I've been laughing over Charlotte Bronte's Most Inexplicable Denominational Burns, which are timely for me as most of them are anti-Catholic screeds from Villette, which I just read. If Jane Eyre is the poor ugly relation of her family, Villette's protagonist Lucy Snowe is the poor, ugly relation of Jane. Lucy is not loveable, and she doesn't care who knows it, because she despises you (the reader) and your facile romantic notions of happiness, probably borne of your soft soulless Catholicism.
Lucy Snowe is, by and large, an unhappy character, so unhappy that she buries her suffering under a thick skin of cold rationality. She is judgmental and superior, clear-eyed in the wrong ways. After a childhood of loss and suffering (only referred to obliquely, because you, the reader, can't handle the pain), she becomes a teacher in the city of Villette, in a country that is not-Belgium. This city is peopled by Catholics, a people Lucy considers more sinister, more inclined to surveillance, more duplicitous than all others. And yet Lucy herself is a supremely unreliable narrator, holding back key information at some times, at others unable to admit the humanity of other characters, and then again deluded as to others. She is just as suspicious as the spying Catholic headmistress, but Lucy's suspicions are all directed against her own emotions.
So why read it? It doesn't have the delightfully accessible drama of Jane Eyre, but within its own slightly episodic structure Bronte is doing some very good stylework. There are many significant details and allusions, many thematic elements which recur in fascinating ways, many technically brilliant passages. And Lucy Snowe herself, though not a character for whom the reader feels much affection (it's mutual), is resourceful, sharp, interesting, and has ten kinds of emotional turmoil roiling beneath her purposefully placid exterior. When she loves, she loves deeply. She's not a comfortable character to spend time with, but she is challenging.
And then go back and read Jane Eyre, because there are good reasons why it has stood the test of time in a way that Villette hasn't quite.
Learning Notes Week of September 19
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