Villette: Charlotte Brontë

The wind shifts to the west. Peace, peace, Banshee—”keening” at every window! It will rise—it will swell—it shrieks out long: wander as I may through the house this night, I cannot lull the blast. The advancing hours make it strong: by midnight, all sleepless watchers hear and fear a wild south-west storm. That storm roared frenzied, for seven days. It did not cease till the Atlantic was strewn with wrecks: it did not lull till the deeps had gorged their full of sustenance. Not till the destroying angel of tempest had achieved his perfect work, would he fold the wings whose waft was thunder—the tremor of whose plumes was storm.

— Charlotte Brontë, Villette

Sometimes I forget how much I love the classics. Though Jane Eyre is much better known than Villette, they are both marvelous stories, with the same tinge of the gothic, the same wonderful and extravagant prose.

Villette is the tale, in first person, of a young lady named Lucy Snowe who has been cut off from her family (by death or some other circumstance, we are not told) and must rely on her own resources. Although she seems to be a quiet, steady person, she takes what little savings she has and sets out first for London, and from there for the Continent, without any idea of where she will get work. Through a shipboard acquaintance, Lucy hears of a school that may possibly need a teacher; she applies for the position and is accepted, to teach English.

Most of the novel, therefore, takes place in “Labassecour” (Belgium). This means that often the conversations are partially in French, which causes frustration to one who possesses very little French. Of course, Brontë, writing in 1853, assumes that all her readers also knew French, and did not see any need to translate her characters into English. I will say, any important information can be figured out through context, but I still wish I had a version where everyone speaks English, or at least there are footnotes with the translation.

All of the characters in Villette are interesting, but as a first person narrative, it is Lucy’s mind that we are reading. She does very little, after the initial uprooting from England, it is inward changes in her thinking and emotions that drive the plot: her friendship with M. Paul Emmanuel (Professor of Literature at the school where Lucy works), gradually changing into love.

The main sub-plot of the book involves Dr. John Bretton, to whom Lucy is quite close for a time, falling in love with Pauline Home/Bassompierre. Both of these characters are introduced as strangers in Belgium, but turn out to be friends from Lucy’s childhood, met at the beginning of the book. (Reminds me of Dickens, the way all plot threads must be woven back together in the end.) Personally, I find neither of these two very compelling. They have charmed lives, untouched by the rigors that Lucy endures, and form a contrast to her own life.

One interesting conflict in the book revolves around religion: Lucy, as an Englishwoman, is a Protestant, and M. Paul, as well as everyone else at the school, is a Catholic. This results in opposition to their relationship, and Lucy must decide if her religion is worth holding on to, as M. Paul must decide if he is willing to love a Protestant. Neither denomination is condemned by Brontë, though she is clearly on the Protestant side.

I will not give away the ending—even the author left it ambiguous—I’ll just say that the weather is very important in this book. Storms on the outside often reflect storms in the heart, and Lucy’s vision of a nun in the night are not based wholly on unfounded fear.

If that doesn’t sound like a book you want to read—you probably shouldn’t. If, however, you enjoy Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, you should at least try the Brontës. Their view of life is less rosy, but it is still quite unrealistic and romantic.

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