Villette, Hardback Book
4 out of 5 (1 rating)


Left by harrowing circumstances to fend for herself in the great capital of a foreign country, Lucy Snowe, the narrator and heroine of Villette, achieves by degrees an authentic independence from both outer necessity and inward grief.


  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 314 pages
  • Publisher: Everyman
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Classic fiction (pre c 1945)
  • ISBN: 9781857150681

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Charlotte Brontë's Villette is a romance with Gothic elements. It is also a partly autobiographical novel and, if not anti-Catholic, at least a staunch defense of Protestant values and temperaments. The narrator is the aptly named Lucy Snowe. She is cold, secretive and, for most of the book, unlovable. We first meet Lucy as a teenager spending a few months at the home of her godmother, Mrs. Bretton. Even at that age, Lucy's character is puritanical, reclusive, and cautious. She seldom speaks, and never discloses her feelings to others. Nonetheless, she develops a fond attachment for Mrs. Bretton, her son Graham, and another guest, a younger girl named Paulina.Lucy's family situation is troubled, but she never discloses the cause. She resumes her narrative years later when, as a young woman, she is forced out into the world almost penniless to earn her own living. After a short stint as companion to a dying woman, she decides to escape to France (though not speaking a word of French), and eventually comes to the city of Villette where she applies for a position as an English teacher in a girls' school.Villette, though described as a French city, is actually based on Brussels, Belgium, where Brontë and her sister Emily were employed in a situation not dissimilar to Lucy's.Lucy's employer, Madame Beck, is the novel's most memorable character. Though genial in appearance, she maintains a strict rein on her teachers as well as her students by gathering all the information she can--spying on their every move, reading their mail, and exploring their belongings. Brontë uses Madame Beck and others to contrast the French temperament with the English and the Catholic mentality with the Protestant.She has much to say, in fact, about Catholicism, some of it quite bitter. Of the school's educational goals, Lucy says "There, as elsewhere, the CHURCH strove to bring up her children robust in body, feeble in soul, fat, ruddy, hale, joyous, ignorant, unthinking, unquestioning." Later: "For man's good little was done; for God's glory, less." Lucy concludes, "the more I saw of Popery the closer I clung to Protestantism." Yet she does not condemn Catholics as individuals, just the church and its hierarchy. In Villette, Lucy suffers the ordeals anyone would who finds herself alone and friendless in a foreign land, and she is severely tested by an unsympathetic headmistress and by rebellious students. Her solitary ways and self-reliance are the armor that protect her, but eventually she begins to change and develop as she learns more about herself. She finally experiences the joys of friendship and even dares to entertain romantic feelings. At the same time, however, she is both troubled and mystified by encounters with an apparition said to be a ghost haunting the grounds of the school.The plot of Villette is unremarkable, and it takes most of the novel before we can begin to warm up to its chilly narrator, but Villette is rewarding as a study in character and for its portrayal of the attitudes and conventions of the time. The writing is quite beautiful as well, with many powerful and inventive descriptive passages and clever sarcasms.

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