Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Classic review - Villette

For the last few weeks I have been interning Monday to Friday at a publisher's, and then working Saturdays at the book shop. Which has been totally fine, and perfectly easy to cope with, except that from time to time I find myself forgetting things, like how to spell hat, or where my email is, or what someone said to me five minutes before.

I have also been reading Villette by Charlotte Bronte. I'd been putting off reading this book for approximately ten years, in case it turned out to be awful and forced me to hate Charlotte Bronte, but I finally decided last week to stop being such a wuss and get on with it. So now I can finally claim to be a person who really does love Charlotte Bronte, since I have read not one but a whole two of her books.

The first thing to say is that it turns out that Villette is not an ideal book for dipping in and out of at random intervals while you wait for your next bus. I got into grown-up books via a lot of blockbuster 19th century novels, so they were all I knew to begin with, and for a long time I couldn't understand why people complained that they were difficult to read. Now I realise, though, that the complainers may have had something. Being able to read books from different time periods is a bit like tuning your ear to a foreign language - it's all about expectation and what you're used to. Villette was the first Victorian book I read after months of almost exclusively late-20th Century stuff, and it took me about eighty pages before its word choice stopped being nearly incomprehensible. Irids? Gloaming? Massy? These must all be nonsense words inserted to make me feel stupid! Complainers, I'm sorry. I finally understand what you mean.

I'd forgotten how much Bronte can write like she's just vomited up a Bible - and also how obscenely annoying it is when the notes at the back just give you chapter and verse of what she's referring to, rather than explaining the reference itself. As though I'm going to see 'Job 3:19' and be instantly enlightened - Job 3:19! My favourite part of Job! What a totally apt reference, Charlotte! I'm fairly sure it's all a ploy by the editor to show you that there are some things that you don't know that he totally does. Things like this are why I suspect most scholarly editors of being assholes.

But anyway, to the book itself. I discovered when I actually read Villette as opposed to thinking about reading it that a lot of things I'd been assuming about it weren't right at all. Most importantly, its title does not, in fact, refer to a person in any way, shape or form. It’s a town. Of course it bloody is. Villette, after all, means little town in French, and it turns out that Villette is all about (French-speaking) Belgium. Charlotte Bronte spent a lot of time being a schoolmistress in Belgium (and falling hopelessly in love with a married schoolmaster there), and she has a very low and rude opinion of the country as a result. Nothing like a bit of healthy xenophobia to increase a book's fun.

Villette turns out to be, in essence, Jane Eyre Goes To Belgium. If you've read Charlotte Bronte's greatest hit you will feel a strong sense of deja vu during Villette, since both novels are pretty much just the marriage plot, gone Gothic, and both can be summed up pretty much as follows:

Chilly, cerebral and faintly unattractive female with a fondness for grey dresses (*resemblance to C. Bronte entirely accidental) lacks fortune; goes in search of it; takes up teaching position; suffers Gothic hardships; meets short dark unhandsome man; undergoes extreme verbal abuse at his hands; is unaccountably aroused by said abuse; overcomes difficulties to win him; reader, she married him.

It really is Jane Eyre, only not quite so satisfying, mainly because M. Paul, the Mr. Rochester substitute, is such a very unpleasant little man. Mr Rochester may be mean, but he is never less than dishy, whereas M. Paul, for the first three-quarters of the novel at least, is mean without any mitigating circumstances at all. His favourite pastime is cornering Lucy and being rude to her, but he does also take pleasure in grabbing her and dragging her about a bit when he wants to make her feel especially cherished.  

Villette does confirm for me the really disturbing emotional issues the Brontes had about men: most of the conversations that Lucy and M. Paul have are just screeds of verbal abuse, which is viewed in the book somewhat along the lines of sexy talk. Paul spends all his time telling Lucy to stop being so clever and independent and also not to dress like such a slut, please, and she loves it. This is the sort of thing that makes me so sure that Charlotte and co. would have been super in love with the whole concept of Twilight. They wouldn't just have read the books, they'd have queued up for the midnight showings of all the films, wearing t-shirts that said TEAM EDWARD and crying. But despite all that, I did - extremely grudgingly - fall for Lucy and M. Paul's relationship by the end of the novel. It's so nice to have a romance between two book characters that isn't solely based on a mutual recognition of hotness and/or the man's possession of many acres of rolling landscape. That doesn't say much for my feminist credentials, I guess, but I don't think there's anything wrong with a bit of pragmatism from time to time.

Another thing that Villette confirmed for me is that Charlotte Bronte really was someone who, shall we say, had an extremely full mental landscape. There's an awful lot of heavy-handed emotional metaphor about angels of death and heavenly clouds and dark waters of the soul, all described in ways that left me somewhat concerned about how far their author believed in them as actual physical things that you might go out and see, like a tree or the shop on the corner. I can fully believe that Charlotte Bronte might come in from an afternoon's ramble on the moors and say, "I had a lovely walk. I saw two rabbits and the gorse was in bloom and then I turned a corner and there was the Angel of the Lord, standing at the top of a hill in his empyrean robes and flashing his massy eyes upon my face."

It does at least mean, though, that when Charlotte Bronte gets going she's great at description. My favourite scene in the novel - and possibly my favourite scene in anything I've read for quite a while - happens towards the end of the story. Someone slips Lucy some opium to make her sleep, it fails, she trips balls, goes outside and ends up at a carnival in the middle of the night. The whole thing reads like a Victorian Gatsby's Party, all flashing colours and manic laughter and faceless revellers menacing Lucy from all sides. Apparently, Charlotte prepared for this scene, not by taking drugs or going to an actual party, but by sitting in a chair and thinking very hard about what it would be like to be on opium. I do feel like Charlotte may not have been the easiest woman to get on with, in person, but stories like this make me seriously appreciative of her style.

I read Jane Eyre for the first time when I was twelve, just after I went through all the Jane Austen novels. I thought they were fine, but lacking in a certain something, plot-wise, and so Jane Eyre was pretty much a revelation unto my soul. Before Jane Eyre I thought that all books for adults were going to be like Jane Austen - full of people being polite and having nuanced emotions - but here was someone writing about INSANE VAMPIRE WOMEN IN ATTICS ON FIRE, and I decided then and there that growing up was going to be all right after all. Villette may not be quite as much of a shameless Goth-fest as Jane Eyre is, but it's still reassuringly full of random Gothic touches, all of which are pretty obviously jammed into the narrative for no better reason than Charlotte Bronte thought it would be cool. I like a woman who can sit down at her desk, realise that the scene in front of her is boring, and decide that what it needs right now is MORE GHOST NUNS. That's actually how the nun appears in the story, by the way - as THE NUN. She's so awesome that she needs capital letters.

So, as perhaps you may have guessed, I liked this book. Maybe I didn't love it with the mad religious fervour with which I love Jane Eyre - but then again, were I to review Jane Eyre here I would have to give it about a million embarrassingly emotional book-of-my-life stars, so nothing's ever going to quite compare. This, though, gets a friendly

4 stars.

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