Book Review: Villette by Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre has long been a favorite of mine. My reading of Jane Eyre in seventh grade sparked a love for classic literature that has only grown since.

Villette, along with Shirley, has sat on one of my many bookshelves for… well… years if I’m honest.

But a few weeks ago I found myself hungry for some good Victorian literature. It’s been a while since I’ve touched anything of the like.

So, off came Villette from the shelf. It proved to be quite an interesting read. It’s all at once rational and sensational, reasoned and emotional. It bears the gothic, seemingly supernatural qualities of Jane Eyre (i.e. fantastical events, poor orphan girls, unrequited love, and the woeful tales of governesses) as well as the simple qualities of Anne Bronte’s Agnes Gray. 

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In this novel Bronte provides an interesting examination of the human consciousness, loneliness, the effects of sorrow and joy upon the heart, as well as the effects of unrequited love on the mind and the heart.

(I mean, could it even be a Bronte novel if it wasn’t driven by much drama and inner turmoil. Alas, t’would not be the same.)

While not quite as sensational as Jane Eyre, Villette is still quite the read and, I’d argue, equally as thought provoking.

I found the most interesting aspect of Villette to be Lucy Snowe’s perception of herself vs. who she is to others. For example, to her friend Dr. John Bretton, Lucy is “meek and inoffensive.” To a fellow teacher, Paul Emanuel, Lucy is proud and ostentatious. To a student of her’s, Lucy is rigid and too high-browed.

“What contradictory attributes of character we sometimes find ascribed to us, according to the eye with which we are viewed! Madame Beck esteemed me learned and blue; Miss Fanshawe, caustic, ironic, and cynical; Mr. Home, a model teacher, the essence of the sedate and discreet: somewhat conventional perhaps, too strict, limited and scrupulous, but still the pink and pattern of governess-correctness; whilst another person, Professor Paul Emanuel, to wit, never lost an opportunity of indicating his opinion that mine was rather a fiery and rash nature -adventurous, indocile, and audacious. I smiled at them all. If anyone knew me it was little Paulina Mary.”

It is this suppression of herself – both outwardly and inwardly – that traps Lucy. Loneliness often results from the feeling that one is not truly known. And when one feels misunderstood one feels alienated.

This loneliness permeates Lucy inner life to such a degree that she finds herself teetering on the brink of a mental breakdown at the climax of the story. Bronte illuminates the disquietude within Lucy (the disquietude she will hardly admit to) through events that appear supernatural.

While Villette brims with themes, the largest one is the tension between the confines of the mind/heart and the weakness of their outward expression. Lucy does not want to be lonely, yet she cannot express herself in such a way where her truest personality is understood.

“But afterwards, is there nothing more for me in life – no true home – nothing to be dearer to me than myself?”

I believe Charlotte Bronte highlights a very human struggle in Lucy’s turmoil.

The longing of the heart for affection and the fear to expose oneself completely, coexist.

Like Jane EyreVillette also explores unfulfilled desire. Lucy buries her hopes deep within herself, but as she watches those dear to her heart find happiness and love, these desires surface and threaten to smother her with their impossibility. While she has joy for her friends, she cannot help but feel her life is devoid of something, of someone.

And again Bronte paints tension between fulfilled and unfulfilled desires, as well as between a life marked by joy and a life marked by suffering. Lucy tries to grapple with the sovereignty of God in allowing some to life lives full of happiness, while others seem to live in endless agony.

“We should acknowledge God merciful, but not always for us comprehensible.”

In the end loneliness is only the vehicle for Lucy’s unfulfilled hopes. Her heart is broken by the destruction of her soul’s deepest desires.

“But solitude is sadness.”

“Yes; it is sadness. Life, however, has worse than that. Deeper than melancholy lies heart-break.”

All that said, Villette was quite a dense read (my goodness does Charlotte Bronte like wordy sentences), an unconventional gothic story, and very fascinating. T’wasn’t my favorite Bronte novel, but I’m sure this will be one I’ll often ponder. 


Favorite Quotes:

“Who has words at the right moment?”

“To see and know the worst is to take from Fear her main advantage.”

“I thought I loved him when he went away; I love him now in another degree; he is more my own.”

“I believe in some blending of hope and sunshine sweetening the worst lots. I believe that this life is not all; neither the beginning nor the end. I believe while I tremble; I trust while I weep.”

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