Book Review: Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Offbeat yet harmonious. There I was, hoping indulgently to settle into a prettily written romance – you can only imagine my surprise at this captivating exploration of the joys and woes of the 19th century single woman. The tale told is that of Lucy Snowe, a young Englishwoman compelled to leave the fatherland in search of brighter prospects as a teacher in Villette, a fictional town based on Brussels. Upon these new shores stability is found but not happiness as the heroine deals with her friendlessness resulting in what a modern audience can diagnose as depression. Even when companionship arrives in the form of Dr John and later Monsieur Paul Emanuel, Lucy’s strife continues as Brontë sensitively describes the grey areas of unrequited love.

This is a novel with teeth for it is not simply affairs of the heart and mind we are dealing with but also of the soul and cultural identity. The modern reader must not dismiss Brontë for her protagonist’s xenophobic views although such vigorous declarations of British superiority can feel somewhat cloying. Instead we must see this as an insight into the growing imperialist sentiment in 19th Century England combined with a fascination with physiognomy (a science which believed outward facial features to be indicative of an individual’s ‘true’ nature). Still – historical curiosities aside – one cannot help but feel frustrated with Lucy for her proud rejection of the friendship of her colleagues at the Rue Fossette. Granted, these are not beacons of human perfection (then again how many of us think our co-workers are?) but surely simple companionship might have alleviated her struggle with solitude?

In a similar way, I found that the heroine’s suspicion of Catholics and Catholicism in general sounded an off note throughout the piece. Her own protestant faith is seen as the chief obstacle in the union between her and M. Paul whilst Catholicism is persistently described in terms suggestive of witchcraft. Ceremonies are ridiculed whilst the priest, Pére Silas, is seen as calculating and manipulative both in his control over M. Paul and in his attempts to convert Lucy. Again this is not intended to be dismissive and one must always be cautious when seeking to judge books by modern standards. Indeed, as a novel intended for a largely Protestant audience, this aspect of the book was received rather well in its own time. In many ways it brought to life former societal issues and made me think how future readers will view the conflicts of the 21st century.

What saved this novel for me was the heartfelt assertiveness of the narration which sought to elevate the female sense of self in society. This semi-autobiographical story describes Brontë’s own search for professional recognition in a male dominated society as well as an insight into the artistic process. Lucy occupies an unusual place in society in that she is a young, unmarried, professional woman. As such she enjoys a certain independence unlike the majority of women her age. What further facilitates her autonomy is the fact that she has no male relations to curb her liberty so she can very much act, think and say as she pleases. Part of Lucy’s charm is her near aversion to making herself overly agreeable to others, a trait that is both refreshing and a cunning plot devise. One only laments that this self-determination is undermined in the penultimate chapter when it is M. Paul that enables her to start her own school. However, whilst Lucy’s journey is imperfect, we must congratulate her for making decent progress for the cause…

Most poignant of all is the vividness with which she is able to describe clinical depression (or melancholia as it was then known), a disease that so many sufferers have struggled to even put into words. The lack of family connections that gave her her independence has its flip side in that she has no one to turn to in her times of woe. It is also the hinted at tragedies that befell her family that serve as the background of her gloom – a sentiment Brontë herself knew well having lost most of her own family by the time she wrote Villette. Lucy describes a ‘sorrowful indifference to existence…a despairing resignation to reach betimes the end of all things earthly’.

When I read this passage I ceased to criticise her unwillingness to take control of her life, seek her own fortune and happiness instead of rotting away in a girls boarding school, waiting for life to knock on her door. I began to feel sympathy for her struggle and I recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand a friend or relative suffering from depression. The author herself perceives the tendency of others to undermine her torment and to this she applies wit to ridicule the patronising advice of Dr John (and the rest of the male dominated medical profession by extension) by declaring that ‘no mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness’.

All in all, in spite of Lucy Snowe’s sober appearance and general lethargy this contrives to be a lively book. What the heroine is lacking is action she makes up for  in contemplation. The advantage of being a looker-on in the drama of life (speaking of Brontë also) is a remarkable talent for characterisation. Whilst Lucy herself may be as cold as her namesake you will find it is quite the reverse for the other characters. I won’t spoil the end for you. Indeed Miss Brontë has made it almost impossible to do such a thing as no doubt you shall soon discover…

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