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Villette is the Charlotte Brontë book you never knew you needed


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Today would be Charlotte Brontë’s 202nd birthday. Whilst 2018 really belongs to her sister Emily, younger by two years, there is never a bad time to remember the woman whose best known work, Jane Eyre, has entered into the literary canon – which is impressive for a tiny woman from a tiny village in Yorkshire.

Portrait of Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre, as almost everybody knows, is the story of a girl whose horrific experiences at school help her to grow and become the strong, forthright woman who refuses to become her employer’s mistress. The infamous ‘mad woman in the attic’, the brooding darkness of Mr Rochester, and Jane’s own impassioned calls for female emancipation all combine to make a memorable and very adaptable book.

But I’m not going to tell you about Jane Eyre: what could be said that hasn’t been said before? I’m going to tell you about Brontë’s 1853 novel, Villette, a text which the majority of people have probably never heard of.

On the surface, it’s perhaps easy to see why people shy away from Brontë’s last completed work. Whilst it too follows a young girl’s growth into womanhood, there’s no simple trajectory here, no sympathetic narrator and not even a happy ending. There are fewer adaptations and fewer reworkings. It’s also, in the Penguin edition, over 600 pages long, with extensive notes including translations of the many paragraphs written in French. It’s not an easy text.

Villette book cover - my image

It follows the life of Lucy Snowe, a girl whose family remain mysteriously absent from the text as she is shunted from home to home, finally leaving England to take up a job in a Belgian girls’ school. There, she lives her life mostly vicariously, observing those around her as they embark on romances, whilst her own love-life is vague and uneasy – no clear Rochester-like declarations of love for her. Lucy’s life is one of intrigue and confusion and the novel is far less optimistic than the earlier Jane Eyre, which may also account for its general unpopularity.

But if we consider what Charlotte Brontë herself was going through at the time, perhaps we can understand her problematic and somewhat frustrating narrator.

To start, Villette was not the first time she had explored the world of a Belgian boarding school. Her first completed novel The Professor tells a similar tale, although from the perspective of the male school-teacher. Only published after her death, it is widely considered to reflect Charlotte’s own experiences in Belgium between 1842 and 1844, an experience which included falling passionately in love with her older married tutor, M. Heger. Letters still exist from Charlotte to Heger which, whilst not explicit, project the intensity of her feelings all too clearly. Upon returning home for good, Charlotte used her own life as the basis for The Professor. When the novel was rejected for publication, she wrote Jane Eyre, but that tutor-student relationship must have lingered in the back of her mind at all times, finally spilling out in Villette.

There’s more to it than this though. Jane Eyre was written in her family home, across the table from her sisters Emily and Anne, who themselves were working on Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey respectively. They showed each other drafts, read aloud sections of their manuscripts and enjoyed their collective creativity. That magical time which produced three of literature’s most famous works was utterly unique, and indeed never to be repeated.

The Pillar Portrait of the Bronte sisters

Because by 1853, Charlotte was an only child. One of six children born to Patrick and Maria Brontë, her two eldest sisters died when they were children. Then, in eight horrific months, Charlotte lost her closest friends. Branwell, the closest sibling by age, died from alcohol-related diseases in September 1848. At his funeral, Emily fell ill and died from tuberculosis in December of that same year, refusing treatment until it was far too late. Then Anne, the youngest, contracted the same illness and died by Charlotte’s side in May 1849. The only way Charlotte could find to cope with the loss of her beloved siblings and closest rivals was by writing: first, Shirley, published in 1849 and then Villette. Given all of this, it is no wonder that Villette is the book it is.

What is most striking about the novel is its understanding of psychology. Whilst in Belgium, Lucy Snowe struggles repeatedly with her mental health, finding herself falling into a deep depression when left alone at the school during the holidays. I have never seen such an accurate depiction of misery and loneliness, and Brontë calls upon many Gothic tropes in order to present Lucy’s psyche to us, from the school of many corridors and hidden rooms, to the ghost of a nun, which may or may not be real.

In light of her own real-life traumas, it is no wonder that Villette lacks the fairytale positivity that infuses Jane Eyre. For Charlotte, life wasn’t a fairytale; even her 1854 marriage to her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nichols, ended when she died during pregnancy in 1855. The open-ended nature of Villette, which ends with Lucy refusing to confirm whether her love-interest M. Paul is alive or not, reflects the reality of a life where health and happiness were never certainties. It’s the Brontë novel for grown-ups and well worth a read. 

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