I’ve been reading quite a bit of sci fi and fantasy lately, I thought I would go back in time, fiction-wise, and read something from the Classics canon, and so chose one of the Bronte sisters. Most people have read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, or saw one of the several movie or TV versions, or at least heard enough about the book to know the reference. I read the re-do of the story in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea many years ago.
But I read somewhere that Villette was a better work than Jane Eyre so I thought I would give it a try. It was written in 1853, and is long, as are many works of that period. Although there is a narrative story here, the work is mainly a psychological piece following the development of our protagonist, Lucy Snowe. She is a passive kind of chick, buffeted about by Fate. She seems to have no living relatives, and we first meet her when she is a young teen living with her Godmother, Mrs. Bretton, and the Godmother’s 16 year old son, Graham.
Come to live with them for a while is the little daughter, Polly Home, of a friend, who has been widowed and is overly distraught, and who wants to go abroad for a while to regain his senses. After a while, for reasons unnamed, Lucy leaves the Bretton home, and finds work with Miss Marchmont, a rheumatic crippled woman, as caretaker and companion. But that employment ends when she is 23 when Miss Marchmont dies.
She goes to London and after a brief period, then decides to take some risk, and embarks for France, to a little city, Villette, where she finds employment as a nanny at Mme. Beck’s boarding school for girls. After a time, she is hired to teach English at the school, in addition to having to mind Mme. Beck’s three children.
She does well there, living a quiet and unassuming life. She interacts with the egotistical and self-absorbed Ginevra Fanshawe, a pupil at the school, whom she met on the boat crossing. Ginevra turns out to be a distant cousin of the Brettons, and Graham is quite attracted to her.
Then, as coincidences do occur in these novels, Mr. Home, who has now come into money and a title, and his daughter, now 18, show up, and renew their friendship with the Brettons, including in Lucy in their circle. Graham falls in love with the charming Polly, having come to see Ginevra for the materialist and attention-seeker that she really is.
Meanwhile, at the school, Lucy is in constant contact with M. Paul Emanuel: an irascible, autocratic, and male chauvinist professor at Mme. Beck’s. who is is also a relative of Mme. Beck. He seems to hold a secret attraction for her, although he himself is about forty years old. He constantly berates her and tries to convert this hearty Protestant to Catholicism, but is never successful, for Miss Lucy for all her timidity and quietness, has her own mind and steadfastness.
For a time, due to the natural kindness of Graham, Lucy harbors a secret hope that he may have feelings for her, but it soon becomes clear that his feelings are only friendly and like family, and she comes to terms with this after a short period of grieving the loss of perceived love.
There is a growing feeling between M. Paul and Lucy, and a whole backstory comes to the fore about him, and eventually they come to a romantic agreement that he will return in three years for her after handling some family business in the Caribbean. He sets her up in a tiny school of her own, where she flourishes awaiting his return.
On his return voyage, the ship encounters a terrific storm, and he is lost at sea. And so the novel ends.
I had forgotten how wordy and sometimes tedious these older works can be. It is no good to read relentlessly on for the story; the reader must set their mind to a different pace, to enjoy the writing for itself, for it is beautiful and colorful, thoughtful and philosophic. This was a very long book, and at times I despaired of ever coming to its end, but finish I did, and I am the better for it. I think. It was filled with French, with no translation or explanation, and I was pressed into dusting off my never-so-passable French to make sense of the ongoing narrative.
Was Villette actually better than Jane Eyre? I don’t think so, although I did like the strength and determination of our female protagonist.
The three Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, came from a literary family, their brother Branwell having been a poet before his death from tuberculosis. Charlotte was the author of four novels, Jane Eyre, Shirley, Villette and The Professor. Emily wrote Wuthering Heights, and powerful poetry. Anne penned Agnes Grey which appears to be a semi-autobiographical novel. She also wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The three sisters originally wrote under the masculine pen names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, a common practice for lady writers of the period.