Villette, by Charlotte Brontë (British classic)

Book cover for Villette, by Charlotte Bronte

“With neither friends nor family, Lucy Snowe sets sail from England to find employment in a girls’ boarding school in the small town of Villette. There she struggles to retain her self-possession in the face of unruly pupils, an initially suspicious headmaster, and her own complex feelings, first for the school’s English doctor and then for the dictatorial professor, Paul Emmanuel. Charlotte Brontë’s last and most autobiographical novel is a powerfully moving study of isolation and the pain of unrequited love, narrated by a heroine determined to preserve an independent spirit in the face of adverse circumstances.”

I read Villette by Charlotte Brontë for the first time about twenty years ago. During that first reading, I became caught up in the raw emotion and love story of this great work. I thought it was a very stark novel, and I said as much when one of the members of my book group told the rest of us in the autumn of 2014 that she had recently finished reading it. She disagreed with my opinion and declared that it was a happy book. Of course, this disagreement fascinated the other members of the group, and we put it on our list for 2015. I just finished re-reading it and still think it is stark and that it ends in tragedy. Imagine my surprise when I learned that I was the only one out of the five in attendance at our meeting who felt that way. We had a spirited discussion about the matter, and I couldn’t persuade them to my point of view, and they couldn’t persuade me to theirs.

The reason we disagreed on such a fundamental point is because the narrator of the book, Lucy Snowe, stops just short of putting a final ending on her story. This isn’t the first time she reveals herself to be so reserved during the course of the novel, and it isn’t the first time she assumes the “gentle reader” would rather imagine her having a happy, normal life. Here is an example from early in the book:

It will be conjectured that I was of course glad to return to the bosom of my kindred. Well! the amiable conjecture does no harm, and may therefore be safely left uncontradicted. Far from saying nay, indeed, I will permit the reader to picture me, for the next eight years, as a bark slumbering through halcyon weather, in a harbour still as glass—the steersman stretched on the little deck, his face up to heaven, his eyes closed: buried, if you will, in a long prayer. A great many women and girls are supposed to pass their lives something in that fashion; why not I with the rest?

Picture me then idle, basking, plump, and happy, stretched on a cushioned deck, warmed with constant sunshine, rocked by breezes indolently soft. However, it cannot be concealed that, in that case, I must somehow have fallen overboard, or that there must have been wreck at last. I too well remember a time—a long time—of cold, of danger, of contention. To this hour, when I have the nightmare, it repeats the rush and saltness of briny waves in my throat, and their icy pressure on my lungs. I even know there was a storm, and that not of one hour nor one day. For many days and nights neither sun nor stars appeared; we cast with our own hands the tackling out of the ship; a heavy tempest lay on us; all hope that we should be saved was taken away. In fine, the ship was lost, the crew perished.

Chapter 4

This is the most detailed explanation she gives the reader regarding the tragedy that has left her utterly alone. She is forced to earn her own living and leaves England to reside in a city on the Continent called Villette, where she works in a school for girls. The girls and the staff leave for vacation, and Lucy comes to a crisis of life and faith. She says:

The solitude and the stillness of the long dormitory could not be borne any longer; the ghastly white beds were turning into spectres—the coronal of each became a death’s-head, huge and sun-bleached—dead dreams of an elder world and mightier race lay frozen in their wide gaping eyeholes. That evening more firmly than ever fastened into my soul the conviction that Fate was of stone, and Hope a false idol—blind, bloodless, and of granite core. I felt, too, that the trial God had appointed me was gaining its climax, and must now be turned by my own hands, hot, feeble, trembling as they were. It rained still, and blew; but with more clemency, I thought, than it had poured and raged all day. Twilight was falling, and I deemed its influence pitiful; from the lattice I saw coming night-clouds trailing low like banners drooping. It seemed to me that at this hour there was affection and sorrow in Heaven above for all pain suffered on earth beneath; the weight of my dreadful dream became alleviated—that insufferable thought of being no more loved—no more owned, half-yielded to hope of the contrary—I was sure this hope would shine clearer if I got out from under this house-roof, which was crushing as the slab of a tomb, and went outside the city to a certain quiet hill, a long way distant in the fields. Covered with a cloak (I could not be delirious, for I had sense and recollection to put on warm clothing), forth I set. The bells of a church arrested me in passing; they seemed to call me in to the salut, and I went in. Any solemn rite, any spectacle of sincere worship, any opening for appeal to God was as welcome to me then as bread to one in extremity of want. I knelt down with others on the stone pavement. It was an old solemn church, its pervading gloom not gilded but purpled by light shed through stained glass.

Chapter 15
Book cover of Villette, by Charlotte Bronte

Up to this point, Lucy has not revealed her tragic history to any of her acquaintances in Villette. She doesn’t feel close to anyone and remains painfully reserved. One of the reasons for this is because she sees them all as foreign and alien, and she has negative feelings toward their religion—the Roman Catholic Church. That fact makes Lucy’s next step all the more interesting. While in the “old solemn church,” she enters a confessional and tells the priest there her story. He is kind to her and even watches over her after she leaves the church in a storm. When she faints, he takes her in and delivers her to an English doctor with whom she is acquainted.

As she recovers, she learns that the foreigners who surround her aren’t as devoid of fellow feeling as she had previously believed and that there is goodness among them. She is also reunited with old friends and realizes that she isn’t quite as alone in the world as she had talked herself into believing. The reader learns, yet again, that Lucy Snowe has been too reserved for her own good. She gives one reason for her reserve in this interesting admonition to the reader after she has awakened and experienced a taste of the Lord’s tender mercies:

These struggles with the natural character, the strong native bent of the heart, may seem futile and fruitless, but in the end they do good. They tend, however slightly, to give the actions, the conduct, that turn which Reason approves, and which Feeling, perhaps, too often opposes: they certainly make a difference in the general tenour of a life, and enable it to be better regulated, more equable, quieter on the surface; and it is on the surface only the common gaze will fall. As to what lies below, leave that with God. Man, your equal, weak as you, and not fit to be your judge, may be shut out thence: take it to your Maker—show Him the secrets of the spirit He gave—ask Him how you are to bear the pains He has appointed—kneel in His presence, and pray with faith for light in darkness, for strength in piteous weakness, for patience in extreme need. Certainly, at some hour, though perhaps not your hour, the waiting waters will stir; in some shape, though perhaps not the shape you dreamed, which your heart loved, and for which it bled, the healing herald will descend, the cripple and the blind, and the dumb, and the possessed will be led to bathe. Herald, come quickly! Thousands lie round the pool, weeping and despairing, to see it, through slow years, stagnant. Long are the “times” of Heaven: the orbits of angel messengers seem wide to mortal vision; they may enring ages: the cycle of one departure and return may clasp unnumbered generations; and dust, kindling to brief suffering life, and through pain, passing back to dust, may meanwhile perish out of memory again, and yet again.

Chapter 17
Photograph of the painting Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda by Carl Heinrich Bloch (John 5:2-9)
Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda by Carl Heinrich Bloch (John 5:2-9)

While we all desperately need God and, at some point in time, will be required to stand alone and naked before Him, we all, in the meantime, also need each other. Zion will be a community, not solitary confinement.

Note: Villette contains a considerable amount of dialogue in French. If you don’t know French, your reading experience will be better if you can find an edition with footnotes that translate the French phrases.

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