The longest-lived of that never healthy Victorian literary family, Charlotte Brontë was also the most prolific as a novelist. Villette, which first appeared in 1853, was her third published book, as well as the last to appear during her lifetime. A fourth (which was actually the first to be written) was published posthumously, and she had just started writing a fifth before her death in 1855. Based on her personal and rather unhappy experiences as a teacher in Brussels, it is a first-person narration of the story of Lucy Snowe. (By the way, if you're wondering why Helen Cooper is credited as the author here, she wrote the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition - I don't think we can credit her with writing the whole story!)
The opening scene finds Lucy, aged 14 and already an orphan, on one of her regular visits to the rural home of her godmother Mrs Bretton in rural England. At around the same time we are introduced to other characters who will all reappear later in the book. They include Mrs Bretton's irrepressible 16-year old son Graham, the recently widowed Mr Home, and his precocious, not to say insufferable, seven-year-old daughter 'Polly', otherwise known as Paulina.
After leaving the Brettons, Lucy is engaged as a companion and nurse to the elderly and infirm Mrs Marchmont in her dying years. One morning Lucy discovers that the latter has died peacefully in her sleep, leaving her with money and the opportunity to make a new life for herself, or travel - or both. Now in her early twenties, although she cannot speak a word of French, she goes to France and ends up in Villette, presumably based in part on Brussels. Here she finds herself a job at a boarding school for girls from well-off families run by Mme Beck. Some of the students are likeable while some are tiresome if not downright provocative, but with her insight and placid temperament she proves herself an able and understanding teacher, and is rapidly promoted.
A regular visitor to the school is the handsome Englishman Dr John, who turns out to be Graham Bretton. Paulina also reappears, and from a child she has grown into an attractive young woman who is ready to break a heart or two. There is also a brief encounter with a shadowy nun in the attic, perhaps the ghost of a long-dead nun who had been buried alive after she had broken her vows of chastity. She is an echo, it seems, of Mrs Rochester in 'Jane Eyre'.
Of more relevance to Lucy's situation is the schoolmaster M Paul Emanuel, with whom she falls in love. The disapproving Mme Beck and several of the others try to keep them apart, and the result is a painful parting which leads to severe misery for them both, with Lucy left on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It is clear Charlotte was certainly writing from her own experiences, recalling the thwarted love affair she had as a teacher in Belgium, and she portrays Lucy's loneliness and repressed feelings vividly, as only a person who has experienced such things can.
But will there be a happy ending? Read on - the book, that is.
Having read several of the other Brontë sisters' novels, I found 'Jane Eyre' the most enjoyable, with Anne's 'Agnes Grey' probably my second favourite, and probably 'Wuthering Heights' - the first choice of many - after that. 'Villette', I regret to say, did not impress me so much. Charlotte is always good when it comes to bringing people to life on the printed page, and as ever she gets inside the character of her lonely, lovelorn heroine very convincingly, as she does with the other main characters.
But there is something rather predictable about the tale. It must be said that the plot itself is rather sparse, and much of it is concerned with the psychology of Lucy and her efforts to protect herself from possible heartbreaks, following the deaths of those around her early in her life, to try and make herself less vulnerable. She may be repressed and lonely, but she's safeguarding herself from getting hurt. In a sense it is even more autobiographical than we may have thought at first, in mirroring the life of Charlotte herself who lost her mother at an early age and her two eldest sisters in quick succession.
Moreover I find it rather over-written, although this was a common failing - or might we say fashion - in many novels of the time. Publishers had not yet become alive to the concept of editing in the interests of 'more is less - less is more'. How many other mid-19th century works consist of around 500 pages of close print? A goodly number, I'd say. I fear that as is so often the case there's too much description, too much dialogue, and not really enough story to sustain such a lengthy work.
'Jane Eyre' is similar in many ways, and for me that provides enough drama to drive the story with interest. 'Villette' has its defenders, even those who regard it as her best book. I beg to differ - in fact, I found it definitely lacking in drama. It was as if she had already written and published the novel she had always wanted to write, and then like many an author after her she had found herself falling back on to the formula, or else said yes to publishers who were asking for more of the same.
TO READ OR NOT TO READ?
If you are familiar with the family's other books, and are fascinated with the Brontës as people, which I always have been, you might enjoy this. It's certainly worth a try. But in my view it's certainly not the one you should be starting with.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]
Ask most people to name one Charlotte Bronte and the chances are they'll say 'Jane Eyre'. Ask them to name another and they'll probably either draw a blank. But CB also wrote another classic, 'Villette' (as well as the rather dull 'Shirley' and the fascinating but very weird 'The Professor').
The titular Villette is a small Belgian town where respectable-but-penniless English heroine Lucy Snowe travels to find work teaching at a girls' boarding school.
Outwardly self-contained and controlled, Lucy is determined to remain independent and uncowed by circumstances including suspicious, plotting and bullying colleagues, stupid and deceitful students and her own tumultuous inner feelings.
There is a large autobiographical element, as CB spent time as a governess in Brussels. Her unhappiness there clearly colours her view of the Belgians - the anti-European bias is blatant with Belgian girls all depicted as dull, untrustworth and morally dubious.
However, we are aware that in Lucy Snowe we have an unreliable narrator. She keeps her true feelings hidden from the reader almost as much as from her colleagues and you feel this is entirely in character and masterfully done. And for my money the end revelation packs even more of a surprising punch than the famous 'Reader, I married him' of Jane Eyre.