Villette is the third published novel by Charlotte Bronte (and also the last novel she wrote). The novel bears more than a passing resemblance to her more well-known novel Jane Eyre—mostly because it, too, draws from much of Charlotte’s real life—but it has grown more critically acclaimed than its predecessor. But only a critic could find something important in such an aggravating novel. (I should know, since I, too, am a critic.)
The story follows the tragic, tumultuous, and frustrating life of Lucy Snowe. Written in the first person by an older Lucy, the novel serves more as a psychological study of a woman (in the 1850s) than as a plot-driven story. For plot is the one thing almost completely absent from Villette (hence why it’s such an aggravating novel).
It begins when Lucy is a mere 14 years old, and seems to focus more on the petite doll-like Polly and her budding friendship with young Graham than on what orphaned Lucy is doing in her godmother’s home. But soon Lucy moves on from home to job to the French-speaking town of Villette, facing discouragement and tribulation along the way. The entirety of volume one feels disjointed as Lucy makes her disheartening journey to this foreign town (a not unfamiliar journey for readers of Jane Eyre).
Volume two, however, opens with a plot twist! An important character that has been popping up in Lucy’s Villette life turns out to be a character from her past. While it’s a nice surprise (if, indeed, you are surprised by it—it seemed like an obvious twist), the revelation is frustrating. Lucy is quick to point out that she knew from almost the first moment she met the character who he really was. She merely chose not to reveal to us (or him) this little revelation. This immediately makes her not only an untrustworthy narrator but also a very manipulative one. An interesting dynamic that makes you want to both pay more attention to what she is telling you and disregard everything she says.
It also sets up high expectations that more plot twists may be provided in the future of the novel. But it’s hard to insert plot twists when there is almost no plot. In fact, just as you begin to accept the novel as psychological examination of a very passive, depressive woman, you get a glimmer of hope that more will happen volumes two and three! And, while some stuff does happen, there’s a lot more to slog through to get to it.
But how rewarding is Villette? Every third chapter my eyes would glaze over at the sheer monotony of Lucy’s unhappy life and her apparent inability to do anything to make it even a smidge happier. Or yet my eyes would lose focus at the random bouts of French inserted into conversation but lazily not translated—either by Lucy Snowe (who knows you don’t read French, since she barely knows it upon arriving at Villette) or by the Bantam publishers who released this copy (I would have happily flipped to the back of the book Infinite Jest-style to read translations of these conversations*). But loose story arcs with other characters liven up even her dullest recounting of a trip to the opera. It’s a tough sell to any reader, much less one who actually enjoys reading Victorian Era novels. (Especially when at every turn you just want to drop Villette and revisit Jane Eyre*.)
Villette forces the reader to exert patience and luxuriate in the text (a hard thing to do when you’re reading 7 novels at a time, but not an awful thing in and of itself). Yet I felt wholly satisfied with the novel’s ending. Over halfway through the novel, I began to realize that I greatly resembled Lucy Snowe (I most certainly would end up with her in the “Which Bronte Heroine Are You?” Quiz). Her dilettante ways are unappealing but her lack of amusement with so much of life mirrors my steely attitude. If she were a character written today, I know she would be just as snarky as I am (her asides to the reader throughout the novel show promise of that). There’s an essence of Lucy Snowe inside me, and so I felt compelled to finish the novel to see how much of it will mirror my own life (the somewhat ambiguous ending seems a fitting enough life for me to look forward to).
Charlotte definitely packs in plenty of her defining plot points. Instead of a mysterious woman in the attic, there is the haunting figure of a ghost nun lurking about the school that Lucy works at. Lucy gets her own love triangle of sorts, including one who seems to think of her more as a sibling than a “lover” (sound familiar?). Yet whatever good fortune we assume Jane deserves, it would feel unjust to expect similar happiness for Lucy. A woman who constantly denies herself happiness should not be rewarded with “eternal joy,” right? But then maybe you should read the novel and decide that for yourself.
*If anyone finds a copy of Villette with translations, please notify me ASAP!
*If, for some reason, you haven’t read Jane Eyre, please do so ASAP!