Friday, November 16, 2018

Villette by Charlotte Bronte is affecting, heartbreaking, and beautiful (Classic Novel Review)

Charlotte Bronte
I'm a fan of Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" (I mean, who isn't?) and intrigued by her sister's novel "Wuthering Heights," so I figured I'd track down a copy of Charlotte Bronte's under-discussed novel "Villette."

Reading it was a fascinating experience, particularly evaluating its style. Much like my first impression of "Jane Eyre," "Villette" was a somewhat tedious and difficult novel to get into, at least at first. In fact, the entire first 150 pages while interestingly written, were almost a slog to get through.

Bronte's writing style is ornate and dense. Entire paragraphs (which are far longer than most author's) might be entirely devoted to a side bar on a single thought before we return to the action of the moment. One can imagine writing an abridged version 1/3rd the length of the original without missing any actual plot. That's not a disparagement, simply an aspect of her style.

What perhaps made the first third so challenging is something that becomes central to the lead character, Lucy Snowe, which is that while she is narrating her story, she quite intentionally underplays her own presence in her very own life. Lucy elaborates with incredible depth and precision on every other element of the environment and everyone in it while almost completely ignoring her own existence. This is particularly true of the opening third.

 Lucy Snowe avows, sometimes through overt reminders to the reader, that she is simply trying to get through life and not very interested in having or desiring or hoping. However, as the novel progresses, we get the distinct impression that she is repressing those very real emotions and feelings due to the circumstances of her life to date. This ultimately spills over into the narrative as she slowly begins to allow herself feelings and the ultimately painful outcomes those feelings produces. It begs the central question, is it better to feel and hurt, or not to feel at all?

In summary, Villette is the story of Lucy Snowe. A young woman from an upper middle-class family in the first half of the 1800s. Unfortunately her family is not able to maintain their lifestyle and she goes out into the world to try and make her way, balancing her former position with her resolute understanding that she has no one and nothing to her name.

She spends considerable time in her youth with her godmother and godmother's son Graham as well as the daughter of a friend of the godmother, Polly. As she ages, she ultimately leaves Britain for France/Belgium and the region of Villette. There, penniless, jobless, but determined to live a prudent and useful life, she finds employment as an English teacher in a boarding school for the uppercrust girls of the region.

While employed there, she is reunited with Graham, now a grown man and prominent doctor in the region. As Graham flirts with a young lady from the school, Lucy and Graham rekindle their friendship. Upon Graham realizing how horrible the young lady truly is, he appears to deepen his friendship with Lucy. This is the beginning of Lucy releasing the bars she has placed over her feelings and desires as she begins wondering if perhaps there could be a future with Graham.

As time progresses, Polly, now a young lady of 17 reenters, her slightly strange ways as a child are replaced with an almost angelic look and personality. Graham is smitten, and despite her own feelings, Lucy feels compelled to acknowledge the incredible match between Graham and Polly, sealing up her feelings (and the letters from Graham) and burying them for all time under a tree in the courtyard of the school.

Throughout her time in the school, we are introduced to many other people, most prominently the owner of the school, Madame Beck, and a cantankerous, brilliant, moody professor of language M. Paul Emanuel.

M Paul Emanuel requires perfection, but he frequently vacillates between bombastic tempers and utter sweetness. We come to understand that he is acutely sensitive and empathetic to others and despite seeming to pick on Lucy, they develop an interesting almost-friendship. As this is developing over the middle of the novel, I kept feeling like there was something very special in Bronte's attention and depiction of M. Paul Emanuel despite his initially appearing as just a side character. I would not be disappointed.

I won't give away the final third of the novel, other than to say that in typical Bronte fashion (take your pick of which one), the journey and the ending are filled with melancholy, fiercely beating hearts, incredible emotion, and pain.

While the writing style and the early set-up were almost arduous, by the time I hit the middle of the novel, I was hooked. There is something so endearing about Lucy Snowe. She doesn't want anything for herself, but we want so much for her. If she is repressed, it is herself doing the repressing, and yet, when given the chance to feel, it often comes at great cost even if there is some small reward.

Like many novels of the time, there is a gothic quality that includes supernatural elements. But those are ultimately resolved in mundane ways that are almost like a Shakespearean comedy. The novel also explores religion with Lucy's Protestantism and M. Paul Emanuel's Catholicism leading to intense exploration and interactions for them and others.

This is not an overwrought novel, in fact it is so underwrought that a reader would be forgiven for giving up on it too soon. But the payoff comes from watching how Bronte uses Lucy's invisibleness in her own story to make her emotional journey that much more intense for the reader, despite the restraint in the actual events that occur in the novel.

While that aspect of the writing is brilliant, there are also spots within the novel that suggest somewhat less refinement than her seminal work "Jane Eyre." I, however, can more than forgive that because the core story is ultimately very affecting. While not a perfect novel, and while the style of the author's voice is one that may not translate well as a guide to contemporary authors looking to explore craft, the skill by which Bronte uses an unconventional narrative approach in the beginning to set up for the emotional weight and payoffs by the end is quite extraordinary.

If you are a fan of similar works and authors, of proto-feminist works, and melancholy and the complex reality of navigating feelings when feelings are not allowed, this is very much a work for you. I hope you give it strong consideration. I am very grateful for having read it.

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