I wanted so much to love this book. Jane Eyre is one of my all-time favourite books and although it has taken me a long time to get round to reading another Charlotte Bronte novel, I had high hopes for this one. Unfortunately, for a long time Villette just wasn’t working for me and I’m not really sure why not.
I actually read this book at the end of January and discovered too late that there was a readalong taking place in February/March. I wonder whether reading it along with other people would have helped, as there were times when I really started to lose the motivation to continue with the book. There was a point where I didn’t think I was going to be able to keep reading, but eventually things improved and I finally became immersed in the story. I ended up enjoying it, but sadly it was too late for this book to become another favourite.
Villette is the story of Lucy Snowe who, after an unspecified family tragedy, finds herself completely alone in the world. She travels to Europe on her own and starts a new life teaching English to the girls at Madame Beck’s school in the city of Villette.
I think part of my problem with the first half of the book was that it took me a long time to warm to Lucy Snowe. I didn’t like her at all at the beginning of the novel, but eventually I did begin to feel a lot more sympathetic towards her and this coincided with the point where I started to enjoy the story more. My perceptions of Lucy changed as I learned more about her and saw how badly other people treated her. She was so lonely and isolated and my heart broke for her at times. Despite her cold exterior, underneath she was a person who desperately needed love and friendship. It’s quite sad that she doesn’t make this observation until two thirds of the way through the book:
“I liked her. It is not a declaration I have often made concerning my acquaintance, in the course of this book: the reader will bear with it for once.”
Lucy is also quite secretive and often withholds important information from the reader. And throughout the early chapters, although Lucy is our narrator, we learn more about the people around her than we do about Lucy herself. She’s an intensely private person and doesn’t open up to the reader very often. But as I got to know Lucy better, I found a lot of things to admire about her – her independence, for example, and her bravery in leaving England and travelling to another country with no idea of where she would go once she got there.
There is a romantic aspect to the book, but it’s not the most passionate of romances and not love at first sight. I already knew who Lucy’s love interest was going to be because it told me on the back cover, but things developed so slowly and so subtly it might not have been immediately obvious to me otherwise. Because of this though, the relationship feels believable and real.
Apart from the length of time it took me to get into the book, there are a couple of other negative points I should mention. Firstly, I thought the racism and religious prejudice was excessive, even by the standards of Victorian literature. Lucy considers the girls at Mme Beck’s school to be inferior to English girls in every way, and she doesn’t like Catholics or the Irish much either. Also, a lot of the book is written in French. I do have a basic understanding of French and am fine with books incorporating a few French phrases but this one has whole paragraphs where I kept wondering if I was missing something crucial.
Although I did end up enjoying this book and could eventually appreciate the complexity of Lucy Snowe’s character, it still doesn’t come close to Jane Eyre in my opinion. However, I know a lot of people think Villette is the better of the two. If you’ve read them both, what do you think?