Villette by Charlotte Bronte

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?

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14 responses

  1. I agree with you. I read this last year with my book club. It was a hard book to read, mostly because of Lucy and her secretive nature. It just doesn’t hold a candle to Jane Eyre, IMO.

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who found it hard to read! I really struggled to focus on the first half of the book.

  2. Those first two paragraphs echo my thoughts exactly. It got to a point where I wasn’t sure I’d be able to carry on and I was also miffed I’d just missed the readalong.

    I wasn’t keen on Lucy, and I actually found the fact that she was talking directly to the reader irritating, as though as was spending time listening to someone I didn’t like whereas before with Jane Eyre the talker had been fascinating.

    Jane Eyre’s pretty much my favourite book now, whereas Villette couldn’t come anywhere close.

    1. I liked Jane Eyre as a narrator much better than Lucy too. As I said in my review, I did warm to Lucy eventually but by that time it was too late.

  3. I agree with you wholeheartedly on all these points. I actually only made it halfway through the book before I gave up. The writing is no where near as good as Jane Eyre, and I couldn’t stand Lucy. She was so violently racist in so many ways, and manipulative.

    1. I thought the book did improve in the second half, but I can understand why you gave up because I very nearly gave up too! If nothing else, reading Villette has made me want to re-read Jane Eyre again soon.

  4. I read Jane Eyre for the first time as a young teenager and have re-read it many times since. It will always be an important book in my life. Villette didn’t engage me as much but I did enjoy it because of its semi-autobiographical nature and I couldn’t help but feel for Lucy/Charlotte with their social anxiety and prejudices (probably inherited from Papa Bronte!). Jane is a so much more engaging, likeable character but I found Lucy’s unrequited love quite heartbreaking.

    1. I thought Lucy was a wonderfully complex character even though I didn’t like her. And I agree that the book was heartbreaking at times.

  5. We all seem to have pretty much the same experience. ‘Jane Eyre’ affected me to such an extent as a teenager that for weeks I wrote and spoke in the ‘voice’ that Bronte used for the novel, whereas ‘Villette’ passed me by without leaving a mark. I’ve never even given a thought to going back to it for a re-read and that in itself says something about its impact.

    1. I’m glad I read Villette but I don’t think I’ll want to re-read it anytime in the near future either.

  6. I’m about halfway through with Villette and I’m not loving it. I keep hoping it will get better because I love Jane Eyre so much! So far it just pales in comparison. I’m trying to read all the Bronte works but after Jane Eyre it’s been downhill except for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall which was pretty good. HATED Wuthering Heights, don’t know why it is so popular.

    1. Definitely not as good as Jane Eyre in my opinion, but I did think it got better towards the end. I’m trying to read all the Bronte works too and the only ones I still have to read are Shirley and The Professor. I loved Wuthering Heights but I seem to be in the minority among book bloggers!

  7. I think Jane Eyre and Villette are quite different in tone but I do agree with a lot of the criticisms you noted. The French really ruined the experience for me because I got tired of flipping back and forth and gave up sometimes although, taken contextually, most contemporary readers would have no problems.

    It feels like JE is the adolescent version to the more mature and subdued Villette. I didn’t really warm to Lucy (Snow, dun dun dun) but i don’t think I was supposed to. There are large similarities to The Professor though although The Professor was written first.

    1. I agree that Villette is a more mature work and in many ways has more complexity than Jane Eyre. It’s probably not really fair of me to compare the two. As an overall reading experience though, I thought Jane Eyre was much better. I wonder what I’ll think of The Professor? I’m hoping to read it sometime this year, along with Shirley.

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