This post contains minor spoilers for Villette by Charlotte Brontë.
“‘Lucy, I wonder if anyone will ever comprehend you altogether.’”
This statement comes towards the close of Charlotte Brontë’s final novel, Villette. I don’t think I can think of a more perfect way to sum up the book. But I will endeavor to try.
Considered Brontë’s most autobiographical work, Villette follows Lucy Snowe, a young English Protestant who goes to work in the cosmopolitan city of Villette (modeled after Brussels) on European continent as a schoolteacher. There, she comes at odds with the school’s devoutly Catholic literature teacher, M. Paul Emanuel.
While reading the book, I wasn’t sure what made Lucy tick, and many others have noted that she’s an odd heroine. Villette is an introspective work, but sometimes, I couldn’t understand why Lucy was describing certain things she did.
For a significant number of portions of the book, Lucy is in the background, narrating what she sees. She observes the love story of Paulina and Dr. John. She writes about the other teachers, about M. Emanuel, about Villette. But she doesn’t often write about herself – save when she’s in distress. Lucy leaps off the page as shrouded in mystery and pessimism.
And yet, there’s something about Villette upon which I can’t quite place my finger, which explains why I love the above quote so much. I didn’t entirely grasp Lucy – and I didn’t entirely grasp Villette. But it’s a work I want to revisit because I think there’s so much more to get out of it.
Reading this book made me feel that if I could ever write half as well as Charlotte Brontë (or either of her sisters, for that matter), I’d consider myself an excellent writer. The number of passages in Villette that made me stop and take note is enormous. The writing in the aptly-titled chapters “Sunshine” and “Cloud,” the latter with its dream-like imagery, took my breath away. I want to read Villette again to get caught up in the language again.
But I also want to get caught up in this mysterious story again. There’s so much going on below the surface in Villette, so many hints dropped during the novel that rereading it with foreknowledge in some earlier scenes would be a welcome treat. I’ll have to see if I ever reread Villette – and if so, if a second glance at Lucy Snowe helps me unravel her character a little bit more.
One final note
There is, however, one more point I must raise before concluding. I like to keep my blog free of religious or political discussion, but certain elements of Villette compel me to break that this once, for the text contains numerous instances of anti-Catholicism. The first half in particular is full of snide jabs at the Catholic faith, and to this Catholic reader, it grew not only tiresome but also insulting.
I’ve tried to read up on some of what’s been written about this issue, and it appears that people have discussed it. Some say that it’s an artifact of the time – Brontë was the daughter of a Protestant minister in a time when Protestants and Catholics didn’t quite get along, after all – and others says that it still comes across as vindictive.
I tried to find some positives, though. There’s the scene in which Lucy finds solace in the confessional. There’s the bit with Lucy and M. Emanuel trying to reason through their theological differences, with Lucy trying to understand Catholicism.
But – and here be the spoilers – Lucy ends the novel reasserting Protestantism’s moral superiority. And M. Emanuel decides it’s not worth trying to convert her anymore. For some of the more even handed discussions found in the second half of the novel, I hoped that Brontë would have left it with Lucy and M. Emanuel agreeing to disagree.
If you’ve read Villete, what do you make of it and of Lucy Snowe?
This was Book #10 off my Classics Club list. To see the rest of it, click here.