Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Villette by Charlotte Bronte

So the other day, while reading this book, I tweeted two comments:
Villette by Charlotte Bronte makes you feel hollow and lonely. In a bad way. :( #brontefail

Poor Charlotte Bronte. She must have been a very angry person. Sublimated angry, but angry.

Largely that sums up my personal feelings about this book.
I don't want to say Jane Eyre is a happy book, that would be silly. It isn't. It's a frequently sad, often scary book. But, if nothing else, there is at the end a feeling of catharsis, of closure. This book didn't have that at all. It was a strange experience, really, because the book felt too modern for Charlotte Bronte - modern novels have less of a tendency to insist on tidiness, less affection for things we can comprehend. I didn't need a modern novel, this week, I needed an old novel that I could cuddle into and feel things you aren't allowed to feel in the modern world.

That being said, my entire review will probably be insanely biased, but I will quietly make the argument that this book was not as great as I had hoped it would be, independent of my current mental state. First of all, C Bronte is not little Ms Subtle, by any stretch. You usually pretty much can guess at what it is she wants you to think. And she really seems to want you to like the main character. Only I didn't. The main character was bitter, angry, and sour, and she never really improved her temperament throughout the book. Since the main theme of the book was her search for happiness, this was kind of frustrating, because you didn't like her well enough to really want her to be happy. You don't necessarily want her to win.

Secondly, the book was very snippy. It read like a bitter, bigoted person speaking, the whole time - she makes nasty remarks about Catholics, Irish, and ESPECIALLY the French, throughout the whole book. I understand, some of this is the time period, and I can accept that. It wasn't that she had a bias, it's that she seemed to revel in it. The voice was a voice that was looking for something to hate.

Finally, and probably most difficultly for me, you kind of get the feeling, reading this book, that Charlotte Bronte doesn't like you, personally, the reader. She seems to be telling the story mostly for her own sake, and to think of the reader as a necessary evil. Some of the surprise twists in the book come through as sneering looks from the narrator, laughing at you for not catching on earlier. Some of the passages seem to irritatedly mince on through prose that the author seems tired of, as if the narrator wishes you' just keep up, and stop asking questions, so she could tell you what she really wanted to say.

All this would, again, be really interesting, if it felt like it was executed well. But it feels like it was executed on accident. I really don't think Ms B MEANT us to feel like she was an angry, bitter writer. But, the thing is, after this book, I feel like she was. And I couldn't shake that feeling, despite my sincere desire to do so.

I'm not saying I'm sorry I read it. The book was, if nothing else, a far more honest portrait of Charlotte than Jane Eyre was. Charlotte always seems to identify with her characters, and so you feel this strange frustration in this book, like she feels compelled to beat and damage herself with all the miserable pieces of life. I look back on Jane Eyre, now, and I see the voice of someone who WISHES her life had been that grand and sweeping, who was writing her dreams. This book isn't grand or sweeping. It's about the banalities of everyday, honest, miserable life, and you feel this sense of confined claustrophobia. Poor Charlotte, such a big mind, in such a small alley of life for living...

BTW - the image is of Lucy Snow, an anime character who I THINK is a fairy. Ironic.


Amanda said...

Sorry, but I want to finish this book even less after this review. I was hoping that the book would redeem itself somehow. It's really too bad, because I loved the beginning, but if Lucy Snowe stays the person she is in the middle of the book, I'm afraid I just don't want to know anything more about her.

I have a friend who hates to read anything about the authors she likes, afraid it will destroy her image of them. She refuses to read interviews, watch videos, go to author signings, etc. In a way, I feel like finishing this book will change the way I feel towards Charlotte Bronte, and not in a good way. I don't want that to happen. I like Charlotte right now. I'd be really depressed if I hated her or pitied her. Maybe it's better for me not to know.

L said...

One thing I liked about this book was the honest portrait of Charlotte's mind set at the time, and let's admit it - most of her adult life. Her beloved sisters and brother were dead. Her father blind. She was completely alone. Perhaps writing this book helped her to purge herself of the loneliness she felt then, her extreme sense of loss, recounting those awful years in Brussels. Perhaps it was a cleansing. In fact a year after it was published she finally decided to marry.

I agree, some of it was hard to read, but I appreciated its honesty. Some passages were beautifully written, I thought pure poetry by a master. Sad yes, but still excellent. Bronte was obviously a woman of many parts. I appreciated the tiny glimpse, no matter how difficult.

Unknown said...

Amanda - Yes, I will not pretend that you would enjoy this book. IF you didn't like the first half, you probably won't like the last.
Lula - I don't disagree somewhat - the chapter towards the end where she goes to the carnival, for instance, was gorgeously beautiful. And I AM glad I read it, because I DO feel like I know Charlotte so much better now. But, it felt like she couldn't back away from the story enough to tell it, you know?

Trixie said...

I have a few books by the Brontes on my list for the Gaps project. Not this one, but Jane Eyre I believe. I haven't really read much by them I don't think. Maybe only a little in British Lit class in high school? I am looking forward to seeing what they're all about. Great review!

Unknown said...

It'll be fun to see what you think. Most people, if they like old books, seem to like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights is the polarizing one :)

L said...

I love Wuthering Heights too, so that probably explains a lot about me.

I also agree, she didn't distance herself much did she in this one. Perhaps Jane Eyre was more fiction, although a lot of that was taken from her own family life as well, while Villette was more of a memoir. George Elliot and Virginia Woolf were part of the gloomy lot that supposedly loved this book. I bet they liked Wuthering Heights too! Freaks.

Trixie said...

Just checked. I have Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre on my list. I agree, it will be interesting to see what I think. I hope I can focus enough to finish them - I can be so fickle about books that aren't fast-paced. But that's what the Fill in the Gaps project is all about, right?

Amanda said...

I hear you Trixie! I was doing really good at the Fill in the Gaps thing until this month. I managed to sneak one very short book in last minute.

Unknown said...

Actually, it's funny, as I'm getting farther from this book (and, incidentally, listening to Gaskell's "Life of Charlotte Bronte" from LibriVox) I am starting to like it more. I'll have to read it again in a few years and see if my feelings have changed. And read Shirley, someday, too.