Not as universally well-known as Jane Eyre, but just as good in its own way.
Despite being a hit and a half upon its release in 1853, it has now become a relatively obscure novel with a cult-following amongst Brontëites and Victorianists. Which is a shame, because it does things that nobody writing in English had really done before in quite such a searing and unapologetic manner.
Lucy Snowe is in her twenties, plain, studious and on her own. She has spent the last few years as the paid companion of a wealthy, bed-bound old lady – but now the latter is dead and Lucy must find her own path in the world. Despite not knowing a word of French, she decides to go to the capital of Labassecour (a fictionalized Belgium), Villette (Brussels) as so many English people have to live inexpensively and start anew with no history. More by accident than design she ends up at Mme Beck’s Pensionnat de Desmoiselles, where she begins as the nurse to Mme Beck’s children and ends up as the English teacher. This is where the action really begins. Cue a bitterweet story of appearances and deceptions, surveillance, prejudice, religious doctrine, love, despair and disillusion.
How much you like this book really depends upon how much you like the protagonist. If you find Lucy Snowe annoying, because you dislike her cynical, sardonic, sensitive and sometimes lyrical voice, you’re screwed – it’s not only first person, but unashamedly subjective. Lucy has such a distinctive narrative voice and interior monologue, the contrast between that acerbic dry wit and the generally dismissive perceptions of her by the other characters as a plain and unremarkable thing leads the reader to feel outraged on her behalf; it also has the effect of underlining the difference between appearance and reality which is a key theme throughout. It’s a book of double-identities, symmetry, oxymorons, contrasts and pseudonyms; ironically enough for the last, Brontë had long since been outed as an author – and yet Villette was still published under her own pseudonym, “Currer Bell.”
The actual story itself is very well structured and uses the three volume format to its advantage, closely echoing the three acts of a play in terms of plot arc and emphasis. One could hardly accuse it of lacking in incident either; there isn’t really a section which you skip over when you read it again because sweet F.A. happens for ages, which (let’s be honest) does happen quite a lot with Victorian fiction. The characters and the settings are brutally realistic (in the psychological – not the kitchen sink sense), any and all bits supernatural ephemera only exist to be unpicked and smashed to pieces almost immediately; so no bizarre instances of telepathy jammed in there and left hanging.
Villette is a bit like ox-heart. It doesn’t necessarily sound like the most appetizing of ingredients, and it’s a bit tough in places – but treated properly it can be simply delicious. 5 out of 5, over and out!