Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Villette is such a frustrating book. It’s a book that makes you work hard, and it’s a book that refuses to reward either the reader or the character with a happy ending. It took me two weeks to read through Villette, and I was irritated for every minute of it. However, by the end of the book I felt a weird compulsion to immediately read it again. Villette is a puzzle. An annoying and sometimes infuriating puzzle.

Villette was written by Charlotte Bronte. It was her last novel and it was published before her very short marriage and subsequent death, but after the deaths of her siblings. It’s her most autobiographical novel. Like Jane Eyre (a book which I have read approximately once every one or two years for the last 34 years), Villette tells the story of an unassuming teacher who falls in love with an older, grumpy man. But alas, where Jane Eyre represents what Bronte may have wanted, Villette more closely resembles what actually did happen, albeit still in a very fictionalized form, which means that neither the protagonist nor the reader can have nice things.

Villette is about a young woman named Lucy Snowe, who narrates the novel. Lucy falls upon hard times when an unspecified disaster leaves her without family or means. Lucy becomes a lady’s companion and then a teacher at a boarding school in the fictional town of Villette, a stand-in for the school at which the real Charlotte Bronte taught in Brussels.

Lucy falls in love with two men. The first, Dr. John, is handsome and charming and refers to Lucy as, I shit you not, “an inoffensive shadow.” We (the readers) hate him. This guy is allegedly based on one of Charlotte’s publishers on whom she had a crush. The second guy, M. Paul Emmanuel, is weird looking, cranky, sexist, and demanding. He’s a teacher at the same school as Lucy. He is a stand-in for Bronte’s real-life unrequited love, the teacher M. Heger, who was married. There’s a lot of repressed female rage here.

Vanessa from Penny Dreadful insults men as only she can saying you weak, foul, lustful, vainglorious man
This could apply to any of the men in this book although Lucy is much too repressed to say so.

Villette is a difficult book to read because:

  1. Lucy, the narrator, habitually lies to herself, to the people she talks to, and to the reader (usually these are lies of omission). The reader has to read between the lines to figure out what Lucy is really thinking, and to figure out what is really true.
  2. Lucy’s mental health is pretty shaky plus one time she gets high on opium, so we’re often not sure what she sees and what she imagines.
  3. Much of the dialogue is conducted in French. If you have a version with translations, you’re golden, but mine did not (I had a 1993 paperback edition published by Wordsworth Classics).
  4. Lucy often wanders off into stream-of-consciousness monologue and she never uses a short word where a long one, or twenty, will do.

Here’s an example of the prose style. I selected it by opening the book at random, secure in the expectation that whatever page I turned to would feature brooding and long words. This passage is written much more clearly than most of the passages yet it still manages to contain the phrase “win from her stone eyeballs” which is, admittedly, pretty metal.

And here Mrs. Bretton broke in with many, many questions about past times; and for her satisfaction I had to recur to gone-by troubles, to explain causes of seeming estrangement, to touch on single-handed conflict with Life, with Death, with Grief, with Fate. Dr. John listened, saying little. He and she then told me of changes they had known: even with them all had not gone smoothly, and fortune had retrenched her once abundant gifts. But so courageous a mother, with such a champion in her son, was well fitted to fight a good fight with the world, and to prevail ultimately. Dr. John himself was one of those on whose birth benign planets have certainly smiled. Adversity might set against him her most sullen front: he was the man to beat her down with smiles. Strong and cheerful, and firm and courteous; not rash, yet valiant; he was the aspirant to woo Destiny herself, and to win from her stone eyeballs a beam almost loving.

So there you go.

It’s also a frustrating book to read for those, especially romance fans, who may be expecting a happy ending. Lucy is lonely and isolated, but the reader will surely note that she brings a great deal of this condition upon herself by rebuffing anyone who tries to talk to her. Indeed, her only friend is the flighty Ginerva, who is unrebuffable. The more Lucy tries to rebuff Ginerva, the more Ginerva likes her. It’s weird yet adorable. On a similar note, Lucy complains about not being seen, but she’s violently opposed to seeking out or even accepting any kind of attention.

Spongebob Squarepants reads with a judgy face
A close facsimile of my judgey face.

Lucy also firmly believes that any hope can only lead to disappointment, and any effort only lead to humiliation. There are Victorian rules at play here – for instance, she can’t just take initiative and start writing Dr. John letters on her own. But I can’t begin to tell you how frustrating Lucy’s passivity is, especially because we know from the beginning of the book that she is capable of great acts of courage.

It took a lot of Internet reading for me to get any kind of grip on this book. I learned that one of the important things about the book is the timing. It was one of the first books to use stream-of-consciousness narration and intense psychological insight. It’s a novel that is much more about the inside of Lucy’s head than anything happening outside it. Since Lucy doesn’t want to give anyone full access to her head (not even herself – she’s the denial queen) this makes the book a puzzle.

I have a real love/hate relationship with Lucy but one thing I do like is that she never bothers with being “likeable.” She’s actually pretty horrible, and it’s surprising that Villette just goes for it. On her first day as a teacher she rips up a student’s essay and tosses another student into a closet. She hates having to take care of a child with disabilities when all the other teachers are on vacation (the attitudes expressed towards this child are BY FAR the most odious and dated part of the book). She hates foreigners (despite moving to Belgium) and she hates Catholicism (despite moving to Belgium) and when Ginerva gets too cuddly Lucy stabs her with a pin. When it comes to the xenophobia and the anti-Catholicism, Victorian readers would perhaps have seen these traits as being positive, but for modern audiences they are yet more indicators that Lucy is kind of a horrible person, and that she’s not shy about being a horrible person.

Lucy is presented with two ideal female types. Ginerva, Lucy’s frenemy at the school, is pretty, flirtatious, and mercenary. Polly, a girl who shows up as a child at the start of the novel and as an adult later on, is “pure,” childlike, and submissive. Torn between the Whore and Virgin archetypes, Lucy wants to choose a third option, but she doesn’t want to end up being the Ghost Nun. Lucy is also torn between “Imagination” and “Reason.” She’s a pragmatic character in a gothic novel, and a romantic person struggling to repress all of her romantic feelings and tendencies (I mean “Romantic” as in the sense of the literary movement as opposed to romantic love). I also learned that there’s a lot of stuff in the story about gender, identity, and sexuality.

On the one hand I’m so happy that I finally finished this damn book and will never have to slog through it again, because it was tedious and annoying and kind of like eating broccoli – maybe it’s good for you, but it’s not fun. On the other hand now that it’s over I suddenly feel a wave of fondness towards the Lucy/Ginerva dynamic – which I learned is basically like the relationship between Wednesday Addams and Amanda Buckman (the Girl Scout from Addams Family), or maybe Liz Lemon and Jenna from 30 Rock (many thanks to the bloggers who participated in Reading Rambo’s Read-A-Long for this insight).

I also feel a sense of nostalgia for those happy days before page 513 when Lucy wore a pink dress instead of her habitual grey and a jealous M. Paul calls the dress “scarlet” and gets all huffy about it. So maybe someday I’ll get some Cliff Notes and tackle this book again chapter by chapter and try to understand what the hell is going on with the florid prose and the heroine who is fine with shoving a noisy student into a closet but who is self-effacing around adults to the point of self-abuse.

Wednesday Addams and Amanda Buckman at summer camp
If you picture Wednesday offering to be the victim you have a great picture of Lucy and Ginerva here.

Now for the romance. This is already a long post, so I’m not going to analyze the romance except to say that every interaction between Lucy and M. Paul is pure romantic comedy gold.

Then, Dear Reader, we get to the last page.

Suffice to say that you should not read this on or near anything breakable.


Click for spoilers!
Paul dies in a storm, but maybe not. We are told to stop and imagine a happy ending. However it is heavily implied that we are imaging an ending that doesn’t occur and in actuality M. Paul is fish food.

What the Hell, Charlotte? I made it through 513 pages of tiny tiny type for this?

I have no idea how to grade Villette. I know a lot of people love it and I can see how it’s an insightful psychological novel, but Sweet Jesus it’s tedious and frustrating and utterly unrewarding in the end. This is why we can’t have nice things! Because Charlotte was super depressed and decided to screw over her readers on page 513!

I’m giving this book a C even though, yes, it’s a classic and after I stop foaming at the mouth maybe I’ll realize that it’s a masterful piece of wonderfulness and I’ll be super embarrassed and give it an A+.

In the meantime, here’s Lucy:

Lydia from Beetlejuice saying My whole life is a dark room

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