Villette (Modern Library Classics)

Villette - A.S. Byatt, Charlotte Brontë, Ignes Sodre Virginia Woolf considered Villette Bronte’s “finest novel” and George Eliot preferred it to Jane Eyre. The friend who recommended it to me feels that way too, and in her review on Goodreads called it a “a beautifully constructed novel, with a complex and often frustrating narrator and quite possibly the most elegant, restrained examination of unrequited love that I have read.” I’d agree with that assessment, even if Jane Eyre remains first in my affections, possibly because Jane Eyre is an old friend, possibly because it’s the more romantic, warming book--even if Villette is arguably the better, more mature book. Jane Eyre is Charlotte Bronte’s first published novel, Villette her last. If I weren’t comparing it to such a beloved book I’d give Villette five stars--I’d give it 4.99 stars were that possible. The prose often elicited writer’s envy in me because of its beauty and piercing insight. Its protagonist and narrator Lucy Snowe is self-effacing, reserved, my friend even describes her as “repressed” and at first she seemed to me as chilly as her name, and in the pitilessness and sharpness of her judgements it seemed to me she would be an uncomfortable companion--but she did grow on me. As did Professor Paul Emanuel--he reminded me a lot of Severus Snape of Harry Potter, and I can’t help but wonder if he influenced that character given the rather rare name of “Ginevra” appears in both works suggesting Rowling was familiar with the novel. Madame Beck is quite the character too. Few 19th century novels have a woman character quite so pragmatic, capable and unsentimental. That said this might not be for everyone. This is a typical Victorian novel in oh so many ways. I never, ever found it a slog, but some reviewers complained of its leisurely pace and of being overly descriptive, and that “nothing happens.” None of that ever bothered me, because to the extent those criticisms are just they are as much strengths as flaws. The story is very interior, very concerned with the small intricacies of character and relationships and the mind and heart of Lucy Snowe and others, but it’s psychologically complex and brilliantly insightful and often very vivid in its pictures of people. A few things did annoy me, though not enough to lower the novel in my estimation. First, this is partly autobiographical, because though Bronte uses the fictional name of “Villette” for the city and the fictional name of “Labassecour” for the kingdom, this is obviously set in the French-speaking Brussels, Belgium where Bronte studied and taught in a boarding school. And she makes little accommodation for non-French speakers. There are frequent passages of untranslated French in the novel--in my edition they’re translated in the endnotes, but it was irksome to go back and forth--it interrupted the flow. I’d search for an edition where the translations appear in either parenthesis in the text or footnotes--assuming you don’t know French. Another aspect I found annoying was the unrelenting anti-Catholicism of the novel. I’m an atheist but I was raised Catholic and educated in Catholic schools, and I admit I’m none too fond of the kind of person who refers to it as “Papism” or “Popery” or “Romanism,” sees Jesuits as sinister, and thinks Protestantism is oh-so-much-more enlightened the way Lucy Snowe (and Bronte?) does here. And finally, like many 19th Century writers such as Hugo and Dickens, Bronte seemingly doesn’t see unlikely coincidences as a plotting flaw--indeed I suspect those writers see such instances as the Hand of God given how they resort to them--but as a 21st Century reader I can’t help but find that aspect eye-rolling. That said, I can’t stress enough what a wonderful, readable novel Villette is--heartbreaking, so be warned--but oh so very well worth knowing. Another warning--if you have the edition with the introduction including an interview with A.S. Byatt, don't read that introduction until afterwards--you'll hit major spoilers within paragraphs.