"Villette, Villette. Have you read it?" exclaimed George Eliot when Charlotte Brontë's final novel appeared in 1853. "I am only just returned to a sense of the real world about me, for I have been reading Villette, a still more wonderful book than Jane Eyre. There is something almost preternatural in its power." Virginia Woolf judged Villette to be Brontë's finest novel.
Charlotte Brontë (21 April 1816 – 31 March 1855) was born in the old parsonage at Thornton, in the West Riding of Yorkshire. She was the daughter of a clergyman, who, in 1820, moved with his family to Haworth. In 1845 literary life in Haworth commenced in earnest. Jane Eyre was published in October 1847, followed by Shirley in 1849 and Villette in 1853. The Professor, written before Jane Eyre, was rejected by many publishing houses, and published posthumously in 1857.
A work of astonishing power and passion. In it we read the actual thoughts and feelings of a strong, struggling soul.— Westminster Review.
Villette is entitled to take every high place in the literature of fiction. The reader will find character nicely conceived and powerfully depicted; he will discover much quiet humour, a lively wit, brilliant dialogue, vivid descriptions, reflections both new and true, sentiment free from cant and conventionality, and bursts of eloquence and poetry flashing here and there.—Critic.
Villette may claim the unhesitating commendations of readers and critics. The autobiography of the heroine is at once natural, interesting, cheerful, piquant, and thoughtful.—Britannia.
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Jane Eyre Belgian style
English. The oldest of three literary Yorkshire sisters who made it to adulthood. Their bro was an alcoholic, which makes you wonder why he wasn't a writer too. Charlotte, who published her books under the name Currer Bell, is best known for Jane Eyre, a truly timeless classic, and source of inspiration to innumerable authors subsequently. She died, aged 38, from hyperemesis gravidarum while pregnant with her first child, rather than tuberculosis, which accounted for the rest of the Bronte clan. Villette, her last published novel, is a reworking of her first one, The Professor, which was rejected by publishers.
First person narrative by Lucy Snowe, who has "no attractive accomplishments – no beauty," and seems to have no living relatives. We meet her as a 14-year-old living ion the home of her godmother Mr Bretton in the fictional English village of Bretton. A strange young girl named Polly comes to stay, then leaves again. Lucy soon follows, drifts around a bit then becomes carer to Mrs Marchmont, who is crippled with rheumatism then gets better, sort of, as a result of which Lucy goes to Belgium, as you do, where she teaches in a boarding school in the fictional town of Villette. There she encounters a culture and religion different from her own and falls in love with a man whom she cannot marry, has a meltdown, but eventually gets her sh*t together. Charlotte Bronte spent some time at a pensionnat in Brussels, which is presumably the inspiration for this part of the story.
Very similar style to Jane Eyre, not that there's anything wrong with that. Themes include social isolation and how to handle it (which might be helpful in current circumstances), and repression of individual desire ( a Bronte mainstay). Apparently, the writing was criticised back in the day for its "coarseness" and for not being suitably "feminine" in its portrayal of Lucy's desires. Times have clearly moved on.
Better written, on balance, than Jane Eyre (the author was improving with age), but a less compelling story, at least for me. The fact that I'm a grumpy old white guy living in the early 21st century rather than a socially isolated, sexually frustrated 20-something female living in the mid-19th century might have something to do with that.