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Villette

Villette - Charlotte Brontë It is not possible for me to talk about this book without somehow spoiling it. I’ll hide the main spoilers, but there are some pretty awesome twists and turns in this book, so I recommend reading it with eyes that are innocent of review spoilers.

I have had this weird experience lately where books or movies or TV I watch are almost always either uncannily similar to my life – like, exact words I’ve said recently or experiences I’ve had – or totally offensive and appalling to me. I think it is doing damage to my nervous system. I have a weak and brooding constitution, anyway, so recovery calls for those new episodes of Arrested Development to come out ASAP. No, jk, I don’t have a weak and brooding constitution, but seriously, I may take to swooning and weeping soon enough if this crazy pendulum doesn’t stop swinging so wildly.

Villette was the uncannily similar variety of story. It is so eerie to read books from almost two hundred years ago and see my own thoughts and experiences. It is both comforting and totally exhausting – comforting because we have always been like this; exhausting because, well, we have always been like this. Bronte’s description of Lucy waiting by the phone for a dude to call, or, in her case, by the door for a letter to arrive, is chilling. Lucy’s conversation with Dr. John, when she points out the hypocrisy of his ability to see shallowness in men but not women, is absolutely hilarious. Lucy’s delicacy about describing her own loneliness is beautiful. Charlotte Bronte writes a really killer antiheroine, and it is always easier to identify with an antiheroine than a heroine, I think, because it is easy to see our own flaws.

While this book easily stands alone as a lovely study on humanity, it also evoked comparisons to Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice for me. It was the last book Bronte published before she died. As is so common, Villette, the later book, is a less tight story than Jane Eyre – it was more meandering, and where Bronte wants to dwell, she will dwell. In some ways, though, I think Villette is more successful than Jane Eyre in distinguishing antihero from hero because Bronte is kinder to the heroes in Villette and lets me feel a little bitter at them without really despising them here. Dr. John, in contrast to St. John, does not creep me out. Paulina is a traditionally heroic heroine. This works in Villette because it provides a more clear contrast between the traditional hero’s story and Lucy’s antiheroine story. On the other hand, Jane Eyre allows flaws in everyone, whether they are golden or dark, so that has a nice subtlety. At the same time that Jane and Rochester are the more clear antiheroes, St. John is so determined to crush feelings and be unhappy that he is not so much the golden hero as Dr. John. In Villette there is a clear line between hero and antihero; in Jane Eyre the line is more blurred, though the physical descriptions signal a distinction. It might not be useful, though, to compare the two books because they are both wonderful, and I don't know that I prefer the clear distinction or the blurring.

In some ways, I think this story is a Bronte Pride and Prejudice. All of the couples are parallels: Paulina and Dr. John are Jane and Bingley; Lucy and M. Paul are Lizzy and Darcy; and, of course, Ginevra and de Hamal are Lydia and Wickham. In many ways that comparison fails because the interaction of the characters in P&P forms a cohesive plot, and Villette is not really about any particular plot, I think, but it was interesting to see similar couples described through more brutal eyes.

Both Charlotte and Emily Bronte, also, always seem more exotic than Austen because the aesthetics of their heroes are described so much more like an emo band. While Austen captures that subtle loneliness of unreliable family, the Brontes go straight for explicit isolation in a cruel world. I doubt I could love either Austen or the Brontes so much without the other. And it was beautiful to read about the couples from Pride and Prejudice with the severity and stifled animal cry of Charlotte Bronte. I see Virginia Woolf’s point that sometimes Bronte’s failures as an editor interfere with the story in a way that you don’t see in Austen, but it is still beautiful.

Probably my favorite thing about this book is Lucy’s shiftiness as a narrator. This girl is going to tell you what she wants you to know and she is going to leave out whatever the fuck she wants. It was totally hilarious that she didn’t even tell me that she knew the whole time that Dr. John was Graham Bretton. That little minx! (As they say.) And then the way she ends the story is just heartbreaking – you can’t even handle the cruelty of her life, so she won’t force you to listen to it.

I was not in love with any of the heroes of this story, and I kind of liked that, too. It was more like a soul-mate friend, of whom I am completely in awe, telling me about the people she loved, and how she understood them and their faults, than a con game of trying to get me to fall in love myself. It is interesting because usually we are meant to fall in love with the romantic lead (and I’mma be honest, I totally swoon for Rochester), but I do not almost ever swoon for my irl friends’ love stories. In this way, I felt that Lucy was completely her own person, and even though I identified with her in this sometimes-creepy way, she was not a stand-in for me in the love story. I thought both Dr. John and M. Paul were kind of douchebags, but that was fine because Lucy was smart about all of them. Honestly, I didn’t notice M. Paul for a long time, and I am usually really good at picking up on romantic leads, so when I re-read I will have to pay better attention to what he does in the early part of the novel.

I really loved this book. As I got to the end, I panicked a little because I remembered that I had always partly been reluctant to read it because I will use up the possibility for a new Bronte story soon, and what a sad, bleak time that will be. I still have a couple left, though, so I will hoard those for later. I wish Bronte would email me new stories from her austere, Protestant heaven.