Saturday, November 14, 2015

Charlotte Bronte, Villette

Introduction

Opening Passage:

My godmother lived in a handsome house in the clean and ancient town of Bretton. Her husband's family had been residents there for generations, and bore, indeed, the name of their birthplace—Bretton of Bretton: whether by coincidence, or because some remote ancestor had been a personage of sufficient importance to leave his name to his neighbourhood, I know not.

When I was a girl I went to Bretton about twice a year, and well I liked the visit. The house and its inmates specially suited me. The large peaceful rooms, the well-arranged furniture, the clear wide windows, the balcony outside, looking down on a fine antique street, where Sundays and holidays seemed always to abide—so quiet was its atmosphere, so clean its pavement—these things pleased me well.

Summary: The narrator of the work, Lucy Snowe, has what we would call an analytic mind, and what she herself would call a philosophical one. Due to tragedy, she is left without means and after some further tragedies finds herself at the age of 23 alone in the city of Villette, in the country of Labassecour, which is a version of Brussels, Belgium, despite not knowing any French. She manages to get a position as a nanny for the directress of a girls' school Madame Beck, and eventually becomes a teacher of English there. All the good things that happen there are temporary, and all the bad things that happen there leave a permanent mark, until we reach the book's famous superficially ambiguous but really quite obviously unhappy ending.

Surveillance, the watchful eye, is a major theme of this work, and in more ways than one. Eye metaphors are everywhere in the book. Madame Beck runs her school on the principle of surveillance, knowing everything that everyone is doing, and even rifling through Lucy's belongings; she is not, however, the only person in Labassecour who lacks a respect for privacy, since one of the major male character, Monsieur Paul Emmanuel, also spies on Lucy. This is connected with the theme throughout of the Catholic confessional, which Lucy sees as a sort of surveillance system in its own right. But it's also notable that surveillance is what Lucy does, as well. Despite her occasionally sharp comments on the Labassecourian surveillance, she spends almost all of her time watching other people, including at times spying on other people while they are spying on her. Lucy Snowe is usually said to be a passive character, but I think this is misleading, because she spends a lot of time observing others, and it is not always a passive observation, even if it is not as blatantly active as Madame Beck's investigations of her affairs. But there's even another layer of surveillance here. Lucy is also often called an unreliable narrator, and one of the major reasons is that, without outright lying, she keeps things from the reader, including, famously, a character's identity which she knew all along. And thus we are caught in the trap. For what are we readers doing in the first place? We are watching Lucy, snooping into all her affairs; we are as nosy for knowing what is in her letters as Mme. Beck or M. Paul; and, I suspect, a lot of readers have a bit of resentment that she insists on keeping some things private. How dare she hide things from our all-pervasive surveillance?

One of the things I found very surprising about the book, particularly given what some people had said about it, is that Lucy Snowe is remarkably judgmental. (I do not include the occasionally anti-Catholic tone with this, which I think mainly serves a different purpose, although at times they can be tricky to untangle.) This, I suppose, is an inevitable danger in an analytic people-watcher living in a foreign land, but she is constantly evaluating people. She will express admiration, but it is often backhanded, and even when it is not it is sometimes a little difficult to tell if it is meant to be straightforwardly or acidically ironic. (It usually seems to be the former, but if it is ever the latter, the edge is taken off a bit by the fact that she seems to direct much of the acid toward herself.) And there are constant swipes at people, said so drily and analytically that it would be easy just to take them at face value, but which are swipes nonetheless. One thing that became very noticeable after a while was how consistently she insinuates that other women are fat. But once you realize that she goes around insulting people, you can easily see that it is pervasive. Even the passing French names are very often insults, although attention is never drawn to the fact -- the kingdom's name is Labassecour, i.e., la basse-cour, the barnyard; the grand capital city of Labassecour is Villette, Little Town; the prince of the kingdom has as one of his titles, Duc de Dindonneau, which sounds like the Duke of Turkeyland. Nor can this be just a bit of light humor; it is even more insulting in French than in English to associate people with barnyard animals, and the author herself could hardly have been unaware of that. It can easily go by without you noticing it, but Lucy Snowe seems to be a little bitter.

The book is quite anti-Catholic in tone at times. I think it makes sense in the context of the story. One of the things that characterizes Lucy, and, I suspect, is a reason she is liked by that segment of readers who like her, is that she refuses easy consolation, and as far as she is concerned, that is what Catholicism turns out to be. Lucy Snowe, like Jesus, is in the desert, the wilderness, and the Catholic Church by the end, like Satan to Jesus, comes to her with three temptations: solace, good works, and glory. (The latter is explicitly put in terms suggestive of the third temptation of Christ, from a high place, when he was shown the glory of the kingdoms of the world; and this is made so clear that I suspect there is supposed to be close correspondence in temptations, and that the Catholic Church consoles is to be taken as analogous to the temptation of angels lifting one up, while that it does good works is to be taken as analogous to the temptation of stones to bread.) She refuses them all, even though it is certain to make her life harder (and in fact does). In truth, Lucy, who is a rather Broad Church Protestant, is about as far from being Catholic throughout as one can be and still be Christian. It is perhaps unsurprising that she manages to maintain herself as an isolated individual in a world of 'conspiracy' and 'junta', as she calls it. This is a cold and lonely path, and she feels intensely the need for warm companionship; she is capable of looking past the Catholicism to the decency of the ordinary Catholic. But she will not really find the warmth and fellowship for which she yearns; only coldness and loneliness stretch out before her.

So is this work better than Jane Eyre? There is certainly greater technical virtuosity. The characters are vivid. But I would say that Jane Eyre is still the stronger work. What makes Jane Eyre successful as a story is the interweaving of all the elements of the tale -- the vivid characters, the introspection, and perhaps most of all the story. But while the psychology of Villette is even richer, and the characters, occasionally, more vivid, there is less to the story, and what there is, is perhaps not as impressive as a story. One thinks of the somewhat disappointing handling of the ghostly nun, which is far weaker than anything in Jane Eyre. It is also a more demanding book; it is perhaps not so easy for everyone to trudge along the icy road with Lucy Snowe as it is to rush about in the warmth with Jane Eyre. This is not to say that it is in any sense a bad book, though; it is full of good things. But I think my favors still lie with the earlier work.

Favorite Passage:

Most of M. Emanuel's brother Professors were emancipated free-thinkers, infidels, atheists; and many of them men whose lives would not bear scrutiny; he was more like a knight of old, religious in his way, and of spotless fame. Innocent childhood, beautiful youth were safe at his side. He had vivid passions, keen feelings, but his pure honour and his artless piety were the strong charm that kept the lions couchant.

Recommendation: Recommended.

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