Villette is about Lucy Snowe travelling alone from England to Villette, in France, and getting a job at a school for girls. Life ensue.
One criticism I found over and over again against this book while doing research on it was that the character of Lucy Snowe was someone that they couldn’t connect with and questioning the reliability to the story. This made me think about why Lucy Snowe’s story was felt as unreliable, while Jane Eyre’s did not. First thing first.
Or to be more precise, every story (not including people who deliberately say something untrue) is an interpretation of how a person preconceived something that happened. There have been studies to show that even something as changing the a wording that you might think mean the same thing drastically changes the answer.
No story that is autobiographical, fictional or non-fictional, is an objective truth. How much faith we place on the story ends up reflecting how much faith we, as a reader/listener, place on the person narrating. I experienced this first hand when reading the book Find me I’m yours by Hillary Carlip. I hated the narrator, and because I didn’t trust (or like) her I started to not trust her depiction of the people around her. So when she started to complain about people not treating her nicely, I found myself wondering if the people really where that mean to her and maybe she was just a whiny cry-baby (I really, really didn’t like her. Sorry fans of the book.).
The reason I bring this up is that I don’t think Lucy Snow is more unreliable than most autobiographical narrators, but at the same time I understand how people might consider her that way. Lucy is someone that it’s very hard to get close to. She keeps everyone, including the reader, at an arms length. Most of the time.
“But solitude is sadness.’
‘Yes; it is sadness. Life, however, has worse than that. Deeper than melancholy lies heart-break.” chapter 37
This quote comes from a discussion Lucy has with a woman who is engaged with a man Lucy is in-love with, though the woman in question does not know of Lucy’s feelings. The woman, whom is a close friend of Lucy, is very happy about her engagement, and talk about how Lucy shouldn’t be sad because even if Lucy never gets a husband she will be a part of their life. Lucy retorts by saying
“I shall share no man’s or woman’s life in this world, as you understand sharing. I think I have one friend of my own, but am not sure: and till I am sure, I live solitary.” chapter 37.
I know people might read this conversation and see Lucy as somewhat cold, but you have to remember that she is talking to the woman whom is going to marry the man she is in love with. This might be the problem. If Lucy had confessed to this woman that she is in love, either in anger or in pain maybe people would have liked Lucy more. Though I think that would have missed the point. Lucy Snowe as a character is unique not with what she is saying, as the narrator, but with what she isn’t saying. It is a somewhat known fact that this story was inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s alleged true crush on her married teacher Constantin Héger. I say alleged because she never said it right out loud, at least not in writing, but reading the letters she wrote and connecting Villette and The Professor to him it is a plausible theory. Look at it another way. The story is about a woman without means of her own, wanting to become a teacher and make her way in the world, whom falls in love and have to deal with that while being in another country. This narrative can be used on Charlotte’s real life as well as Villette.
Maybe that is why this narrator holds her distance, because this is the closest we come to Charlotte’s own life and voice. Not as a writer, but also as a woman.
“But if I feel, may I never express?”
“Never!” declared Reason.
I groaned under her bitter sternness. Never – never – oh, hard word! This hag, this Reason, would not let me look up, or smile, or hope; she could not rest unless I were altogether crushed, cowed, broken-in, and broken down. According to her, I was born only to work for a piece of bread, to await the pains of death, and steadily through all life to despond. Reason might be right; yet no wonder we are glad at times to defy her, to rush from under her rod and give a truant hour to Imagination – her soft, bright foe, our sweet Help, our divine Hope.” 21
I haven’t read Jane Eyre yet (I know, I know, it’s on the list) so I won’t claim that this Charlotte Brontë’s best book, but I will say that it is a highly underestimated book. This book is a wonderful read, though it does challenge you as a reader. You will not get the whole story, not to mention the part of the story you have to read in the sub-text, but that is one of the reasons I really like it. I don’t think there is anything wrong with reading easy, light-hearted books from time to time, but I do think that it’s equal important to try to read things that do demand something from you. That’s the only way you can grow. So if you are ready to read a story written on the characters term and not yours, I highly recommend Villette.
“Who are you, Miss Snowe?”…
“Who am I indeed? Perhaps a personage in disguise.” 27