Friday, April 30, 2010

Villette by Charlotte Bronte

It was with both joy and trepidation that I opened my very well-worn copy of Villette, the same one I first devoured in an eleventh grade English class. I have always written in my books, at least those I read in school, and the text is covered in enthusiastic exclamations, all made with the same black pen (it used to be my habit to use one pen, and one pen only, until it ran out of ink). To my teenage mind, Villette was the greatest book ever written. Ever since I have readily included it amongst my favorites, but I haven't read it in fifteen years, only now having the excuse to do so as part of the All About the Brontes Challenge, hosted by Laura's Reviews.

Since the age of sixteen, my tastes and habit have altered somewhat drastically. I often liken myself at the time to Marianne Dashwood - passionate, romantic, and prone to melodramatic displays.  Villette thrilled my teenage sensibilities, but I wondered if my adult sense could revel in such abject misery as I clearly remembered this book to contain. I think my anxiety reasonable, especially in light of my having already discovered that neither Jane Eyre nor Wuthering Heights move me as they once did, but it proved needless. While Villette no longer (thankfully) caused my emotions to plummet into those glorious depths of despair I once relished, it still awed me, perhaps more than ever, for it it one of the most beautifully written books it has ever been my privilege to read.

In many ways, Villette is a book of "sense and sensibility", here termed "Reason" and either "Feeling" or "Hope", which are at war within our heroine, Lucy Snowe. Like Marianne determines to "enter on a course of serious study", as a means of regulating her mind, Lucy employs similar methods to calm her fevered mind, doing her best to check her repressed, passionate nature, but to no avail:

I tried different expedients to sustain and fulfill existence: I commenced an elaborate piece of lace-work, I studied German pretty hard, I undertook a course of regular reading of the driest and thickest books in the library; in all my efforts I was as orthodox as I knew how to be. Was there error somewhere? Very likely. I only know the result was as if I had gnawed a file to satisfy hunger, or drank brine to quench thirst.

Similar to Jane Eyre, Lucy Snowe has a fiery personality that is forced into restraint by her extremely restricted circumstances. She mourns the loss of all her family (in a manner never detailed) with very few pleasures to ease her pain. The demands of existence, when most pressing, allow her to act as she must for survival, but when left without occupation her mind reveals how diseased it is. The modern reader instantly recognizes in Lucy a woman suffering from severe depression. Indeed, Bronte is remarkably current in her portrayal of mental illness, her depiction at times resembling that of Sylvia Plath's in The Bell Jar, and the symptoms corresponding precisely to those listed in the DSM (I could so easily turn this post into a very long essay on psychology, which would fit very well with my discussion of physiognomy in my review of The Professor, but as I didn't get much positive feedback on that diatribe, I will spare you further musing along such lines now):

Indeed there was no way to keep well under the circumstances. At last a day and night of peculiarly agonizing depression were succeeded by physical illness, I took perforce to my bed. About this time the Indian summer closed and the equinoctial storms began; and for nine dark and wet days, of which the Hours rushed on all turbulent, deaf, disheveled - bewildered with sounding hurricane - I lay in a strange fever of the nerves and blood. Sleep went quite away. I used to rise in the night, look round for her, beseech her earnestly to return. A rattle of the window, a cry of the blast only replied - Sleep never came!

Lucy suffers throughout this book, her difficult existence only lightened by small tastes of happiness, which are inevitably snatched from her. When we examine Bronte's biography, this dismal world view begins to make sense. Villette was written shortly after the loss of her almost her entire family, Branwell, Emily, and Anne, between September of 1848 and May of 1849. Like Lucy, Charlotte was left alone and isolated with her grief. It is easy to understand why such a morbid novel was written under these circumstances, and all I can conclude is that there is a great deal of merit to the notion that great suffering produces great art. Pain oozes from this book's pages, the emotion alive and raw. Rereading Villette has caused me to better understand Bronte's famous criticisms of Austen. Sneeringly she wrote:

I have likewise read one of Miss Austen's works, Emma -- read it with interest and with just the degree of admiration which Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable -- anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, or heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstrations the authoress would have met with a well bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré and extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting: she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress.

When compared to Bronte's masochistic suffering, Austen may indeed appear passionless. Is  this not an extension of the sense verses sensibility debate? Austen, just like Elinor Dashwood, would have smiled at Bronte's observations, content in her knowledge that she is very well-acquainted with "the stormy Sisterhood", but need not impose her internal, private torments on others. Bronte, like Marianne, would have railed against such stoicism: "Cold-hearted Elinor! Oh! worse than cold-hearted! Ashamed of being otherwise." Both authors confronted their fair share of life's torments and dealt with such trials according to their individual creeds: sense and reason on the one side, sensibility and feeling on the other. While I am overcome by admiration for Bronte's genius, I think Austen's approach a better prescription for happiness. In Persuasion, Anne Elliot observes that "it was the misfortune of poetry to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly." Villette is just such poetry, safest when admired from a distance.  If a teenage girl of similar disposition to myself asked me if I would recommend this book, I would hesitate before doing so. Austen is much safer reading for the Mariannes of the world.

Read my other All About the Brontes reviews:

The Tenent of Wildfell Hall

The Professor


  1. What a beautiful deeply personal review, Alexa! I loved reading it, especially because Villete is in my TBR (soon) list. I loved your Austenesque look at it and the comparisonn between your reactions as a teenager and your current ones. Just brilliant. Thank you!
    (As for your final statement, several of my teenage female students prefer the Brontes to Jane Austen - OMG!- and yesterday one of them saw Zeffirelli's Jane Eyre with her boyfriend and both liked it very much... What do you think this can mean? )

  2. Hi Maria. I'm so glad you enjoyed it! I'll look forward to your review. There is so much to tear into in this book - I could spend my life analyzing it - and I can't wait to see where it takes you.

    Regarding your question, I think teenagers are naturally attracted to the explosive displays of emotion that Bronte excels at depicting, as they resemble their own stormy, hormonal responses. Of course, a teenager resents nothing more than being told they will feel differently when they are older, but it is nonetheless true. As we grow up, we can appreciate Austen more - not for her lack of passion, as Bronte would term it, but for her brilliant mastery of passion. Bronte offers no solution to sorrow, while Austen teaches us to overcome it.

  3. I read Villete when I was in graduate school (seminar on Jane Austen and the Bronte's). It definitely isn't a book for the ordinary teenager today. They are too angsty for very superficial reasons because many of them have not had significant life experience. I agree that Charlotte's bleakness in this particular book is never quite relieved. At the same time, I also disagree with her appraisal of Austen. Austen does know the Passions -- she just doesn't place them on her sleeve and moan about it.

  4. Hi Julia. That seminar sounds fascinating - I wish I had a bunch of essays on the subject right now. I fervently believe that Austen is extremely passionate but, as you say, she doesn't moan about it. Anne Elliot, at the beginning of Persuasion, is not unlike Lucy Snowe in her melancholy, but Austen knew better than to dwell on such things - an excellent lesson for not just modern teenagers, but a large sector of the populace, who seem to feel all inconvenience a worthy subject for complaint.

  5. Fantastic review. I would like to read this one myself. I didnt know that Bronte lost almost her entire family.

  6. Hi Naida. The deaths in the Bronte family I listed above were only the last, and arguably the most tragic, in a long line of familial deaths. Her life certainly leads one to understand the melancholy nature of Charlotte's writing. I hope you review the book when you read it; I's like to read your thoughts.