Thursday, September 17, 2009

Villette

I'd never read anything by Charlotte Bronte besides her masterpiece, Jane Eyre, until I listened to the audiobook of Villette recently. I got interested in Villette from reading about it over at Novel Readings, and it was pretty much the kind of pleasure I anticipated--I got to immerse myself in the world of the 19th-century, with its "nervous fevers" and anxiety about proper behavior and social class. The novel is about Lucy Snowe, a gently bred English girl who falls upon hard times and ends up working for a living (gasp!) teaching English in a French school for girls. Lucy is secretly enraptured with the attentions of her godmother's son, a doctor, until he makes his feelings for another known. She then succumbs to a complicated but growing affection for M. Paul, the literature teacher at her school, and her feelings are eventually reciprocated after many secrets, much drama, and the unveiling of a ghost.

An unexpected pleasure of this novel was to find a passage that inspired fellow-feeling in me for the heroine, Lucy:
"And my portmanteau, with my few clothes and little pocket-book
enclasping the remnant of my fifteen pounds, where were they?
I ask this question now, but I could not ask it then. I could say nothing
whatever; not possessing a phrase of speaking French: and it was
French, and French only, the whole world seemed now gabbling around
me. What should I do? Approaching the conductor, I just laid my
hand on his arm, pointed to a trunk, thence to the diligence-roof, and
tried to express a question with my eyes. He misunderstood me...."
I had this same kind of experience in Paris this summer, trying to find my way out of a train station/multi-level shopping mall at Les Halles. When I finally made a parking attendant understand that I wanted the street level, he responded in rapid French and it was only after I saw a sign for the exit he was telling me about that I could reconcile what he said ("bot lass co") with the exit for Port Lescot.

However, that's most of the fellow-feeling I could work up for Lucy, who is initially cold (hence her last name, which Bronte said she chose deliberately) and always secretive. I can't imagine having to distance myself from other people the way Lucy tries to. It is a relief to me when she is forced by events to act on her hidden emotions and reveals a bit of how she would act if she were not always so circumscribed by her own perverse reticence.

The way Lucy contrasts the qualities of her two rivals for the doctor's affection, proper Miss Paulina Home and impetuous Miss Ginevra Fanshawe, makes me feel contrary. Lucy would doubtless class a modern woman like me with Ginevra:
"And she [Paulina] settled herself, resting against my arm--resting gently, not
with honest Mistress Fanshawe's fatiguing and selfish weight."

The ambiguity of the ending--did he or didn't he return to Lucy--wasn't as frustrating for me as it would have been if Lucy were a more passionate character or M. Paul a more romantic lover. I react to him much as I react to Jo March's Professor Baer--he doesn't act kindly enough to the heroine, but acts towards her habitually as a teacher:
"when I voluntarily doubled, trebled, quadrupled the tasks he set, to please him as I thought, his kindness became sternness; the light changed in his eyes from a beam
to a spark; he fretted, he opposed, he curbed me imperiously; the more
I did, the harder I worked, the less he seemed content."
A large part of what M. Paul and Lucy have in common is the desire to have the upper hand by spying on others ... not the most sympathetic pair of lovers in fiction!

At the end of the novel, Lucy says she is content presiding over her little school, and I get all the satisfaction that this stiff-upper-lipped speaker will grant me, even if there are intimations that my "sunny imagination" is overly sunny:
"Here pause: pause at once. There is enough said. Trouble no quiet,
kind heart; leave sunny imaginations hope. Let it be theirs to
conceive the delight of joy born again fresh out of great terror, the
rapture of rescue from peril, the wondrous reprieve from dread, the
fruition of return. Let them picture union and a happy succeeding
life."
If Lucy lets me for even an instant, then yes, I will picture a "happy succeeding life" for her, mostly to get shut of her frustrating secretiveness.

Have you ever read an ambiguous ending that didn't really make you want to know more? Or do you always want to know exactly what happens, and feel irritated by the non-specific ending of a novel like Villette?

4 comments:

Amanda said...

I only got halfway through Villette before I had to abandon it. I couldn't stand Lucy Snow and it just wasn't worth it to continue for me. I'm sure I'll read on in the future, but not any time soon. My husband kept going and in the end still disliked the book but felt like he'd learned a lot about Charlotte by reading it.

readersguide said...

I've never read this, either. Hmmm. I'm not exactly sure I want to, either.

lemming said...

On my English comps I discussed Eyre's famous, "reader, I married him" and I have to say that I liked Jane a lot more when I thought of her as a pro active woman.

Jeanne said...

Amanda and Readersguide, I can enjoy a novel where I don't like the narrator. I enjoyed trying to spite Lucy where I could, as a reader!

Lemming, does that mean you don't think of Jane as pro active anymore? Since what?