Catherine Chapman's Reviews > Villette

Villette by Charlotte Brontë
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Dec 04, 12

Read from March 22 to December 04, 2012

I've enjoyed many aspects of Villette but if I hadn't vowed to complete and review it, I would probably have abandoned it partway through.

I undertook to read Villette in the light of my passion for Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, my love of Charlotte's Jane Eyre and my enjoyment of Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey. (I'm generally fascinated by the Brontes.) However, the undertaking came after aborted attempts to read both Charlotte's The Professor and Anne's Tenant of Wildfell Hall. And I found Villette hard work (though ultimately worthwhile) for all the reasons that I abandoned the other two books.

I guess it should be comforting to anybody who writes that great writers can have their lesser works. But, as a reader, you just want all their books to be as good as their best. So comparisons of Villette with Jane Eyre are unavoidable. What Villette has in common with Jane Eyre is that very immediate first person narrator. And Lucy Snowe is a vivid and strong narrator. She's also blessed with the moral superiority to be found in Jane Eyre. But Jane has, I think, a humility and vulnerability that Lucy doesn't really possess. Despite Lucy's emotional breakdown (the episode which, I believe, leads critics to suggest that Villette was influenced by CB's grief at the loss of her siblings), she remains –until the latter part of the novel– so coolly removed from the emotional problems of the other characters in the book (and so morally judgemental of them) as to alienate her from the reader. (In Jane Eyre, this doesn't happen.)

I also have a problem with M. Paul as a hero – he's just so annoying and perverse for so much of the story! I couldn't see how any woman would be attracted to him. I struggled early in the book with the revelation that Dr John had been known to Lucy in her earlier life – if she'd recognised him why didn't she tell us?

I enjoyed the final 100 pages much more than the rest of the book. There's an energy to the writing that's lacking earlier on and Lucy does appear more human towards the close of the narrative. However, 400 pages felt like a lot to wade through to achieve a state of fulfilment!

Villette was Charlotte Bronte's final novel. Had it been a forerunner to Jane Eyre –had CB developed into a better writer through writing it– I would probably feel more resolved to my verdict on it. If you're interested in the Brontes it's worth reading Villette simply for the biographical insight it gives into Charlotte but otherwise I would sooner opt for another Nineteenth Century novel – there are so many great ones to choose from.
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