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Villette by Charlotte Brontë
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Villette (1853)

by Charlotte Brontë

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Lucy Snowe, adrift in her life in England, travels abroad to French-speaking Villette, and becomes a teacher.

On wiki it says that in Villette (apparently modelled on Brussels), Lucy is "drawn into adventure and romance." This is an exaggeration. For pretty much all of its 650 pages, basically nothing happens in this book. Lucy has some fairly minor ups and downs in her life, and is associated with people who are in much the same boat. It is a report on a mundane life among mundane lives. And yet it's excellent. It's incredibly well observed psychologically, and really creeps up on you. In a largely eventless, plotless book, with an entirely passive narrator, the little ups and downs become as all consuming for the reader as they do for the character. I'm not quite sure how Bronte pulls it off, but it's very good indeed. Loved the ending, too.

One note - some of the dialogue is in French, so if (like me), you don't speak it, get an edition (unlike me) that translates it. ( )
  roblong | Dec 16, 2014 |

Overall a weaker effort than Jane Eyre, as Villette is dragged down by characters that aren't compelling and random asides about the superiority of British Protestantism that were annoying and out of place. Whereas Jane Eyre featured a unique protagonist and a series of atmospheric settings, Villette's protagonist is as bland as her namesake, and the setting of a fictional French city is rendered all but meaningless by the focus of the book.

Lucy Snowe serves as the main character of Villette, a protagonist so passive for the first few chapters that it is hard to ascribe to her any characteristics. Contrast this with the opening chapters of Jane Eyre, where Jane's character is established swiftly and firmly. Eventually it emerges that Snowe is usually quiet and unassertive, except for instances where she harps on the superiority of her country and religion, or the rare instance where she is an outright jerk to people. Seriously, if I had a dollar for every time Snowe criticizes catholicism and French culture while expounding upon the virtues of the British and the Protestant faith I'd have at least $50. At one point after going to the opera Snowe laments that she preferred Scottish street musicians. Behold, ladies and gentlemen, a 1850s hipster! It's never clear why anyone else would pay any attention to Lucy Snowe, much less actively want to spend time with her, but over the course of the story various people befriend her (or try to) and in time she even attracts romantic attention. Because she oscillated between being a nonentity and being actively unlikable Snowe's journey never hooked me. Unfortunately almost none the rest of the characters in Villette proved engaging either.

Dr. John Graham Bretton serves as the male lead character for the first half of the novel, as well as an apparent potential love interest. He's largely defined by two things: he's a doctor, and he really loves his mother. The former characteristic is given no depth, while the latter characteristic is perhaps given too much. Stories can have an abnormally strong attachment between parent and child and be entertaining, just look at Emma and her father's relationship in Austen's Emma, but in Villette Graham just comes off as a momma's boy. It does little to make him appealing. The second male lead, Paul, is substantially worse. Despite the fact that the book periodically described Paul as having good qualities and as being loved by his students, he comes off in the book as a grade-A jackass. Prudish, reducing the narrator to tears on multiple occasions, intolerant and controlling, he's an almost impressively unlikable character, yet Brontë believes that she has made him sympathetic by the close of the story. She really hasn't. Note that these two male leads never really both appear as fleshed out characters at the same time in this novel: the book starts out focusing on Graham, only to later shift to Paul and essentially abandons Graham for many chapters. When the book picks up on Graham's story again later on Paul is in turn abandoned, making it clear that Brontë can only give life to one male character at a time (also true in Jane Eyre, with Rochester and Rivers never appearing as developed characters together).

The sole character that I liked was Ginevra, a shallow and foolish young woman to be sure, but she's passionate and active in stark contrast to the other characters' blandness. She reminded me of Daisy from The Great Gatsby- you know she'd be a terrible match, but you can see why characters would fall in love with her anyway. Brontë tries to cast Ginevra as a character with traits to avoid, not emulate, but her appearances were a breath of fresh air compared to the stuffy boredom brought on by the rest of the characters. You might think that because the story takes place in a city there would be other characters worth discussing, but you'd be wrong. The city of Villette, and indeed the entire world of this book, seems to be populated by only a handful of characters, most of which are familiar archetypes or lacking any depth. Jane Eyre did the same thing with its small cast, but with the isolated setting of that book the sparse population made more sense. Here the world feels strangely depopulated and empty.

The setting isn't much better than the characters. Though set in France, the superiority of the British is brought up so frequently that it feels as though Brontë chose a foreign setting just so that she had more opportunities to glorify her homeland. France mainly serves as an excuse to throw in the occasional line or paragraph of French. It's easy enough French that I could muddle through it, but why Brontë chose to include these passages without a translation escapes me. As discussed above, the city feels rather empty as well. The school Snowe teaches at is atmospheric, but I've noticed that Brontë's settings tend to be atmospheric despite her writing and not because of it. Brontë sets up evocative scenes, like in the opening chapters of this books where rooms seem not inhabited, but haunted by a small child, or where Snowe's life is confined for years to two hot stuffy rooms, but once these scenes are set up Brontë goes back to writing in her usual style, doing very little to keep in the reader's mind the creepy surroundings that she originally introduced. Once she turns back to plot progression the atmosphere of Brontë's settings starts to slip away. For a great take on the atmosphere of a Brontë book I'd highly recommend the 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre, which focuses on the settings with some great cinematography.

So overall this book fell flat to me because of a largely uninteresting cast of characters and a setting that had most of its potential wasted. After I stopped caring about the unlikable Lucy Snowe there was little else for me to focus on in the story. Jane Eyre was well worth reading, while Villette is well worth skipping. ( )
  BayardUS | Dec 10, 2014 |
I was told before I started reading this book, that Charlotte Brontë only ever wrote one good book, that book being Jane Eyre. So I didn't have big expectations for it. It wasn't love romantic like Jane Eyre but it had family and friendship love. I enjoyed how the main character was more of a spectator throughout the whole book.
I wouldn't agree with people saying it's a bad book, it's different and most enjoyable in it's own way. ( )
  lisa.isselee | Sep 26, 2014 |
While I enjoyed this book, it was a slow read. Unless you are fluent in French, I would recommend getting a version with translations in the footnotes. I read the first 150 pages without any and almost quit reading because I felt like I missed too much. Once I found a copy with translations, the book got vastly better. ( )
1 vote bjh3038 | Aug 22, 2014 |
I'm a huge Jane Eyre fan so was looking forward to reading Villette. Unfortunately I really detested all of the characters and was slightly bored by most of the plot. I know that this is considered to be largely autobiographical, so I'll give it the benefit of the doubt that if I knew more about Bronte's life this may have been a more satisfying read. I did like the contrast between Lucy's (the main character and narrator) inner dialogue, which was highly dramatic and flowery, and the way the outside world viewed her, which was as a calm and sedate, almost boring person. ( )
  japaul22 | Jul 20, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (56 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Charlotte Brontëprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Haapanen-Tallgren, TyyniTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
May, NadiaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rosengarten, HerbertEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Smith, MargaretEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Weston, MandyNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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My godmother lived in a handsome house in the clean and ancient town of Bretton.
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Book description
Friendless and poor, Lucy Snowe arrives in the great Belgian city of Villette, where the sophisticated, devious Madame Beck offers her a post in her girls' school. Though Lucy gradually wins the respect of the spoiled, unruly pupils and her suspicious fellow-teachers, she is adrift from her own culture and finds her solitude desolating. In a powerfully-evoked crisis during the summer vacation, she encounters friends from her childhood, John Bretton and his kindly mother, but her feeling for the charming Dr John have to be curbed when she discovers that his love is bestowed elsewhere. In exploring this crisis and her emergence from it, Charlotte Bronte produced possibly the first, and certainly one of the most important fictional accounts of a woman's emotional breakdown.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140434798, Paperback)

"I am only just returned to a sense of real wonder about me, for I have been reading Villette..." —George Eliot

With neither friends nor family, Lucy Snowe sets sail from England to find employment in a girls’ boarding school in the small town of Villette. There she struggles to retain her self-possession in the face of unruly pupils, an initially suspicious headmaster, and her own complex feelings, first for the school’s English doctor and then for the dictatorial professor, Paul Emmanuel. Charlotte Brontë’s last and most autobiographical novel is a powerfully moving study of isolation and the pain of unrequited love, narrated by a heroine determined to preserve an independent spirit in the face of adverse circumstances.

Villette draws on Brontë’s own unhappy experience as a governess in Brussels
New Introduction examines the novel's social and historical context and argues for its importance as an exploration of imperialism
Includes chronology, suggestions for further reading, and explanatory notes

 

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:29:26 -0400)

(see all 10 descriptions)

With neither friends nor family, Lucy Snowe sets sail from England to find employment in a girls' boarding school in the small town of Villette. There she struggles to retain her self-possession in the face of unruly pupils, an initially suspicious headmaster and her own complex feelings.… (more)

» see all 18 descriptions

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17 editions of this book were published by Audible.com.

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2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0140434798, 0141199881

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