sometimes witty book reviews
In my opinion (and also Virginia Woolf’s apparently) Charlotte Brontë’s greatest novel was not Jane Eyre but Villette (1853). You mayn’t have heard of it…
Set in the fictional Frecnh town of Villette, the narrative follows the life of one Lucy Snowe; supported by a cast of delicious characters and an excellent amount of intrigue. Lucy’s narration eventually reveals elements of her past as a child and young woman in the happy home of her Godmother, God-brother Graham and a little girl named Polly. A few years later, after an undisclosed family disaster, Lucy is left homeless and takes employment as the soul caregiver to a Miss Marchmont. After this lady’s death she finds herself at the start of the book, in Villette, on the doorstep of a boarding school in the middle of the night; aged 23 and speaking no French.
Madame Beck, the owner of this establishment for young ladies, initially employs her to look after her own three children. Lucy, amazingly passive and very, very smart, ends up teaching English (while teaching herself French to the point where native speakers believe her to be one of them) and becoming a pillar of the school’s educational and social life. The plot thickens as Lucy reveals the true identity of Dr John – a young man who often visits the boarding school to see the popular but ditzy pupil Genevra Fanshawe. Mme Bretton plans to wed her favourite professor Monsieur Paul Emanuel, M. Emanuel tries to convert Lucy to Catholicism (and to marriage) and the Polly turns up as the newly named Paulina Home de Bassompierre.
Oh, and there’s the ghost of a vow-of-chastity-breaking nun floating around.
I will not go on about how well Brontë delves Lucy’s psyche, or how the exploration of gender roles and stereotypes is handled, nor how wonderfully the descriptions of each person and their mannerisms are portrayed – this post is too long already. Suffice to say if you’re even vaguely into gothic fiction, think you love Jane Eyre, or even just call yourself a bookworm, Villette is definitely your next read.