Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Villette by Charlotte Bronte

Have you ever had one of those days where everything goes wrong?  For Lucy Snowe, the narrator of Villette, her entire life is like one of those days.  Having lost her family at a young age due to mysterious circumstances never quite revealed, she journeys alone to Villette where she becomes a governess for school-owner Madame Beck.  Excelling at her work, she progresses to the station of teacher and has some emotionally fraught entanglements with the people around her.

In many ways, Villette was a difficult book to read.  Lucy was a secretive narrator, holding some information back only to reveal it later and giving the reader few clues about her feelings.  This meant I had to be paying close attention at all times to really get the best out of the book.  But by the time I was half-way through, I was enjoying Lucy's reserve as it made any flashes of real feeling much more profound.  I could also relate to this characteristic of hers; her pride and self-protection.

Another difficulty was the odd conversations written in French.  I understand this adds authenticity but as someone who has never studied French (my school did German and Spanish), I worried that I missed some things.  Bronte did provide just enough English in these sections for me to follow what was going on and it was only occasionally that French was used, but it was tricky for me.

So yes, this was a difficult book and it required much mental exertion but boy, was it worth it.  Bronte's characterisation was simply flawless - very subtle but powerful.  Somehow, without explicitly telling me much about each character, I felt as though I knew them as well as my friends.  From Ginevra, Lucy's self-indulged and lively friend, to Madame Beck, a sneaky puppet-master with her eye at every keyhole, each character was fully formed.  My favourite was Monsieur Paul, the literature teacher.

Bronte's wonderful writing meant I was connected to the characters, especially Lucy.  So at certain points in the book, I was heartbroken right along with her.  And this I think was the true power of the book - Bronte pulls you in and takes you right along with Lucy.  All the other stuff faded into the background for me; the theological discussions, the morality and the pedagogy of teaching.  That was all interesting too, but I was too busy living the book alongside Lucy.

Verdict: Not an easy read, but Villette repays any effort that you put into it.
Source: Kindle
Score: 4.5 out of 5


  1. I started to read this book for a readalong I joined last year, but for some reason got distracted and had to pick up another book. From what I remember, I didn't mind the conversations in French, although I was referring to the footnotes quite a bit! I need to pick this one up again, thanks for the reminder!

  2. I loved Villette especially the autobiographical elements. It helped that I speak French though! :-)

  3. I've been thinking of reading this one but have been a little intimidated by it. Glad to hear it's worth the effort though!

  4. I haven't read this one yet, but I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  5. I loved Villete, especially the sections set in the school. The parts in French are annoying to me also. Great review.

  6. I love when characters talk in their authentic voice and language. Most of the time I can figure it out especially if its one of the Latin languages.


  7. I'll have to add this to my TBR list. It sounds like something I'll need to read on a vacation when I have time to really indulge.

  8. I really want to read this, I loved Jane Eyre so I feel like I should get to Bronte's other work! Great review.

  9. Your review made me want to read Villette again.

  10. Natalie - The problem was, my kindle version didn't have footnotes! So I was puzzling the French on my own.

    Lovely treez - Yes, i enjoyed the autobiographical elements too. I also liked that Lucy was writing directly to the reader.

    Lisa - It is a hard read. I should have saved it for when I had more spare time!

    Mel - I enjoyed the school elements too, I thought they were realistically written.

    Man of la book - I'm just no good at French! I probably should have chosen an edition with footnotes ...

    Susan - I would recommend having plenty of time on your hands before you tackle it. It needs close, concentrated reading.

    Belle - I personally liked this more than Jane Eyre, although there are similarities between the two.

    Linda - You should!

  11. It is a difficult read. More difficult is to draw a definite portrayal of the protagonist, Lucy . She is shadowy, so not easy to be perceived distinctively. Nonetheless, she is a fascinating character. She never lets us completely know her or her thoughts/feelings. However, this is my second favourite after Jane Eyre among Charlotte Bronte's works.
    If anybody is interested, my review is at http://bit.ly/nlmnro

  12. I got this on my e-Reader and I've been looking forward to reading it. Thanks for the great review!

  13. I don't think I ever knew what Vilette was about, so thanks for the review. The French conversations in War and Peace reive me nuts though, so I'm not sure if I can hang.

  14. Maria - I liked that about Lucy too, she really didn't give much away. I liked her more than Jane. I'm off to check out your review :)

    Bookishhobbit - Happy reading!

    LBC - I didn't know War and Peace had French, that puts me off it a bit. I would have been fine with it in Villette if I had chose an edition with footnotes, but I had a free version for my kindle that didn't have them.

  15. *But by the time I was half-way through, I was enjoying Lucy's reserve as it made any flashes of real feeling much more profound.*

    Yes, exactly! One of my favorite books. :-)

  16. Great review! Absolutely one of my favorite novels! The autobiographical elements made this a fascinating window into Charlotte Bronte the woman. An amazingly complex psychological portrait, in my opinion. Thanks for sharing the review.