“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.”
Everybody raves about Jane Eyre, but not a lot of people aren’t aware that Charlotte Brontë wrote a novel that was just as good – if not better – than her accepted magnum opus. Villette is not as upbeat of a novel, nor as optimistic. It’s a slow burn of a story, but brands the reader far deeper than Jane Eyre does.
About the book:
Villette has a plot that is not dissimilar to Jane Eyre at its commencement. The leading lady is about as good as an orphan, and is tossed about in the world by the waves of opportunity and chance. Lucy Snowe, all of twenty three years, becomes an English teacher at a pensionnat, or a boarding school for girls, in order to earn enough to sustain herself as an independent, ‘unattached’ woman. Here, free albeit very lonely, she experiences the joy and pain of love, watches the shallowness of socialites, builds up an iron will, and muses on why some people seem to be blessed and fortunate in their adventures in life, and others not.
All similarity with Jane Eyre stops just about there. Nobody can say just what Jane Eyre had in mind when she wrote this final novel, but if we look at the period of her life in which it was written – a while after the death of her three younger siblings; she was unmarried and nearing her forties – the novel’s brooding gloominess becomes more excusable.
Why it’s so important:
Villette is highly autobiographical. Charlotte Brontë herself taught at a pensionnat in Brussels at the age of twenty seven, and her time there was reportedly sad, being plagued by homesickness, and she wound up falling in love with the married man who ran the pensionnat itself.
Writing such as Charlotte’s in Villette would have been considered quite scandalous, even more so considering it came from a woman. But that is not the most important bit. The most important bit is…no, not the opium trip, we’ll come to that later. The most important aspect of Villette is the wholeness and strength of an individual – especially a woman – in the face of the bleakness of existence. As a friend once put it, ‘It’s not about whether she gets married in the end, it’s about whether she’s happy with herself’. Villette is less of a romance and more of an existential novel. It’s a refreshing break from female protagonist-lead plots that only close with marriage.
Why you should read it:
A female protagonist in the Victorian era trips on opium on a midnight walk. Need I say more?
Villette should be just as popular as Jane Eyre if not more so. Charlotte Brontë’s writing is far more eloquent, her characters far more realistic and developed, and she does not condescend to spoon-feed her readers, letting them draw their own conclusions to many aspects her story. While its tone is pessimistic, it serves as an effective meditation on hardship in life , and gives its readers a taste of how the plot of Jane Eyre might have gone if it occurred in reality.