Though many may not realize it, there were actually three Brontë sisters who
were writers, and they wrote more than Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights! None of them lived long and though the family was loving, it was
also sickly. Charlotte and her invalid father, a parson, were the last survivors, and lived an incredibly lonely and isolated life. The whole family
was beset by struggle, financial and otherwise, which no doubt contributed to the fatalist view of life portrayed in their novels. That and religion and
harsh Victorian standards where women were expected to shut up and put up. It is interesting to contrast the witty and brilliant characters of Jane Austin,
who also grew up in an isolated parsonage, with the dark and subdued ones created by the Brontës.
Charlotte was thirty-nine when she died in 1855, just two years after the publication of this, her last novel. It is also autobiographical in nature and expresses the deep loneliness and abandonment Charlotte felt after the death of her sisters. She became close friends with the author Elizabeth Gaskell, who also wrote her biography. This particular edition by Dover contains introductory material by Gaskell, and also letters from Charlotte to her publisher. I recommend not reading this information until after you read the book, because it reveals parts of the story that I would rather have discovered as I read. One of the interesting points was that Charlotte had originally named her main character Lucy Snowe, then changed it to Frost, then back to Snowe. She writes to her publisher: "A cold name she must have . . . for she has about her an external coldness." Charlotte doesn't really like Lucy, and yet, Lucy is her! In my opinion, I found Lucy likable, yet frustrating, never expressing herself correctly when expression is important. In fact, I found the entire book frustrating, though I moved through numerous emotions as the story unfolded. It isn't until the last part, Volume Three that Lucy is finally able to stand up for herself and speak her true mind, and for that, we are relieved. But more frustration follows. Oh, my! I really still don't quite know how I feel about this book. I believe I liked it—it is lengthy, but not complicated reading at all.
We first meet young Lucy as she stays with her loving godmother, Mrs. Bretton, in the English town by that name. Mrs. Bretton is a well-off widow with a son, Graham. Soon, another person comes to stay—a six-year-old child named Polly Home, whose mother has died. She was neglectful and giddy, and had been separated from Polly's father when she caught a fever and died suddenly. For this reason, Polly's father needs to get away for awhile, so Polly, who is related to the Brettons stays there until her father returns. She is a strange child, fussy and mature beyond her years. She takes a strong liking to Graham and becomes his servant. Though he plays with her, he has no clue how much she loves him.
That is the last time Lucy will visit Bretton, because a calamity happens both to her and to them. They lose their property, and she—well she loses everything. She goes to care for an elderly and invalid woman named Miss Marchmont and they become very close. One night, Miss Marchmont seems to have regained her strength, and tells Lucy of the love of her life. She also tells Lucy she will provide for her after her death. But the next morning she is found dead, with no provisions as promised.
Lucy decides to leave England and sails for France. On the boat she meets a flighty and shallow girl named Ginevra Fanshawe, who recommends she go to Villette, and Lucy, not really having a plan at all, does just that. After some scary moments, she finds herself with a job at a boarding school run by Madame Beck, and soon after, becomes a teacher of English. Lucy can barely speak French, but she learns quickly.
Villette is modeled after Brussels, Belgium, where Charlotte and Emily both taught in return for board and tuition. When their aunt died, they returned home, but Charlotte later came back to the pensionnat (boarding school) to teach. Her second stay was unhappy, according to Wikipedia, and she fell in love with a married man, M. Héger, whom is said to be the character M. Paul Emmanuel in the story. In the story, Villette is a town in the fictional Kingdom of Labassecour, which means "farmyard."
While Charlotte didn't think Lucy was too likable, it is the other characters around her that I found quite horrible, beginning with Madame Beck, who is into "surveillance," and actually sneaks into Lucy's room the first night and makes a copy of the key to her personal belongings, which she goes through, not realizing Lucy is awake and observing. Madame Beck is one of those people that we all have in our lives that smile to your face and just as easily stabs you in the back. She is known for hiring and firing just as quickly. Lucy puts up with her because she needs the job, and they really, on the surface at least, get along quite well. Lucy makes herself indispensable, though perhaps not even consciously, but firing her is not ever an option at any point. She simply shuts up and does her work. Only once, at the end of the story, does she stand up for herself to Madame Beck, who is speechless, and leaves the room.
M. Paul, is certainly most unlikable. He is a devout Catholic, and specializes in finding everyone's faults, and pointing them out, especially Lucy. He sees her the opposite of the way everyone else does. She is in fact, very subdued, quiet and submissive, but he sees her as frivolous and unmanageable, and he detests her Protestantism. He is a terror to his students, losing his temper often. I had a prof just like him in grad school—didn't like him one bit! However, I have to say, by Volume Three, my opinion of M. Paul softens as his true nature is revealed.
As it turns out, Ginevra Fanshawe is also a student at the school, and she is flirty, ditzy and a pain in the butt. She and Lucy call each other names, but no matter what Lucy says to her, Ginevra doesn't take her insults personally.
Madame Beck has three children, and when one gets sick when the regular doctor is away, an Englishman called Doctor John takes his place. He is so well liked that he becomes the regular, and it seems Madame has a crush on him, as do some others. But there is one person at the Rue Fossette whom the Doctor does love, and Lucy eventually finds out who it is—and it is not someone who is worthy for the good doctor's love at all.
As Volume Two rolls along, we learn many things and put lots of previously missing information together to better understand the characters with whom Lucy has become entangled. Perhaps that isn't the best word, because she prefers to keep to her own little world. That is, until a crisis happens, where she finds herself mostly alone with a mentally challenged child when everyone else has left for vacation. Lucy is growing more and more ill, and sick at heart. Finally a good relative comes to get Lucy's charge, and one night, in the pouring rain and still very ill with fever, Lucy wanders into a Catholic confessional with a priest who wishes to help. He watches her as she leaves, and she passes out. When she finally awakens, she finds herself in a room filled with all kinds of objects she recognizes from her childhood, including a pincushion she once made. Now, identities are finally revealed, and she begin to understand the people around her and feels not quite so alone. And for once in her adult life, she allows herself to have fun and be entertained.
I am hesitant to say any more because I don't want to spoil the surprises for anyone who might be reading this book, and you should read it, especially if you are a fan of Jane Eyre. There are lots of twists and turns, and as I said at the beginning, I wish I had not read the introductory material in this edition before reading the novel because some of my surprises were spoiled. And so I will leave you wondering and inspired, I hope, to read and find out yourself. Charlotte certainly had a gift for developing complicated characters, and though I would not call this story intense or passionate or even exciting, it is very solid, interesting, and entertaining, and pulls the reader into the plot. And yes, I did have difficulty putting it down, usually reading at night until I couldn't hold my eyes open.
And one more important point. The Dover edition is a good one, and I recommend it. If you do get another edition, check first to be sure the French translations are included because there is lots of French dialogue, and unless you are fluent, you will miss half the points.
And lastly, I want to end with a quote from the book. Here, Lucy has fallen somewhat in love with Doctor John, and they have begun writing. But she will not allow herself the luxury of penning her true feelings. If she had, well, maybe things would have turned out differently.
To begin with: Feeling and I turned Reason out of doors, drew against her bar and bolt, then we sat down, spread our paper, dipped in the ink an eager pen, and, with deep enjoyment, poured out our sincere heart. When we had done—when two sheets were covered with the language of a strongly-adherent affection, a rooted and active gratitude—(once, for all, in this parenthesis, I disclaim, with the utmost scorn, every sneaking suspicion of what are called "warmer feelings": women do not entertain these "warmer feelings" where, from the commencement, through the whole progress of an acquaintance, they have never once been cheated of the conviction that to do so would be to commit a mortal absurdity: nobody ever launches into Love unless he has seen or dreamed the rising of Hope's star over Love's troubled waters)—when, then, I had given expression to a closely-clinging and deeply honouring attachment—an attachment that wanted to attract to itself and take to its own lot all that was painful in the destiny of its object; that would, if it could, have absorbed and conducted away all storms and lightnings, from an existence viewed with a passion of solitude—then, just at that moment, the doors of my heart would shake, bolt and bar would yield, Reason would leap in, vigorous and revengeful, snatch the full sheets, read, sneer, erase, tear up, re-write, fold, seal, direct, and send a terse, curt missive of a page. She did right.
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