I read this book by Charlotte Brontë because Bonnets at Dawn had a few podcast episodes comparing it to Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Since the last time I had read Persuasion was decades ago, and I had never read Villette, I had some reading to do before I could listen to those episodes.
I put off reading this one because one of the podcast hosts was not a fan, so I was kind of dreading it. I got a copy from the library back in February and just as I was getting ready to start reading, Bonnets at Dawn decided to do a read-along of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë. Since Tenant was a good two hundred pages shorter, I opted for that one instead and ended up listening to the audiobook of Villette (which is a mere 20 hours long).
Despite my dread, I actually really enjoyed it. The narrator did a good job and had a great British (although not Yorkshire) accent, so it worked on that level. My only complaint was that she sounded like she was in her 60s or 70s and the main character is supposed to be in her 20s.
If you have any intention of reading this book at some point and don’t want anything spoiled for you, I suggest you stop reading now because here be spoilers.
The main character, Lucy Snowe, is educated, but doesn’t have any living family or any money. When the book starts off, Lucy is 14 and living with her godmother, Mrs. Bretton, and his son, John, and another young ward named Paulina, who is staying with them while her father is away on a business trip. We spend a few chapters there for no apparent reason before Lucy moves on to become a companion for a wealthy old woman who loves Lucy and promises to leave her some money, but dies before she can fulfill the promise. Left with no job and no home to go back to, Lucy decides for no apparent reason to move to France.
She ends up in a small town called Villette and after wandering around the town, knocks on a random door that just happens to be a school that just happens to have a job opening for a new nanny. What are the odds?
Madame Beck, who owns the school, brings in her cousin, M. Paul Emanuel* who studies Lucy’s facial features to determine if she’ll be a trustworthy employee.
Her first night there (Lucy also lives at the school while she works there), Lucy, pretending to be asleep, sees Beck go through her things and make a wax impression of one of her keys so she can make a copy, before putting everything back. None of this seems to bother Lucy at all, which I found hard to believe.
After a while, the school’s English teacher has to leave and Lucy is promoted to teacher, while also having to take care of Beck’s three children, one of whom falls ill and they have to call for a local doctor, whom they call simply “Dr. John.” Dr. John visits regularly, not just to look after sick children, but because one of the students, Ginevra Fanshawe, is carrying on a flirtation with him. She makes him believe she’s in love with him while also carrying on a relationship with someone else entirely.
Lucy knows all this, and although she cares for John, she never tries to relieve him of his delusions. She listens as Ginevra brags about her power over John and then listens again as John goes on and on about how good and beautiful and virtuous Ginevra is.
This was the first book of Charlotte’s I had read since Jane Eyre, which I first encountered (and loved) when I was in fifth grade, and this book helped me realize why I loved Jane Eyre so much. In all Lucy’s interactions with Ginevra, she clearly feels herself superior to Ginevra (smarter, more honest, more virtuous, more religious, and with more integrity). She never says any of this to Ginevra (although Ginevra clearly gets the message), it’s just so obvious in the way she talks about Ginevra and the way she treats her.
That’s so how I felt when I was in grade school and junior high: mentally ranking myself above all the popular girls with boyfriends because I was so jealous of them. There are definitely shades of that in Jane Eyre as well, so it’s no wonder that book resonated with me as a kid. Reading about that kind of character now just makes me go, “Gee, Charlotte, how do you really feel?”
Anyway, one day everyone else is away from the school because they’re all on break and Lucy is left alone and super depressed and has a mental breakdown. She goes wandering around town on her own and ends up at a Catholic church where she goes to confession, despite the fact that she’s Protestant. She just needs someone to talk to and has no interest in converting to Catholicism (she also definitely looks down on Catholics and talks about them and their religion in a very condescending manner). Nevertheless, the priest has to do his due diligence in encouraging her to consider Catholicism. She politely refuses him and leaves, but passes out on her way home.
Fortunately, instead of getting kidnapped and raped, she gets taken in by none other than Mrs. Bretton, although for some reason she stays with them for quite a while before revealing herself (she recognizes them right away, but because she was so young when she lived with them, it takes them a while to recognize her). At this point it is revealed that “Dr. John” is none other than Mrs. Bretton’s son, John Bretton. Lucy apparently recognized John as soon as they met at the school, but didn’t bother to say anything to him (or the reader. Rude).
Once she’s fully recovered, Lucy goes back to school where she has to go back to being the confidante of both John and Ginevra, which drives her crazy because she totally has a crush on John, but she doesn’t say anything to either of them. Finally John manages to recognize Ginevra exactly for what she is all on his own, and then it seems like he and Lucy might actually have a shot. She spends time with his family and they go on outings together, but on one of those outings there’s a fire and a young lady faints and John attends to her and who should it be but Countess Pauline Mary de Bassompierre – the very same Pauline who stayed with the Brettons at the beginning of the book (so at least those chapters weren’t completely useless). Again Lucy recognizes her right away but takes her time in telling the reader about it. Pauline also recognizes John right away, but John is pretty clueless and apparently has no idea what anyone looks like because it all goes completely over her head until Pauline reveals herself.
And that’s the end of poor Lucy’s chances with the good doctor. He and Pauline fall in love and get engaged and Lucy does her best to be genuinely happy for them. She seems to realize that Pauline is better suited to John than she is and she accepts that.
I thought that was kind of a twist, but then I realized I should have known who Lucy’s real love interest was going to be: M. Paul.
He’s just so much like Mr. Rochester. Crotchety and demanding, but with the ability to be really sweet and thoughtful when he feels like it. I know not everyone is a fan of M. Paul (or Mr. Rochester, for that matter), but I kind of love his relationship with Lucy. At one point he demands gifts on his birthday and Lucy has one she’s been working hard to make for him, but because he’s so demanding, she just can’t bring herself to give it to him, thereby making him even angrier. It’s the kind of stupid, irrational thing that I would do, even though it leads to a totally avoidable fight between them. Rochester and Paul certainly have their faults, but I appreciate that Charlotte’s heroines don’t always give in to their demands, especially when they’re being unreasonable.
Unfortunately, for Lucy, she does not get the happy ending that Jane does. Madame Beck is intensely jealous of her and is determined to keep the two of them apart at all costs, so she contrives with Paul’s family to send him off to the West Indies to look after a plantation for three years. Before he goes, he declares his love for Lucy and gives her a school of her own to run and promises to come back for her at the end of three years, but on the return journey his ship is lost at sea. Lucy says the reader is free to “imagine” a happy ending, but she certainly doesn’t give us much with which to imagine such a happy ending, especially since she clearly says the three years Paul was in the West Indies were “the happiest of her life.”
Overall I really enjoyed it, even if I didn’t always agree with Lucy. If you like Jane Eyre, I would definitely recommend this one. Just be prepared to spend 20 hours of your life on it and that you’re not going to get a happy ending.
What did you guys read/listen to this week? Anything else you enjoyed more than you were expecting?
*It drove me kind of nuts that when they were discussing this book on the podcast one of the hosts kept pronouncing it “Em” Paul, like the “M” was an initial. For the record, “M.” is short for “Monsieur,” so when saying it out loud, you should pronounce it “Monsieur Paul” just like we say “Mister Rochester.”