Review: Villette by Charlotte Brontë

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RATING: ★★★

To put it plain and simple: this book makes for a hard read. Villette lacks the fire and passion of Jane Eyre. It’s different. But not all books can be the same, despite how much you compare them.

Villette is a fictionalised version of Charlotte Bronte’s time in Brussels where she had a relationship with the professor she worked for. Perhaps, this is the reason for the tameness of the novel. Written through the perspective of Lucy Snowe, an orphan, a loner, someone who yearns deeply for love but loves from afar with no hope of reciprocation, this is a book that you find yourself relating to Lucy at times while at others you feel nothing. You’re empty. You’re kept at arms length.

Bronte tries to put her real life behind her by writing it out. Villette is a book that is written out of sadness, depression and loneliness and there is a wall between Bronte, her characters and us readers. It’s extremely hard to come close to the characters or care very much about what happens to them. There’s an undertone of “nothing really matters” running throughout the whole book and by the time you hit page 400, you think well if they don’t care, why should we?

And yet, we do find ourselves caring. Lucy Snowe doesn’t talk a lot. Years worth of stuff happens to her and she goes: meh, well, okay. Lucy is easily irritated by people and enjoys being alone. She’s used and abused, she’s taken advantage of, she’s dropped at the top of the hat when people are busy with other people. She’s mediocre. She’s no Jane Eyre. But you relate to her. That moment at the end of the novel where she starts sobbing, tearing her hair out over an asshole who is suddenly leaving…all you want to do is scream NO. DON’T CRY OVER THIS SHITBAG. She’s distraught despite the fact that for the WHOLE novel he has done nothing but bring her down. He constantly criticises on her clothes and tells her that she should wear dull colours, insults her intelligence, treats her like a child, spies on her, steals from her, mocks her. It was this that infuriated me by the end and yet I felt for Lucy. I hated everything that happened up until the last page but I still sympathised with her. That’s the power of Bronte.

Apart from Bronte’s writing being ever so beautiful and the depth she puts into her characters, this book still isn’t all it’s set up to be. I guess because it’s an autobiography, not an epic love story you have to look past your longing for a fiery romance. But that’s not all, the sluggish beginning, the varied pace…it’s a drag. It’s disjointed and confusing, random. It has way too much French language but at the same time it also speaks of the pains of solitude, unrequited love and unfulfilled love, leaving you thinking and moralising your own life. It leaves you undecided as to whether you enjoyed the book or hated it.

Villette is not a happy book, Lucy is not a happy person. Life is not easy or pleasurable at the best of times. Lucy is an outsider, we’re all outsiders and yet, it works. This won’t be my favourite book and to be fair, I’ll probably need to re-read it before I can give it above 3 stars but I trust other reviewers. I trust Bronte and I trust that this book is a classic, despite its sluggish pace and boring first half.