I had been wanting to read Villette as part of my determination to read all the Brontë sister’s novels, and I had pretty high expectations for it after finally reading Charlotte Brontë’s preceding novel Jane Eyre in its entirety last year.
I was lucky enough to be chosen as the winner of one of Read Diverse Book‘s linkups during Latinx Heritage Month and I chose Villette as my not very apropos prize (not exactly a diverse book, though at least it does challenge gender norms of the time). I selected the gorgeous Penguin Clothbound Classics version which comes in a pale blue with white leaves printed on it.
I have to say I much preferred Jane Eyre to Villette, and it makes me wonder what I’ll think of Shirley – the remaining Charlotte Brontë novel I still have to read. Charlotte Brontë also wrote a debut novel called The Professor, but it doesn’t count as a separate work because she eventually rewrote it and adapted it into Villette. Ultimately, I’m glad I read Villette and can share my impressions with you, but I wouldn’t recommend investing time in reading it.
Villette by Charlotte Brontë
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Lucy Snowe, the narrator of Villette,flees from an unhappy past in England to begin a new life as a teacher at a French boarding school in the great city of Villette. Soon Lucy’s struggle for independence is overshadowed by both her friendship with a worldly English doctor and her feelings for an autocratic schoolmaster. Brontë’s strikingly modern heroine must decide if there is any man in her society with whom she can live and still be free.
What I Liked
The unconventional independent female protagonist. In her depiction of Lucy Snowe, Charlotte Brontë follows her preference for independent female protagonists who make atypical choices for their lives compared to other women of the times. Despite lacking a fortune through which to support herself, Lucy does not opt to seek a suitor to marry and on which to depend financially. Essentially friendless and alone, she embarks on a daring adventure, moving to an unfamiliar country to remake her life. Brontë focuses Lucy’s attention on education and on her ability to make a living for herself and has Lucy shun stereotypical female interests like romantic intrigues and showy attire. I did see traces of Jane Eyre in Lucy Snowe’s characterization, though I think Lucy lacks some of Jane’s fire and determination. When feeling particularly lonely or unfortunate, Lucy has a tendency to wallow in her situation that I think would have irritated Jane the same way it irritated me.
The juxtaposition of two very different love stories. I’ll try my best not to give any spoilers. There are two love stories that progress side by side within the novel. The first is a traditional romance between a handsome and well-liked man of moderate means who falls in love with a beautiful, kindhearted and well-poised heiress. Their love story proceeds through stolen looks and bashful love letters that culminate in their discovery by the young woman’s father, and ultimately in their union. The other love story involves two people who are both fiercly independent, used to living their lives modestly and alone and neither of which is thought of as conventionally attractive. Despite their seeming unsuitability for love in the traditional sense, these two eventually discover their mutual affection and find a way to a different kind of happiness. I appreciated that Brontë explored this more atypical love story in her novel.
What I Didn’t Like
The slow pace. There were large swathes of the novel that felt repetitive to the extreme, in which barely anything happened. When there was action, the novel felt similar to other Victorian novels of the era that I’ve loved reading – like Jane Eyre itself or Vanity Fair for example. There was some intrigue, difficulties to overcome, secrets, hemming and hawing over the appropriate course of action, and all the usual contraptions you would expect from a novel of this era. At most times, however, I think Brontë opted to provide more of an analysis of Lucy Snowe’s psychology and character – her feelings of loneliness and abandonment set in contrast to her desire to be independent and self-sufficient. I think this exploration was interesting initially, but eventually I was longing for an actual plot point to come along and relieve me from yet another retelling of a dreary afternoon or yet another spat between teachers at the pension.
The simplistic plot. Unlike Jane Eyre, in which all sorts of capers and misadventures befall Jane throughout the novel, in Villette nothing much happens. Some lovers are shunned while others are accepted. Lucy wanders around the town of Villette and occasionally attends the theater. The apexes of excitement are few and far between, amounting to the occasional spotting of the purported ghost of a nun, numerous tiny squabbles with one of the other professors at the school, or being chided for wearing a pink dress. There is quite a significant resolution to the novel at the end, and Lucy’s situation changes drastically. Before that, however, the novel is beyond quiet. I can appreciate a quiet novel if the writing is powerful and the analysis of the character’s introspective thoughts makes me think. Rather than just quiet, however, the novel is bland and not captivating. I guess since it’s said that the novel is based on Charlotte Brontë’s own life, we can derive from Villette that Brontë’s life was not that interesting.
Feels in brief parts as engaging as other Victorian novels but largely fails to keep the reader captivated due to long sections of little to no action and a simplistic plot.
Check out my previous 1000 Novels Series reviews:
Have you read Villette? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.
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