(My Rating: 4/5)
This 657 page book is, I believe, the longest book I have ever read, and dear reader, I am afraid my review is going to be a rather long one as well. I found it a difficult book to review and thus you may find the following post a bit all over the place.
Getting into it, I was a bit apprehensive, since I hadn’t read a classic in a while. I thought I might end up labouring through it, but surprisingly it moved along at a nice pace. Perhaps the fact that Brontë’s writing is just so lovely had something to do with it. (I also found myself wanting to begin every bit of communication – including every blog post, email and text message – with “Dear Reader”.) Mercifully the phase has passed now that I have finished the book.
Villette is about Lucy Snowe, a young lady who finds herself in unfortunate circumstances and decides to do something to improve her life. She leaves England and heads for imaginary Villette (which according to what I have read up was meant to mean Brussels).
There she finds a job as an English teacher at a school and the rest of the novel revolves around her life in Villette over the next couple of years.
The novel encompass the themes of romance, religious views, isolation and adjustment to living in a new environment, the nature of the human psyche and the situation of women in the 1800’s, particularly how society viewed women from different social classes.
If your French isn’t good, I suggest keeping Google Translate open while reading this book. (On a side note, I last used Google Translate many years ago and was pleasantly surprised at how clever it has now become!) There is a generous sprinkling of French in the book; generous enough that should you skip these parts, you could miss out on important elements of the story and more importantly, some rather enjoyable repartee.
After finishing the book, when I considered what the story in general was about, I realised I didn’t find the actual story remarkable, but somehow I still found it a compelling read. As I read, I wanted to know what happened next. So as a story it was just OK for me, but the telling of the story – the writing and the techniques employed – I found quite clever.
It is only while reading Villette that I have for the first time truly understood what the term “unreliable narrator” means. At page 228, I was quite infuriated with Lucy Snowe! And she does it again and again throughout the novel. In fact I couldn’t help feeling that this talent of concealing things and revealing surprising facts at unexpected moments would have made Charlotte Brontë a good murder mystery / thriller writer.
I really don’t know what my feelings about Lucy Snowe are – at times I disliked her, at others I admired her courage and self confidence, sometimes I empathised with her and sometimes I cheered for her and loved how she stood her ground, but for the most part I just wanted to catch her and shake her up. (Especially at the end of the novel.) I also found her condescending at times, but then when the story revealed the actions of the people she was talking about, I realised that she was not condescending at all, merely accurate.
The comments that roll of her sharp tongue (in her thoughts) are quite entertaining: “She mortally hated work, and loved what she called pleasure; being an insipid, heartless, brainless dissipation of time.”
For most of the novel, her thoughts reveal that she doesn’t regard very highly most of the people around her, yet her actions never divulge this.
She portrays very well the thinking and nature of the sort of people (such as the character Ginerva Fanshawe) who believe that one can be nothing without wealth and upper class ancestry; the sort who cannot fathom how someone who seemingly doesn’t find themselves in such circumstances could possibly be happy, confident and have a satisfactory life. I feel like I have met many a Ginerva Fanshawe in my life!
Brontë is open about her dislike for the Catholic Church. She unhesitatingly denounces the Catholic Church at numerous points throughout the novel and appears quite at ease with expressing strong opinions.
It is also quite evident, especially when reading the end of Volume 1, that Brontë must have experienced depression in her life. Her description of Lucy’s feelings of isolation and loneliness isn’t overdone at all; it is very ‘real’.
Coming to the writing, which is always eloquent and often witty, I love the fact that Charlotte Brontë is unafraid to use long sentences, some of them an entire paragraph long, to describe things exactly and beautifully. I really do enjoy that sort of a thing! If I were to rate this book on the writing alone, I would, without hesitation, give it 5 stars.
Probably one of the most famous quotes from the book is:
“Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars – a cage”
Yet, even more than that, I like what comes immediately after:
“so peril, loneliness, an uncertain future, are not oppressive evils, so long as the frame is healthy and the faculties are employed; so long, especially, as Liberty lends us her wings and Hope guides us by her star.”
I find that courageous and reassuring.
I am sure that I will read Villette again in a while. It is that sort of a book – one that demands a lot of attention. I am also sure I will find new things to appreciate during my next reading of it.
I studied Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë in high school, and as a teenager I read an abridged version of Jane Eyre, but now I would like to read the unabridged version. I have also recently bought The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë, so it will be a toss up between those two novels when the mood to read another classic strikes again! I am also quite intrigued by the lives of the Brontë sisters and the times they lived in, so am on the lookout for material on the same. I think The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell might be a good place to start, but I welcome other suggestions.
And who knows, dear reader, now that I have made it through a 657 pager, I might just give War and Peace (which I started and abandoned twice, by the way) and Middlemarch a shot sometime in the near future.
Have you read Villette? Do you have a favourite Brontë sister or a favourite Brontë novel?