For a very long time I've thought that the only Bronte novel I would ever really like is [b:Jane Eyre|10210|Jane Eyre|Charlotte Brontë|http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51-Atpe8kVL._SL75_.jpg|2977639]. I am very pleased to have put that idea to the challenge and proven myself wrong.
Villette is not an easy novel. To start with, like so many Victorian novels it is dense and slow moving, particularly in the middle section. The plot could be summed up in a single paragraph and no opportunity is lost to take a page to say what could be said in a single sentence. The narrative is heavily reliant on coincidence and is replete with anti-Roman Catholic and (to a lesser extent) anti-European sentiment. These are factors which can sorely test the patience of the contemporary reader.
As with Jane Eyre, Villette is a first person narrative in the form of a memoir. The heroine, Lucy Snowe, makes it clear that she is reflecting on events long past. Like her literary sister Jane Eyre, Lucy is poor and has to earn her own living. Again like Jane, Lucy is intelligent, self-contained and principled, with a passionate nature just below the surface. However, notwithstanding some similarities between the characters, Lucy is very different from Jane and her character is in part what makes the novel more difficult than Jane Eyre, but ultimately very rewarding.
Jane Eyre confides in her readers. As a narrator, she holds nothing back of what she is thinking and what she is feeling. She draws readers into her world, trusting that they will understand her and empathise with her. Lucy Snowe, on the other hand, keeps things back. She does not reveal everything she knows. Some of those things readers find out in due course. Other things remain hidden. Lucy's reticence can be frustrating, but it is part of her psychological profile. And at it's deepest level, this is what the novel is all about. Bronte does a superb job of revealing much more about Lucy's mind than Lucy appears to reveal as the narrator of her life story. Bronte's description of Lucy's depression, for example, is gut-wrenching. From being initially frustrated with Lucy, I was ultimately totally engaged by her. I ached for her in her despair, her depression and her loneliness. I desperately wanted her to find happiness. Her story continued to haunt me for day after I finished the book.
Villette said to be the most autobiographical of Charlotte Bronte's novels, with the town of Villette being based on Brussels, where Bronte taught, and the character of Paul Emmanuel being based on M Heger, the married teacher with whom Bronte fell in love. My knowledge of Bronte's life is sketchy, but this novel makes me want to understand her better. It also makes me want to read her other works, which is not something I ever thought I would want to do.
This is not a novel for a reader who wants something light and fluffy. It is not a novel for a reader who wants clean, spare prose or a fast-paced story. I'm glad that I listened to an audiobook - the Naxos edition narrated by the excellent Mandy Weston - as I suspect that my patience would have been tried by reading the text. Overall, it was a great experience. While I'm not totally persuaded that Villette is a better novel than Jame Eyre, it is nevertheless a very impressive work.