Saturday, January 16, 2016

Villette

Thank heavens that's over with.

I've been planning on beginning my review of Charlotte Brontë's Villette (1853) with that opening sentence since I was about a third of the way through the novel.

My goal in putting Villette on my Classics Club Reading List was to finish it because, truth be told, I first started this novel well over 25 years ago, and I simply couldn't continue with it.  

I put it down, unread and unfinished.  I disliked it that much.

I thought that maybe the intervening quarter-century might have changed my perspective.  Because again, truth be told, in that intervening era, I've heard more than one person rave about how "interesting" and "wonderful" Villette is.

In hindsight, I'm not sure what they were smoking. "Interesting" and "wonderful" are not words I would use to describe this novel.  Overly long, overly wordy, and at times a bit odd and disturbing would be my way of describing it.

To be fair, I think that the people who do like the novel are judging it on the basis of the last 50 pages or so.  My guess is, they're remembering the ending, which has a few plot twists and a surprise or two, and which really has a better overall narrative pace than the rest of the novel.  

They're remembering that and forgetting the 200+ pages of Catholic vs. Protestant debates that the narrator, Lucy Snowe, engages in with M. Paul.  At one point, I was down to simply reading the first sentence of each paragraph and if it said anything about "Papists," "Rome," or "Catholics," I simply skipped the paragraph entirely.

Brontë's narrator, Lucy Snowe, is staunchly anti-Catholic.  So there's a lot of extolling of the Protestant's "true" and "pure" relationship with God.  (A LOT.)  She's also somewhat anti-French--not as anti-French as she is anti-Catholic, mind you, but she's got a lot of condescension to dish out towards all things non-English. 

Which makes for some rough going for everyone involved given that Villette is a town in--you guessed it-- France.

To me, this is what makes Lucy Snowe difficult to endure: she's a quintessential unreliable narrator (and no, I'm not going to give away the plot or offer any spoilers, because if after reading my review you still--bless your heart--decide to pick it up and read it, you're going to need all the surprises you can get), but she's also, in my opinion, a pretty dull one.

"I'm not meant for happiness, but that's okay--I don't need it anyway.  Happiness is for lucky people.  I'm not lucky.  I know that.  I'm also not smart or pretty or well-loved by anyone."

This is the gist of Lucy Snowe's attitude towards life in general.  And, as you can probably glean from my summary-statement, this is why people who like the novel like Lucy Snowe: like Jane Eyre, she's deliberately portrayed as not your typical Victorian heroine.

Which is fine, but this may also be what disturbs me about her.  The pendulum seems to have swung the other way in Brontë's representation of Lucy Snowe: she's not pretty or cheerful, she's just sad and stoic and she endures.

But what she endures is a bit disturbing.  Specifically, I'm talking about her relationship with M. Paul.

It's not fun to have to read hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of pages (be forewarned: this novel ain't short) of what today would be classified as emotional (and occasionally physical) abuse couched as an emerging love story.

M. Paul was an abusive prick.  There, I said it.  I SAID IT.  There was nothing attractive about him for hundreds of pages, and then all of a sudden, we go on a spring picnic and he "softens"--as a bevy of women wait on him and make sure his picnic-party goes off without a hitch--and suddenly, he's the love of our life.

I'm not naive about this kind of plot twist: I teach Romanticism.  I'm fully aware that the Byronic hero's mantra is, "Stalk her, hit her, cheat on her, and tell her she tortures your very soul.  If she really loves you, she'll ultimately thank you for it."

But this was just not worth it--in my opinion--given what you get in the end from Villette.  The middle of the novel bogs down mightily, characters are introduced only to disappear and then magically reappear, out of the befrigged blue, later in the novel, by means of major coincidences that Brontë doesn't even bother to try to smooth out or otherwise normalize.  And you're stuck with a narrator it's hard to really care about, because she prides herself on not caring about anyone.  "Cold fish" is a compliment to her (note the name: Lucy SNOWE).

I tried--and I'm still trying--to think of something positive to say about the novel, now that it's over.  One review that I read suggested that Villette is a novel about loneliness, really, that stems from Brontë's grief at the loss of her sisters.

I think that may very well be true, and I think someone might find interesting ways to compare Lucy Snowe with Goethe's Werther, in The Sorrows of Young Werther.  Both reflect at length on the consequences of emotional and social isolation, but each responds to it in very different ways and draws very different conclusions.  

Seen in this light--as a philosophical construction or an idea rather than a flesh-and-blood protagonist that readers can (or should) relate to--I think Brontë's representation of Lucy Snowe and her role and relationships in the town of Villette might well offer food for thought.

For my part, though, I'm done.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."