Book Review: Villette

Last night I was lying in bed, flashlight in hand and Hamlet propped open on my pillow, when it occurred to me that while I consider myself largely skill-less, reading might be considered a skill. (For the record, I was reading with a flashlight because my house is freezing, and I knew that when I decided to sleep I wouldn’t want to get out of bed to turn the lights out. Hence, the room was already dark, and I made use of the flashlight that’s under my pillow particularly for these occasions.)

Reading as a skill all by itself might be a bit of a stretch, but reading and then thinking and then writing about those thoughts is the minimally-phrased version of what I’d like to do for the rest of my life. Presently, I have no degree, and therefore technically no authority, but I still have a reading experience that might be worth sharing. Despite not having a degree, I do read an awful lot, and paper writing has long been one of my favourite pastimes.

And so, while part of my brain was occupied with sympathising with Hamlet and untangling his soliloquies, the other part decided that this blog, which I recently announced needed a makeover, might be an acceptable platform for reviewing the books that I read. This way the blog has content and some degree of purpose, and I have a good reason to continue reading all the time when I could be doing other things, like laundry. Everyone wins.

With that explanation out of the way, I’d like to turn to Villette by Charlotte Brontë. It was my after-Christmas read, and I finished it in about a week and a half. It helped that I was in bed with a cold for a couple of those days, because in the world of Madeleine, sickness=exponential reading time.

My only other experiences with Brontë works are Jane Eyre, which I read in high school, and then reread the summer after my sophomore year, and Wuthering HeightsWuthering Heights is by Emily, Charlotte’s sister, and it was a part of my British Victorian Literature class last semester. The Brontës’ writing is widely accepted as gothic, often featuring a dark, brooding hero, a visit from the supernatural, and a mysterious house. It’s undeniably more tempestuous than the restrained civility in Jane Austen’s sitting rooms. Charlotte Brontë was actually highly critical of Austen– she asserted that Austen’s rigidity rendered her emotionless, too strictly controlled to generate an honest portrait of life. I don’t particularly agree with Brontë, but I will acknowledge that the emotions she puts into her writing are far more obvious than those of her Romantic counterpart.

When I opened Villette, then, I anticipated another stormy and probably desperate heroine, and an irascible older man that she would have to wage emotional war against. I’d read a summary of it before, but it had no more detail than “Heroine Lucy Snowe teaches at a boarding school in Villette and falls in love with an irritable professor, whose late fiancée’s family wants to keep them apart.” I paraphrase, but that really was the gist. If the writer of that summary every reads this (unlikely, I know, but ah well), I would like to accuse them of being deliberately misleading. They would have you believe that Villette is a romance, and while these barest bones of the novel might qualify it as such, the majority of the writing and the plot are decidedly un-romantic. Nevertheless, Villette is my favourite Brontë work thus read. I suppose that may change as I spend more time with the Brontë sisters, but I think it unlikely.

Jane, the heroine of Jane Eyre, and Catherine, of Wuthering Heights, are both overtly passionate and emotional. In the earlier part of Jane Eyre, the protagonist’s behaviour might be dismissed because she’s a child, but her internal life remains consistently turbulent when her external behaviour becomes more tailored to her position as a governess. Catherine is a nightmare from beginning to end– she’s selfish, melodramatic, and prone to temper tantrums.

Lucy Snowe, the heroine of Villette, exists on the polar opposite of the spectrum from her literary sisters Catherine and Jane. She consistently exercises self-control and self-denial. Her station in life is similar to Jane Eyre’s– she’s on the lowest end of the gentry class, without any fortune or family, and therefore required to work to keep herself fed and sheltered. The novel opens a short time before Lucy has begun work, while she’s staying with her godmother Mrs. Bretton. Despite her early status of tenuous leisure, however, she already has a mindset of sedateness, of simple pleasure and simple enjoyments. When her life changes and she takes a position as an elderly woman’s companion, she doesn’t rage against it, or resent it. She reminds herself that this is her lot in life, accepts it, and goes about her work.

For the majority of the novel, I found it incredibly difficult to relate to Lucy. She is the quintessential “set your expectations low, that way they can’t be disappointed.”  I wanted to wish better for Lucy than she wished for herself– I anticipated happiness where she didn’t even particularly desire it. I indulged in fantasies for her, when she was reluctant to even allow herself to indulge in the friendship of Mrs. Bretton and Graham, now all grown up and an established doctor in Villette.

The most striking question in the novel is on the nature of happiness. Cultivate happiness, Graham says, and Lucy responds, “Happiness is not a potato.” Which, out of a context, is hilarious, and I’ve been quoting it as often as possible. Her sentiment, though, is that happiness cannot be cultivated. We have as little control over it as the weather– sunshine is bestowed, not acquired. Graham’s argument is that happiness must be worked for, chased, and embraced.

I’m not sure who I agree with in this debate. In part, I think “happiness” is an ambiguous term, and it doesn’t seem that Graham and Lucy necessarily mean the same thing. Is happiness an external state, or an internal mentality? Is one easier to “cultivate” than the other? I’m not sure. I do find it ironic, though, that both characters’ experience of happiness is opposite to their abstraction of it. Lucy characterises Graham and Paulina as a species of people who blossom in auspicious circumstances but would wither in contrary ones, and are fortunately blessed with the former. Lucy doesn’t portray this as a defect in their character, and she never compares them with herself, but I couldn’t help wondering if either Paulina or Graham would have risen to the challenge had they been in Lucy’s position. Graham says cultivate happiness, but has he ever had to cultivate it for himself? According to Lucy’s portrayal, no. Lucy, on the other hand, has to work, or she risks falling destitute. She works for her own security and comfort– why shouldn’t she be able to work towards her own happiness?

Lucy’s belief that happiness cannot arise as a direct result of an individual’s actions might speak more to her definition of happiness than anything else. She can and does work for her own material comfort, with the longterm goal of financial independence and stability as the directress of her own school. Happiness for Lucy, then, is not the ability to indulge in good food, is not a pretty room or a soft bed. In fact, she’s often derisive about the pervasive sensuality of Labassecour, most obvious in Madame Beck. Lucy’s definition of happiness is instead found in those few moments in the novel when she expresses some degree of investment and excitement. Happiness is when she finds an intimacy of relationship with Graham and Mrs. Bretton. Happiness is the reassurance that Monsieur Paul cares for her.

For Lucy, happiness goes beyond anything she can create for herself because it requires other people. When Graham tells her to “cultivate happiness,” the problem is that they have different definitions. Graham grew up with friends his own age, he is established and goes out in society, and he has a constant companion in a mother who adores him and whom he adores. Lucy has no such reliability of relation– she has no family that loves her unconditionally. She has no one who might put her needs before their own. She never indicates that she particularly desires this variety of relationship; her spirit does not yearn in the way Jane Eyre’s or Catherine Linton’s does. She makes do with what she has, and does not want for more. But in those moments when she feels cared for, loved, valued– those are the moments during which I believe she feels truly happy.

A link to the novel: Villette


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