“There is nothing like taking all you do at a moderate estimate: it keeps mind and body tranquil; whereas grandiloquent notions are apt to hurry both into fever.”
– Charlotte Bronte, Villette.
It is challenging task to gather my thoughts on this book. Was I passionately moved by this novel? No. Was I anxiously turning each page and grabbing the words as fast as the eye can meet them? No. Was I rending my heart out or bursting into shrieks of laughter? No. But what I was doing was attentively listening to Miss Lucy Snowe, following her every observation, regulating and checking emotions as she would, being immensely forbearing and incisive about her surroundings — in short a most patient, attentive and receptive listener. I do not think I have encountered a protagonist that is as wise, mature, authentic as Miss Lucy Snowe. The book is written entirely in the voice of Lucy Snowe, the world seen through her eye and communicated directly to us by Charlotte Bronte. It is as if one is reading an autobiography, experiencing her life first-hand, in direct intimate contact with Lucy Snowe’s psychological realm, crafted out of the cloth of Charlotte Bronte’s own psyche.
Bronte portrays Lucy as a 23 year old woman, who is poor, solitary and without beauty, family or connections to support her. She has no home, past or present and struggles to earn her bread. Due to her inferior position, she is submitted to humble acceptance of what fate has to offer and at the same time, aware and eager of the little rise in the situation and comfort that she can procure for herself. This submission coupled with the self-reliance checks and builds her expectations and takes the form of wisdom and maturity through the novel. As she becomes a destitute wanderer, she reaches the town of Villette from England after a tiresome sea voyage. She stumbles into a job as a governess for Madame Beck (who is portrayed as a sly but very interesting character) and later, as an English teacher for Madame Beck’s boarding school. Having built a setting, the rest of the novel weaves stories of adventure, spiritual differences, disappointment, love, justice and human life in this small french-speaking town of Villette.
The characters in this book are a few but very detailed. She imparts wisdom to little Polly in a moment of intense grief as she tells her “Wise people say it is folly to think anybody perfect; and as to likes and dislikes, we should be friendly to all, and worship none.” Little Polly is admired for her self-command, even in distress and her quaint little maidenliness as opposed to Graham’s equally pleasant handsome profile destitute neither of vivacity nor of a good disposition. Lucy Snowe’s existence is small and concentrated around the lives of a few people; these are the people she has feelings for and the people her thoughts are continuously engaged in. This Lucy Snowe is a complex (and therefore, life-like) character– as she struggles to ward off loneliness, she desires feelings of attachment and yet is not generally very amiable. There are points of similarity between Lucy Snowe and Jane Eyre in their primary inherent dispositions– both are generally calm, collected and stern bestrewed with moments of such courage, strength and inner force– to crush every being at once. One of my favourite parts in the book is the vaudeville where Professor Paul Emmanuel pleads Lucy to play the part of the English Fop at the last minute to avert a crisis and Lucy accepts the part. She plays the part with relish- alters it recklessly and flavours it to suit her impulse; this is the spark, the power– the keen relish for dramatic expression that gushes from an inward spring revealing momentarily another side of the cold, reluctant and apprehensive face.
She is often accused by readers to be unfeeling, emotionally abused, emotionally crippled– and even as someone who suffers in incessant agony of repressed emotions. That, however is not the Lucy Snowe I know. She struggled, yes, to regulate her emotions in accordance with her rationality, she “dared not give such guests as tears (an outward display of grief) lodging in fear of sin and presumption”, she believed in stoicism, in a repression of emotional wanderings, in keeping her mind sharply under control– and I believe I could relate to all these things completely.
She describes her miserable loneliness acutely– it is now understandable that these were feelings not imagined and magnified to imitate real feelings only giving the most hollow and scant resemblance; but they were acute feelings of distress, vexation, loneliness, and estrangement felt by Charlotte Bronte at the death of her two sisters. The description of Lucy Snowe during these pages (“Weeks of inward winter”) was very real for me and she sprang out of the pages of the book like no other. I think these days are a part of everyone’s lives, in different degrees, when there is a heavy and rough road to travel, when the days are “as bare as sheets of blank paper”, when “swallowing your own thoughts and locking up your emotions” no longer remains possible, when you are under “intolerable encroachments of despair” and in the very extremity of want, longing for better days. We feel these sensations perhaps not as acutely as people may have felt them before, due to the wealth of distractions at our behest.
One of the places where the complexity and contradictory attributes of Lucy Snowe’s nature is brought forward is in this paragraph , which again, I believe is very true in how different people have so very different opinions and are acquainted with such different shades of one person in reality. And yet, we feel that there is one person who truly knows us.
“Madame Beck esteemed me learned and blue; Miss Fanshawe, caustic, ironic, and cynical; Mr. Home, a model teacher, the essence of the sedate and discreet: somewhat conventional, perhaps, too strict, limited, and scrupulous, but still the pink and pattern of governess-correctness; whilst another person, Professor Paul Emanuel, to wit, never lost an opportunity of intimating his opinion that mine was rather a fiery and rash nature—adventurous, indocile, and audacious. I smiled at them all. If any one knew me it was little Paulina Mary.”
– Pg. 357, Villette.
The subtlety, complexity, authenticity of human nature has been captured excellently in this book. This definitely ranks as one of the books that so thoroughly understands human nature and is wise beyond ages in its sketches of the righteous path. One of these pearls of wisdom that struck me the most was the line:
“The longer we live, the more our experience widens; the less prone are we to judge our neighbour’s conduct, to question the world’s wisdom: wherever an accumulation of small defences is found, whether surrounding the prude’s virtue or the man of the world’s respectability, there, be sure, it is needed.”
– Pg. 366, Villette.
The last year has been a quite significant year in my life, where I learnt a lot of lessons and developed as a person. The book resonated with me as it would not have done an year back perhaps and I found myself yearning to read more in a quite yet consistently attracted sort of way, as opposed to a wolfish devouring. I don’t think I am qualified to review this book, it’s a genius. Yes, I read it. But I must read it so many more times to really understand and comment upon that subtle force that has so deeply attached me to this book. I don’t think this is something that can be consumed easily and widely- its not a book for mass consumption. But maybe, it is for you. 🙂
I don’t think I have ever trembled as softly and deeply at a declaration of love as in this book. “Lucy, take my love. One day, share my life. Be my dearest, first on earth.”
Elizabeth Gaskell, her friend and biographer wrote these exceedingly true words (which I am in complete agreement with and which I think is a very very rare quality, even among writers) about Charlotte Bronte:
“Any one who has studied her writings,—whether in print or in her letters; any one who has enjoyed the rare privilege of listening to her talk, must have noticed her singular felicity in the choice of words. She herself, in writing her books, was solicitous on this point. One set of words was the truthful mirror of her thoughts; no others, however apparently identical in meaning, would do. She had that strong practical regard for the simple holy truth of expression, which Mr. Trench has enforced, as a duty too often neglected. She would wait patiently searching for the right term, until it presented itself to her. It might be provincial, it might be derived from the Latin; so that it accurately represented her idea, she did not mind whence it came; but this care makes her style present the finish of a piece of mosaic. Each component part, however small, has been dropped into the right place. She never wrote down a sentence until she clearly understood what she wanted to say, had deliberately chosen the words, and arranged them in their right order. Hence it comes that, in the scraps of paper covered with her pencil writing which I have seen, there will occasionally be a sentence scored out, but seldom, if ever, a word or an expression. She wrote on these bits of paper in a minute hand, holding each against a piece of board, such as is used in binding books, for a desk. This plan was necessary for one so short-sighted as she was; and, besides, it enabled her to use pencil and paper, as she sat near the fire in the twilight hours, or if (as was too often the case) she was wakeful for hours in the night. Her finished manuscripts were copied from these pencil scraps, in clear, legible, delicate traced writing, almost as easy to read as print. ~ Elizabeth Gaskell about Charlotte Bronte’s writing habits”
Charlotte Bronte is my best-loved author and utterly unrivalled in my mind.