It took me two weeks to finish Charlotte Bronte's last work, Villette. I persisted with this difficult read mainly because of the All About the Bronte's challenge that I have entered. I just don't like to give up on something once I have started. This lengthy tome was very, very different from my beloved Jane Eyre, but in the end almost as good.
I freely admit that I had to rely heavily on the analysis of a Villette book study to help me analyze each chapter and to fill in the gaps of understanding that occurred with the highly stylized form of writing that Bronte used in this novel that included the use of a most unreliable narrator, Lucy Snowe. The other obstacle that I had to overcome was the astonishing lack of plot. One might say this book was more about emotion than plot.
I was a ways into this book when I realized that if I were a young student, I'd probably have known to abandon it based on "the five finger rule." You might remember that rule. If you can count five words on a page that you don't recognize or understand, than perhaps this book is not a great choice for you, right now. With Villette I had the reverse five finger rule. I many times only understood five words on a page. My high school French did not serve me well to translate the amount of dialogue written in this language. As well, Bronte really seemed to wax bombastic with her chosen vocabulary, '...and I suddenly felt all the dishonor of my diffidence - all the pusillanimity of my slackness to aspire." (Chapter XIII Madame Beck)
Pusillanimous: from latin, lacking courage and resolution: marked by contemptible timidity
(Merriam Webster's online dictionary)
While I concur that pusillanimity was perhaps the perfect word for this passage, I discovered unknown terms in every chapter and doing research as I read soon became taxing. The reader has to work very hard to discover the treasure that this novel truly is; it is not handed to the reader in the way as Jane Eyre.
I also found it important to understand the strong connections between Lucy Snowe and Charlotte Bronte. It was precisely this blurring of the author's experience being the narrator's experience that held my interest. Lucy was a plain, poor woman of good heritage, mostly invisible to society, but strange in the sense that she coveted wisdom, liberty and her independence. She longed for love, but not at the expense of her independence. This was quite well established through the tension created by Lucy's Protestantism and M. Paul's Catholicism.
Charlotte had by this point in her short life lost all of her siblings (2 sisters early on to tuberculosis - the experience she writes about in Jane Eyre at Lowood School, her only brother succombed to the effects of alcoholism and drug addiction, and of course, Emily and Anne to tuberculosis) and had known the experience of loving a married man that could never be hers (M. Heger).
I was originally disappointed by the gothic nature of the story and the appearance of the 'Grey Nun.' Gothic subplots are always amongst my favourites (best ever, Dicken's Miss Havisham from Great Expectations) and I was left feeling that Lucy's nun was more of a comedic farce than a tragic, eerie presence in the story. Which in fact, was exactly what this turned out to be when all was revealed by Ginevra. A great ruse so two lovers could meet within the walls of the boarding school. Then I thought, why would Bronte do this? Genius really, in a story where the main character is so lost, so abandoned, so invisible and sad... Lucy herself is the gothic-ness of the story. The legend of the Grey Nun, quite tragic itself, is extorted upon and made ridiculous. Nice irony Charlotte!
The following videos were posted on Youtube by Ksotikoula who made slideshow clips of the Bronte's to the audio of a radio program where the host invited 3 university professors to talk about Villette. The subtitles are in Greek.
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