Book Review: Villette by Charlotte Bronte

I spent a lot of this book being annoyed and disappointed, waiting for something, anything, to happen, wondering where Bronte was going with this staid and plodding narrator of Lucy Snowe. Somewhere in the second half though I began to think, Maybe she’s doing something here. Maybe there’s more happening. Maybe Lucy Snowe is not the most reliable narrator.

When I read Jane Eyre for the first time several years ago I was so drawn in by the character of Jane and her personal integrity. Beginning Villette I expected Lucy Snowe to be a similar character and was, for the first part of the book, put off by her cold and distant narration. She is a difficult character to get a handle of, the sort of woman who presents herself as meek and self-effacing while perhaps working more deeply behind the scenes that we might believe.

The story begins with Lucy as a young woman, a teenager, spending time with her godmother and her godmother’s son, Graham. Also in the household is young Polly, a child left in the godmother’s care while her father is abroad. Polly is infatuated with Graham and the two develop a unique friendship.

From there we jump forward several years. Lucy’s fortunes have dipped somewhat and she is left alone, without much current wealth or hope for future wealth. She rather daringly decides to leave England alone and search out a job. More than one chance encounter leads Lucy to the village of Villette and to a job at a girls’ school. Here she creates a sort of life for herself, working away solidly and unobtrusively until she is unexpectedly reunited with several key people from her past.

The jump from the early chapters to Lucy’s life at the school means that the reader is waiting for the return of Graham and Polly for most of the book because otherwise what would be the point of that beginning. When they do return, I felt rather disappointed that their stories weren’t really that connected to Lucy’s own. Lucy seems like a peripheral character for much of the book and it isn’t until quite close to the end that she gets to star in her own tale. By that point, I’d lost a lot of the goodwill toward that I’d initially had and wasn’t sure that I really cared what happened to Lucy Snowe. It was hard for me to believe that she was as unobtrusive as she presented herself and I found myself viewing her as a rather sinister character, though it is still hard for me to put my finger on exactly why.

Bronte’s talent is still prodigious, perhaps even more so when you consider how different Villette and Jane Eyre are, and the book is certainly worth reading. But lovers of Jane be warned!

10 thoughts on “Book Review: Villette by Charlotte Bronte”

  1. I think I actually preferred Villette to Jane Eyre, which I did not much like, though I’d be hard-pressed to explain what it was that I liked so much about it. Perhaps it’s that the supposed happy ending of Jane Eyre doesn’t feel particularly happy (or earned) to me, while the ambiguity that runs throughout Villette feels more sustained? Either way, great review, even if you didn’t love this!

    1. Which did you read first? I feel like I would have liked Villette better but I went in with the wrong expectations. I will agree that the ending here is quite superb and fits exactly in with the story as its been told.

    2. I read Jane Eyre first when I was twelve or thirteen, but then it was over a decade later when I read Villette so it was quite hazy in my mind, which probably helped.

    3. I unfairly expected Lucy Snowe to be the same type of character as Jane Eyre so it took me a while to get a handle on who she was in this book.

  2. I’ve not read this one and oddly your review makes me want to, to see if it has the same effect on me! I did love Jane Eyre overall, but I found the whole St John section as dull as ditchwater and a major diversion, so I can quite imagine her leaving half of her characters in limbo in this one too.

    1. I would love to hear your thoughts on this one! Every character gets a pretty decent wrap-up here but there weren’t really any characters that I felt emotionally tied to.

  3. I think maybe I added Villette after Lou recommended it? But after your review, I’m removing it from my TBR. I am not a fan of books that sort of plod along without much happening. I read Northanger Abbey because it was supposed to be this wonderful book that made fun of the romantic Gothic narratives so popular at the time, but couldn’t get over how so little happens for a long time between these really funny passages when the girls meet up with the guys.

    1. Yeah, this is probably not for you. Some people love it because Lucy is a darker character than Jane Eyre but I didn’t find her dark in an interesting way. I got tired of her continued insistence on being a background character in her own life.

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