Thursday, July 3, 2014

Villette, by Charlotte Bronte

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Charlotte Bronte's last novel is her best. It's a highly existential work that examines a woman living at mental extremes. It's heroic, beautifully wrought, psychologically penetrating and highly original.

Villette was the last of Charlotte Bronte’s novels and it is broadly considered her best. By 1853, when the novel was published, Charlotte had lost her mother, four sisters (Maria, Elizabeth, Emily and Anne) and only brother, Branwell. Villette is actually a rewriting of an earlier novel that was published posthumously, The Professor (1857). As most readers know, Jane Eyre (1847) was Charlotte’s first literary success, followed by Shirley (1849), a novel written whilst bereaving the loss of Emily and Anne.

All of these novels had their faults. The Professor is an early effort, Jane Eyre veers towards melodrama and Shirley is ambitious but turgid and plodding. Villette on the other hand is the most aesthetically and conceptually integrated of all Charlotte’s books. It reads seamlessly, its narrative is beautifully sustained and there are no lumps and bumps in the way it is put together.

Charlotte returned to a first person narrator for Villette, in the reserved and shrewdly observing Lucy Snowe. With no family and little prospects, Lucy rashly travels to the fictional city of Villette (Brussels) in the fictional Kingdom of Labassecour (Belgium).  The novel is actually based on Bronte’s experiences of working in Brussels in her mid-twenties.

Lucy Snowe admirably makes her own way, a woman trying to eke out a living as a teacher in a foreign land, with no one else to help her. She meets her intellectual sparring partner, M. Paul Emanuel, a colleague at the school where she teaches. In time the two become close and Lucy slowly falls in love with him. Bronte leaves the novel’s ending tantalisingly vague, allowing the reader to  make up their own ending.

There isn’t much plot in Villette. It’s really more of a psychological portrait of a woman living at  mental extremes. She’s alone, poor, without love and in a foreign country. We know Lucy Snowe is under extraordinary stress because she has a mental breakdown about a third of the way into the novel. Yet she picks herself up and carries on as though having a mental breakdown is no big deal. The reader gets the impression that Lucy has had many before. 

As Lucy Hughes-Hallett notes in this excellent review, Lucy Snowe writes as though she’s a dissident writing under a repressive regime. Villette has a starkly existential quality, like Kafka’s novels or Jean-Paul Sartre’s  Nausea (1938). There is also something Baroque in the language. It’s wonderfully ornate (perhaps overwritten to modern readers) and finessed, like an intricately woven tapestry.

The novel is also quite strange and unnerving. There are really few mature, adult relationships in Villette, except for the one with M. Paul near the end. Most of the book is taken up with Lucy’s domineering perspective. Everything must go through her eyes, and her view of the world comes from a place of extreme solitude, just like Charlotte's, who had lost all her family (except her father) by the time she came to write Villette. No wonder she wrote Villette, perhaps to help her survive and go on. It's a heroic, strange and highly original work.

Villette, by Charlotte Bronte. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780141199887  RRP: $9.95

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