There is something truly wonderful about a very long book. And Charlotte Brontë’s Villette is indeed a very long book. With so much time to develop the characters the reader can sink deeply into the story no matter the pace at which they read it. Life, being what it is, forced me to renew this book at the library an embarrassing number of times. But this book, being what it is, will stay within me indefinitely.
“Do not let me think of them too often, too much, too fondly,” I implored. “let me be content with a temperate draught of this living stream: let me not run athirst, and apply passionately to its welcome waters: let me not imagine in them a sweeter taste than earth’s fountains know. Oh! Would to God I may be enabled to feel enough sustained by an occasional, amicable intercourse, rare, brief, engrossing and tranquil: quite tranquil!” (223)
Anyone familiar with one of my favorite books, Jane Eyre, will be familiar with Brontë’s typical heroine. Both Jane and Lucy Snowe are sober, realistic, controlled but deeply feeling. They are orphans, not just in actual fact—but emotionally—they absorb the losses of their lives with equanimity to the point of capriciousness. This book, more than in Jane Eyre, deeply examines the English and Protestant underpinnings of that disposition. Set in Catholic France the cultural differences are pronounced by the added condition of expatria, and yet, what is truly wonderful about the book is the human feeling of loneliness and yearning for a true and intimate companionship that Brontë beautifully captures.
“As if one could let you alone, when you are so peculiar and so mysterious!”
“The mystery and peculiarity being entirely the conception of your own brain—maggots—neither more nor less, be so good as to keep them out of my sight.” (391)
Lucy can be a little sharp-tongued, but her honesty is refreshing and her wit is true and never malicious. Brontë’s characters are,to me, deeply appealing. Villette is not constructed like other novels of this genre. The plot takes time to get going, and the narrator’s relationship to the reader is fascinating.
Of course it was a particular style of the time for the narrator to address the reader—it is intimate—one becomes the special confidant and is subtly elevated to an active role. The famous closing remarks in Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him,” still warms my heart, but in Villette there is an oddity in that the Lucy’s reserve extends to the reader as well—she does not reveal some of her thoughts or reactions, and sometimes she even refers back to times in which she did not relate all that her heart felt. In a subtle manner her relationship to the reader is like her relationships to the other characters int he book. If you listen to her, and withhold judgment or projection, the fineness of her character comes through.
“Happiness is the cure—a cheerful mind the preventative: cultivate both.”
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, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure” (315)
The novel takes place in the interior of Lucy Snowe’s mind. The brilliant thing that Brontë accomplishes with this mode of narration is that one understands that the mind is not the perfect narrator—there are things which we hide from ourselves before we even have a thought of hiding them from others. It is the complexity and isolation of the interior terrain of the mind that Brontë develops in a surprisingly avant-garde manner considering the pre-Freudian era it seems to have forecasted.
“If,” muttered she, “if he should write, what then: Do you mediate pleasure in replying? Ah, fool! I warn you! Brief in your answer. Hope no delight of heart—no indulgence of intellect: grant no expansion to feeling—give holiday to no single faculty: dally with no friendly exchange: foster no genial intercommunication” (287)
Ah, romance. Yes! of course it is a romance! One to swoon the heart at that. But it is the battle between the mind and heart that is Brontë’s specialty—and what I particularly love about her books. For all of Lucy’s quirks and stringent coping mechanism, Brontë makes clear that her heart’s raging passions are valued above all. And it is that estimation alone that makes her novels so deeply satisfying and pleasurable.
Villette. Everyman’s Library, 1909 edition.
*Title from pg 581: “I believe in that goodly mansion, his heart, he kept one little place under the skylights where Lucy might have entertainment, if she chose to call.”
**photo by Augustus Accardi