Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Advent, Day 11: Charlotte Bronte's Villette

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.


Brandon said...

This city is peopled by Catholics, a people Lucy considers more sinister, more inclined to surveillance, more duplicitous than all others.

Don't forget -- their women are fatter than all others, too. It's impressive the ingenuity with which Lucy manages to slip into almost any description of a woman in Villette an insinuation that she's fat.

"Robust in body, feeble in soul, fat, ruddy, hale, joyous, ignorant, unthinking, unquestioning" has to be one of the most splendidly compact anti-Catholic put-downs ever.

Enbrethiliel said...


I loved the link!

One of my favourites--the description of little Polly praying "like some Catholic or Methodist"--made it. And I'm glad that someone in the combox suggested why Lucy (or Charlotte Bronte herself) might have been put off by the sight of a child kneeling to pray at bedtime:

I would guess that spontaneous personal prayer of the "upright in your bed" sort seems more Methodist or Catholic than Anglican if you go about your Anglicanism as my family did. I was raised by my Anglican grandmother, and she was never a "let's pray for guidance in this daily situation" type of person. She saved up all her biggest problems to pray about in the pew on schedule, and the rest of the week you looked around at your problems, you figured out what had to be done, and then you did it. If she believed in spontaneous personal prayer, she kept it very private.

Undignified to publicly importune the Almighty, I guess.

Did anyone else think that Lucy's impressions of the young Polly were a little extreme? I remember thinking throughout the whole first part that Lucy was not just observing Polly's attachment to Graham, but also projecting her own feelings--because she didn't want to feel them.

Another anti-Catholic bit I found memorable was Lucy's reaction to the book that is read aloud at dinner. I don't recall that passage as a "burn," though. Lucy is such a critic, whether it comes to people or to art, drama and letters. But can we trust her assessment of the latter when she isn't very credible with respect to the former?

Bob the Ape said...

Robust in body, feeble in soul, fat, ruddy, hale, joyous, ignorant, unthinking, unquestioning.

That's practically an Internet quiz.

Let's see: No, yes, sort of, no, no, no, yes, usually, rarely.

Score: about 3.5 of 9. I am not an anti-Catholic's Catholic (which I find vaguely disappointing).