Wednesday, December 16, 2009


No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato.

Happiness is not something that Lucy Snowe knows too much about. Her life has been a series of misfortunes with peaceful moments that are few and far between. As she fights her way through life's many trials, she learns that though there are periods of pleasure, you can't expect them to last, and that the only way to survive is to trust in herself.

The Plot:

The novel opens with young Lucy Snowe staying with her relatives, Mrs. Bretton and her son Graham, and a young visitor named Paulina Home, and Lucy observes as a peculiar relationship grows between the dashing Graham and the sweet Paulina. As years pass, Lucy finds herself in need of employment, so at 23, she travels to the fictional country of Labassecour (modeled after Belgium) and secures a position as an English governess in a school for girls.

In Labassecour, she is caught in a whirl of many different people who each affect her life in a different way. There is the handsome, English Dr. John, the flighty and coquettish Ginevra Fanshawe, the dour and spying Mme. Beck, and the fiery and passionate literature professor M. Paul Emmanuel. In this foreign land, Lucy is often forced to defend herself as a Briton, a Protestant, and a woman, and as she begins to grow closer and closer to M. Paul, fate seems to have other plans regarding her future.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

It's almost impossible to write a review of this story without doing a little comparison to it's more popular sibling, Jane Eyre. Many readers (myself included) only make it around to this novel once they have fallen for Charlotte Bronte's first novel. But, if you approach this book solely seeking a revamping of Jane Eyre, you will be dissappointed. Though there are a few similarities, Villette differes greatly from Jane Eyre on the whole. It is these differences, however, that cause Villette to shine and confirm Bronte as one of the greatest Victorian novelists.

The biggest difference is in Lucy Snowe herself. Yes. she does resemble Jane Eyre to the extent that she is a deeply passionate person who tends to hide behind a cool exterior. But while Jane treats the reader as a confidant, Lucy does not. She hides her true feelings from everyone, including us. We are forced to guess and surmise that she has romantic feelings for Dr. John(who is actually Graham Bretton, but she doesn't bother to tell us that until much later). All in all, instead of being drawn into the story until we feel like we are standing in the room (ala JE), we are held at arms length and are forced to peer into the windows. Not that this is bad, it just gives Villette a very different feeling from Jane Eyre.

I have read many differing opinions on who was the better match for Lucy: Dr. John or M. Paul. You couldn't find two men more different from each other, Dr. John being noble and tender and M. Paul being friendly yet rather demanding. But while Dr. John is a nice guy, he just doesn't "get" Lucy. He doesn't recognize her as his relative until she points it out, and constantly tries to draw her out into society when that is not exactly what she wants (which kind of reminds me of Mr. Rochester wanting to shower Jane with jewels). M. Paul on the other hand understands her completely. From the moment he meets her, he sees through her frosty exterior to her passionate soul. I love how everyone else says that Lucy should brighten up her wardrobe, but when she wears a gown of the lightest pink, M. Paul is horrified (her passion is coming out!). But M. Paul is not perfect either: he is kind when she is obviously beneath him in learning, but gets angry when her intelligence allows her to catch up with him; he forbids her from looking at a painting because she is an unmarried woman; and he loses his temper over the most insignificant things.

But even more than the men of the novel, readers differ vastly over it's ending. The ending is rather ambiguous, though you couldn't really expect anything different from Lucy Snowe. Bronte leaves room for those who want to imagine a sunshine ending for Lucy and M. Paul, but she also strongly hints that M. Paul is lost at sea. I tend to believe more along the lines of the latter. It seems to me (though I can't believe that I'm saying this) that the ending is stronger and more satisfying without the conventional happy ending. Yes, we grieve over the loss of M. Paul, but at the same time, that view seems to back up everything that Bronte says throughout the rest of the novel. Life is not sunshine and roses, and we will all face heartache, despair, and loneliness (some more than others). It is only the strong in spirit who will rise above it all and make a life for themselves amid the ruins. And that is exactly what Lucy does time and again. By the end of the story, all those who had tried to oppress her and drag her down are gone and she remains the victor in the struggle for her life.

There are so many other aspects of this novel that I would love to discuss. Bronte's autobiographical elements sprinkled throughout the story, the imagry of the nun who haunts Lucy, the Catholicism vs. Protestantism, Lucy's mental instability, I could go on and on. Suffice it to say that I now understand why scholars prefer to spend more time on Villette than on Jane Eyre. While the latter will always be my favorite Bronte novel, I can't help but feel that Villette deserves to be read, debated, and enjoyed just as much. This is a must read for any lover of Bronte or Victorian literature.

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