thanks Fanta - There is indeed a certain lack of focus in this book. However, I did think that Jane Eyre was very focussed.
i really liked this book a lot. and i liked it better than Jane Eyre, which i thought was poorly organized and uneven. of course, V is somewhat that way, also, but the two main characters are so real, they carried the book away for me... still, i was somewhat befuddled by the carnival scene at the end; what did you make of it? and i wonder: do you take notes as you read? i find i have to do that, but then while writing a post, i discover that the things i want to include in the post i didn't take notes on... so i need more practice, i guess... anyway, thanks for an extraordinarily good review!
Hi Mudpuddle - So many people say that they liked this better then Jane Eyre. Folks are telling me that on Twitter.
I thought that the carnival segment was fascinating. It was almost like a dream. It was kind of surreal. It was so atmospheric. Now that I am thinking about it I would guess that a reread would reveal a lot.
I read mostly on a Kindle. I take a lot of notes and highlight a lot. With that, I also start thinking about an angle or theme of a book when I am well into it and realize that I have not noted important passages. In those cases I find that the Kindle search function comes in handy.
A couple of things you say struck a chord with me Brian. One is that you've only touched the surface of the book and just focused on Lucy's character. You did well. I often confront that problem - and try to focus on just one or two things but struggle to do so sometimes.
And you commented that some critics say this is a better novel than Jane Eyre. I haven't read this yet but I've often heard it called the greatest study in loneliness - and this has made me want to read it for the longest time. One day.
PS, you wrote to MudPuddle that "I read mostly on a Kindle. I take a lot of notes and highlight a lot. With that, I also start thinking about an angle or theme of a book when I am well into it and realize that I have not noted important passages. In those cases I find that the Kindle search function comes in handy." SNAP, this is exactly me - though I only read on the Kindle occasionally. However, it's the same with print books - I use pencil to note passages and make lots of notes on the back pages, I love books that have a few spare passages at the back!
Lucy Snowe sounds like a strong-willed character, hooray! I haven't read this book yet but like to hear about how it compares with Jane Eyre; is it very similar? I think I need to reread that first. Does this one have a lot of French in it?
Hi WP - I often focus on one aspect of a book. In this case it is likely the main point of the work but sometimes I even focus on a secondary aspect of the work. Especially when it comes to the classics when so much has already been written about the book, I figure that I may as well talk about what I feel like.
I think that describing this as a study in loneliness is right on target.
Unfortunately my handwriting, especially when taking notes is atrocious. I am also disorganized when I write the old fashioned way. So eReaders are a game changer for me.
Hi Susan - Though some of the themes are similar to Jane Eyre, I found this book to be very different. I thought that Jane Eyre was a story that dug into the meaningful of existence that was filled with monumental characters. I thought that this book was about real people involved in more down to Earth situations.
There was a lot of untranslated French in this book.
Lucy Snow sounds like a very interesting character, though I'm surprised many critics consider this a better book than Jane Eyre. Villette is on my Classics Club list and I'd like to read it sometime this year... just need to finish the last two Pallisers first!
Hi JoAnn - I liked this book, but I do not see how this is anywhere close to Jane Eyre.
I finally finished The Pallisers! I think you will like the last two books.
Excellent review Brian. I'm sensing from your description of Lucy Snowe that Charlotte Bronte puts alot of herself into her main characters, first with Jane Eyre and now Lucy Snowe. Both are women on their own, strong willed, opinionated, passionate and both have not had an easy life. These are not women who can be pushed around and my guess Charlotte Bronte, who began seeing alot of tragedy at a very early age, was probably the same. Good idea to focus on one theme in a novel,the one that jumps out at you.
Jane Eyre is a magnificent dream-narrative or psychological fairy tale, written at white heat by a soul in the throes of her personal drama. This is not to denigrate Charlotte's intellect or writing skills, but I believe that's why it's so powerful -- she didn't over-think or over-write it.
Villette takes much of the same emotional material but re-works it from an agonizedly conscious perspective. Lucy is so conflicted that she refers to herself in both the first and the third person: "I, Lucy Snowe." Not to mention the dual consciousness of the ending!
This is I think what makes some modern commentators call it a "better" book, because such a split awareness is very common today, so it feels more timely than Jane Eyre (which ends with an act of healing). However, I think there is discomfort because Charlotte Bronte had not quite worked it through personally or artistically, and there are loose ends and awkward passages. Both are masterpieces, in their own way -- but neither is a perfect book (if there were such a thing).
Great review, as usual!
I read this book many years ago in a specialized course on Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. I read both authors complete works.
The one scene that I still remember from Villette, however, is when Lucy does go to a Catholic Church in order to confess. It was very strange as I recall (it has been 45 years). I still prefer Austen, as I prefer Bach, Haydn and Mozart in my music.
A great review of an underrated classic! I haven't read this in many years, but I remember really liking Lucy for her independence and emotional fortitude. This makes me want to re-read it.
By the way, since you liked both Jane Eyre and Villette, I can recommend Shirley as well. Shirley is set in "Jane Austen times," which, paired with Charlotte's writing style, makes for rather interesting reading.
Thanks for your great commentary on a book that deserves to be better known. Charlotte had a genius for creating interesting characters and strong women.
Thanks Kathy. Indeed I have heard that Lucy is at least semi autobiographical. I found Lucy to be even more sure of herself then Jane. She is able to laugh at life and takes things a lot less seriously.
Thanks James. Indeed, I think that many people familiar with Jane Eyre do not even know that this book exists. Bronte's characters are so well crafted.
Hi Julia - I love Austen. I like most of her work better then this book. On the other hand, the only other book that I have read by Charlotte Bronte was Jane Eyre, which I thought was one of the best books that I ever read. I like it better then anything by Austen.
The confession scene was odd but so well written. It was part of the whole Catholic, Protestant debate that was carried on in this book.
Thanks Lory. You described the contrast between this and Jane Eyre so well.
I would just add that I think that the white hot fairy tale that was Jane Eyre dug into the universe in a special way, at least for me. This book' 'split awareness" seems more realistic.
Thanks for stopping by Marian and thanks for the good word. Lucy's personality really is extraordinary.
Thanks for the recamendation in terms of Shirley. I will hopefully get to that nook soon.
This is a simply superb review, Brian! I have not read this book in several years and all I remember is that Lucy had a strong dose of English snobbery (or so it seemed to me at the time) and her love for the school master did not work out the way it did between Jane Eyre and Rochester.
Your review inspires me to read it again. Now that I am much older I probably will develop an entirely different attitude about it.
One thing I do remember is that at the time I read it I was playing organ for the Saturday Mass at a local Catholic church and the Priest was trying to persuade me to convert.
He was a sincere, sweet man and I liked him very much, but Villette reminded me of the same type of persuasions attempted on Lucy.
Thanks for a great review and have a wonderful weekend!
Thanks Sharon. Lucy was a bit snobbish. The way that her snobbish interacted with people who tried to be overbearing towards her was entertaining.
Rereading this book seems like it will yeild some good results.
The priest trying to convert you sounds very much like elements of this book.
Have a great Sunday!
I really want to reread this one. I read it back in 2012 (if I recall) & hardly wrote anything about it. I remember thinking that (I) considered it superior to Jane Eyre. I lacked the literary knowledge & experience to say why, but if I recall, it had a haunting quality. A strength combined with sadness, and this sense that Lucy was there and strong, and yet nearly invisible. A something that I found compelling.
Lucy Snowe became one of my favorite narrators (and characters) since I read Villette. I loved the narrative voice in this book and the complexities of the character - including the things Lucy held back and didn't share about herself.
And yes, the scene in the gallery was wonderful, including M. Paul's making her sit in the corner and her amusement at his attempts to screen the world from her view. Their relationship is also interesting - contentious and yet full of fellowship and respect.
Hi Jillian - I thought that Some passages in this book were haunting in a mystical way. Particularly those that took place during the Carnival and during the storm.
Though I thought that Jane Eyrie was a far superior book. It is striking how many people disagree.
Hi Hila - The characters as well as so many passages in this book were so well done. The part in the art gallery was so good for the reasons that you mentioned as well as for Lucy’s art criticism.
I think this book is remarkably brilliant Brain!
Lucy sound like a POWERFUL personality who like wild flower groomed herself in uncertain and uncommon circumstances so amazingly!
she sounds like an ideal woman and authentic character .
i loved the way you reviewed this story in short summery my friend which is quite an achievement
Thanks Baili - Lucy is a great character. In many ways she was ahead of her time. Her refusal to buckle, in everyday situations is was not typical of the literature of the time.
This is one of my favorites, EXCEPT for that ending. Broke my heart :( I also wouldn't venture as far as saying that it's better than Jane Eyre - that's my favorite book OF EVER - but I believe it's like a reformed Jane Eyre, through more disappointed eyes. Because of the ending, mostly. It's like Jane Eyre, but gone haywire. And at the same time, that also gives the protagonist more freedom to live our her own potential, not just romance. But still... That ending :(
Hi Evelina - The ending was hard to take. I do think that art needs to convey some of life’s sadness. But it was still hard to take. Jane Eyre is also one of my all time favorites.
EXCELLENT commentary as usual, Brian!! :) :)
You know, for years now, I have failed to make an effort to read Brontë's other novels. I've been so enamored of, and obsessed with, her masterpiece, "Jane Eyre", that I just haven't bothered with her other books. My (rather close-minded) opinion has always been that none of her other novels could possibly reach the stature of "Jane Eyre". Well, that might be the case, or it could simply be that the story contained in her most famous book is SO compelling, moving, and passionate, not to mention romantic, that I simply find it easier to ignore her other works. I am a bit ashamed of admitting this..... Her other novels might very well prove to be of the same lofty status as "Jane Eyre", but have not received the same level of acclaim precisely because of the turbulent emotional events in the latter. I would have to read those other novels in order to find out, though. And now I'm thinking that I really should.
The female protagonist in "Villette" sure sounds interesting! Like Jane, she's a very dynamic, assertive person. I like that she stands firm on her own religious convictions, totally refusing to be swayed.
Speaking of Lucy's religious convictions, the fact that, in this novel, Protestantism and Catholicism are contrasted is very interesting indeed, as I myself have felt torn between the two. Having been influenced to some extent by Protestant theology, I no longer hold to all of the Catholic dogmas I was brought up with. So I guess I'm kind of caught in the middle, lol. I sure would like to see how Lucy handles this conflict.
I do think that, unfortunately, Charlotte Brontë (and perhaps Emily, as well) is somewhat bisaed against not only Catholicism, but the French, as well. I saw evidence of this in "Jane Eyre". But heck, EVERYONE has their flaws! I STILL ADORE this novel and its brilliant author!!
Paul Emanuel sounds like a nice guy, without any of Rochester's darker side. Of course, it was this darker side that made that character so fascinating, lol.
As for the prose, I was happy to see that it's of the same sublime quality as that of "Jane Eyre". I would have expected no less from this author. Her descriptions and thought processes are beautifully penned. And I thought that Lucy's "critical analysis" of the painting of "Cleopatra" was too funny! Thanks to all the detail, I got a pretty good idea of who the artist probably was -- Rubens. It sounds as if the model for the painting was very voluptuous, lol.
I must make it a point to start reading Brontë's other novels. And, thanks to your very thorough, interesting review, I might very well start off with "villette"!
Thanks for your wonderfully insightful commentary!! <3 : )
P.S. Having read a couple of the comments above, I realize I neglected to say that I did find Lucy to be a bit snobbish. This is very clear from her analysis of that painting, even though that analysis is still funny. :)
I was hesitant to read more Charlotte Brontë myself for similar reasons. Jane Eyre seemed, and still does, unbeatable. I esteem Jane Eyre for all the reasons that you mention. In addition, I think that it dug into some elemental things about humanity particularly the masculine and the feminine. I thought that this book, while great character studies filled with positive things to recommend it, does not reach the stature of Jane Eyre.
Lucy is great character like Jane. I found her to be bit more relaxed and humorous then Jane. I did not find much French bias in this book but I might have missed it. Some of the message of his book is critical of the Catholic Church and Catholic theology. However, Lucy goes out of her way to indicate that it would be wrong to have bias against people who are Catholic. Oddly, this is how a lot of modern humanist thinkers advocate as the most ethical and rational way to criticize various religions.
Paul Emanuel was at times very overbearing and overcritical. Lucy was completely unintimidated by him however. Despite his flaws, he is very decent.
Lucy is a bit snobbish. I tend to find snobbish people entertaining, at least in fiction.
Have a great Easter!
I picked up a secondhand copy of this book about 2 weeks ago. I thought I'd read it previously but after reading your review I realised I hadn't. I think I may have got mixed up with 'Shirley' or 'The Professor.'
Hi Carol - The only other Charlotte Brontë that I’ve read is Jane Eyre. I must give those others a try.
If you read this. I would love to know what you think.
So interesting to read your thoughts on Villette, since I recently finished it as well. Time has softened by view of Lucy somewhat, and I agree that she is a powerful, realistic character, flawed but striving. I do love how she won't let herself be talked down to. I also agree that it is not the masterpiece that is Jane Eyre--I'm not sure why some consider it superior.
Hi Jane - I think that Lucy was a great character.
One reason I think that a lot folks liked this better then Jane Eyre is that they do not esteem Jane Eyre as much as some of us do.
Yes! I've been looking forward to this one ever since I read Jane Eyre and fell in love, but I was a little apprehensive that nothing could possibly live up to it. From your review, though, it sounds like it's going to be right up my alley. Charlotte was undoubtedly the superior Bronte! Thanks Brian :)
Hi Sheree - As much as I did like this, I thought that Jane Eyre was superior. However, many people think differently. The only book that I have read by another Bronte was Wuthering Heights. Once again I like Jane Eyre better.
I have heard of Villette but have not read it. It sounds good. Lucy sounds like an interesting character and I like her take on the picture in the art museum.
I need to read Jane Eyre one day.
Hi Naida - This was a really good book with complex and well crafted characters. But I thought that Jane Eyre was one of the best novels that I ever read.
(I deleted the previous comment because of typos. Lol.)
P.P.S. Your review intrigued me so much, I went ahead and ordered this book from eBay. This hardcover edition has a GORGEOUS cover, designed by the award-winning Coralie Bickford-Smith. Check it out at the link below.
Hi Maria - That is a really nice edition. I am really curious as to what you will think of this book.
I too have heard that Villette has more to offer in some regards than Jane Eyre (perhaps at Tom from Wuthering Expectations's blog), so it was interesting to observe your disagreement with that view. Started this earlier in the year and then set it aside for later--partially on account of its sluggish pace. Hope to return to it later especially since that art criticism passage you excerpted is so rich in humorous goodies!
Hi Richard - Parts if this were a little slow. With that, I ended up liking this a lot. It may be that I just esteem Jane Eyre so much. I think that it is one of the most profound books ever written.
I really enjoyed your thoughts and analysis of this one. I'd love to get around to reading it one day, I am such an admirer of the Brontë sisters and I love Jane Eyre.
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