Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Classics Club 41: Villette

Villette tells the story of Lucy Snowe, a young English woman who is orphaned and, in order to support herself, takes a job at a French boarding school, first as a nanny and then as an English teacher. It is Charlotte Bronte's most autobiographical work and explores themes of isolation  and loneliness in powerful ways. Although there are many superficial similarities between Lucy Snowe and  and Bronte's better-known heroine Jane Eyre,  I found Lucy and Villette more difficult to warm to.

One reason is the character of Lucy herself.  Despite some flashes of gumption e.g. locking a disrespectful, troublesome student in a closet, she is infuriatingly passive for much of the time. I prefer my female characters to show a little more initiative. Lucy is also cold and distant, often holding herself in reserve. As a result I felt I knew more about the more minor characters like shallow, fickle Ginerva, indulged Polly,  domineering Madame Beck, and cranky Paul Emanuel than Lucy herself. Even though she is the narrator and Villette is her story, Lucy frequently spends pages telling the stories of others e.g the developing romance between Polly and Dr John rather than sharing her own thoughts and experiences with the reader.

Not only does Lucy Snowe withhold herself from the reader but she also withholds key aspects of the story from the reader before eventually, casually dropping them in. As a reader it was very frustrating to discover that Dr John was in fact Graham, whom we had met earlier while Countess Paulina turned out to be little Polly. Lucy knew this but didn't initially share her knowledge with the reader.  She maintains this secretiveness at the end of the novel, alluding to rather than directly stating the fate of Paul Emanuel. It's hard to warm to such a secretive character.

Another frustrating aspect of Villette is that significant portions of the dialogue were in French. Since my knowledge of French is rudimentary at best I was left trying to decide whether to stop and translate word for word, read what I could and make an educated guess at the rest, or skip in entirely. In reality I used all three approaches! My version (not the one pictured) was very old and published at a time when most readers would have a good knowledge of French. I don't know if more modern versions include translations - but it would be very helpful and make the novel more accessible.

There is also a lot of religious debate and proselytizing in Villette. Lucy is Protestant while Paul Emanuel is Catholic and they have lengthy discussions trying to convince the other of the superiority of their belief system. This plot line undoubtedly grew out of the religious conflict of the time and Bronte's own religious convictions but I found it a turn-off.

While I appreciated Villette, for the reasons given I didn't love it. I'm glad I read it, and it is definitely worth reading, but I doubt I'll read it again.


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