Sunday, 28 August 2011

'Villette' by Charlotte Bronte (1853)

Synopsis: Lucy Snowe doesn't have any friends or family so she sets sail from England to Labbesecour (Belgium by another name). Then she gets a job as a teacher at a girls' boarding school in the small town of Villette. There she struggles to deal with unruly pupils, a nosy headmistress who spies on her staff, and her feelings for two men. She falls in love with the school's English doctor and then for the stern professor M. Paul Emmanuel. Villette is Charlotte Bronte's most autobiographical novel and draws from her own unhappy experiences as a teacher in Belgium.

I was quite keen to read this book because I'm a massive fan of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. It's one of my favourite books. I don't feel the same way about Villette though. I really struggled with it and I completely disagree with those who think that it's Charlotte Bronte's true masterpiece. Having said that Villette isn't without merit and it isn't a bad book. I'd recommend it to readers who'd like to know a little bit more about Charlotte Bronte's experiences of working in Belgium as it is a semi-autobiographical novel. Villette is also very well-written and there are some surprising plot twists. The story is more complex and intricate than Jane Eyre is - in fact Villette is a very different book to Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte was clearly broadening her literary horizons and I do admire her for that. However, Villette is one of those books that's easy to admire but hard to love.

Villette is very well-written but it's also very draggy and slow-moving in places. I didn't like the book's heroine Lucy Snowe either. Apparently even Charlotte Bronte's close friend Elizabeth Gaskell didn't like her. Lucy comes across as stuck-up, emotionally weak, submissive and, at times, quite hypocritical. Her constant verbal head-bashing of Catholicism was just a pointless insertion of Charlotte Bronte's own personal beliefs and didn't really do anything to improve my opinion of her. One moment Lucy declares that she believes in Ecumenism but then she fiercely slates the Catholic church just a few pages later. I found it pretty laughable and I'm not even Catholic. Lucy also withholds information from the reader - a lot of information. You can't really trust her as a narrator at all. Lucy's character did improve a little bit as the book went on I must admit but I still couldn't warm to her. Her character seemed like the exact opposite of the independent, moral Jane Eyre (who I loved).

When I was reading Villette I was actually far more interested in the subplot involving Lucy's various friends and relations - Dr. John, Paulina and Ginevra - than I was on the main plot. That was what kept me reading the book. I enjoyed that subplot and I wanted to know the outcome of that story. However, the characters involved in that story got less and less mention towards the end of the book as Lucy then gets a romance of her own. 

Villette is still worth a read if you're a Bronte fan but Jane Eyre is vastly superior. Perhaps I'll re-read Villette when I'm older and will appreciate it more but for now I only respect it. 

Rating: 2.5/5

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