One of the things that has been most interesting about re-reading – is how much my memory has let me down. I suppose that there is a limit to what one can retain of the books read over a twenty-year period. One thing has largely remained constant however – and that is my affection for the books that I chose to re-read this month. I can’t remember when it was I first read Villette – but it was a long time ago – I would guess at around twenty-five years ago. I can remember loving it – and I remembered the setting of the school very well, and Charlotte Bronte’s description of M.Paul Emanuel’s appearance I had also remembered. The rest however remained to be re-discovered as I remembered little of the plot – a mere sense of the ending – and virtually nothing of other important characters.
For me – Villette is a much harder novel than say Jane Eyre – which I have read three times or Shirley, which I have read twice. It is a complex novel of unrequited love – and what it is to be alone in the world. Like Jane Eyre and The Professor it is considered to be a deeply autobiographical work. Many reviews I have seen seem to suggest that Lucy Snowe is a less likeable character than Jane is – I found her perfectly likeable – she is quite real, sometimes outspoken (putting forward those views perhaps that Charlotte herself felt unable to).
“No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure. Happiness is a glory shining far down upon us out of Heaven. She is a divine dew which the soul, on certain of its summer mornings, feels dropping upon it from the amaranth bloom and golden fruitage of Paradise.”
Lucy is a secretive narrator – she holds things back from the reader – tantalisingly – a good plot device quite suited to this gothic tale.
Lucy Snowe is an orphan who as a child often visited her godmother Mrs Bretton and her son Graham – into their lives during one visit –comes Polly, a precocious six year old doll like child who becomes attached to the 16 year old Graham. Lucy Snowe loses touch with these friends and has to make her way in the world alone. Having worked as a companion for a short time, Lucy leaves England and ends up in Villette (Brussels) where seeking shelter in a girls school – she finds both home and employment. Needless to say Mrs Bretton, Graham and the now grown up Polly come back into her life unexpectedly. Lucy works hard, but her slightly nervous and depressive personality lead her to all kinds of imaginings about the tale of the ghost of a nun, which is said to haunt the school. She is employed by the school’s proprietor, Madame Beck a cruel snooping women who watches Lucy closely. Her relative is a professor of literature – M. Paul Emanuel, with whom Lucy develops a sparky sparring relationship.
I had remembered only part of the ending, and forgotten just how ambiguous it is – which is frustrating in one way – but does allow the reader to put their own spin on it – which is what I did and had remembered I think. I had also forgotten that Villette is a deceptive tome – rather longer than I had remembered. Also it’s a slow read if like me, you don’t read French – and so have to flick to the notes for translations of bits of French speech – (immediately losing my place back on the relevant page,) I had remembered being annoyed by that the last time too. Villette though is worth the hard work it requires – and it certainly shows what an amazing writer Charlotte Bronte was. That, that quiet shy young woman, from that draughty old parsonage in Haworth should have been able to produce such a novel it wonderful to me.