Villette, Jane Eyre and The French Lieutenant’s Woman

I have only a smattering of English lit in my education, not enough to comment knowledgably about what’s going on in these books. So this is my uneducated, unrehearsed, and unpolished response to Villette, which I find easiest to think about in relation to the other two books. I wanted to write about Villette in particular, because it justifies so much more than a one line review.

There are some marked similarities between Jane Eyre and Villette, other than that they were both written by Charlotte Bronte. In both cases, the heroine is an educated woman, who must earn her own living. She is transplanted into a strange place (Thornfield in Jane Eyre, the city Villette in the novel of that name), where she must find her way. Each woman goes through a terrible ordeal, and yet following that ordeal, she finds someone who could be a husband for her. But in Jane Eyre the heroine rejects her suitor, St John Rivers, ‘though she is happy to be as a sister to him, because she knows that he would stifle her, whereas in Villette, the man the heroine loves never seems to be aware of her love for him. He is kind, friendly, brother-like, but that is all.

The terrible ordeals are different. In Jane Eyre, the eponymous heroine is about to marry the man she loves, and then she is driven from him, by the revelation of his past. She flees from his home, with very little money, and no idea of where she is going. Because she does not know where she might go, she ends up alone, on the moors, with nothing. She wanders for a day or two, but then finds a village. Desperate, she approaches several doors, begs for work, and eventually pleads for food from a servant in a house but:

…here the honest but inflexible servant clapped the door and bolted it within.

This was the climax. A pang of exquisite suffering – a throe of true despair – rent and heaved my heart. Worn out, indeed, I was; not another step could I stir. I sank on the wet door-step: I groaned – I wrung my hands – I wept in utter anguish. Oh, this spectre of death! Oh, this last hour, approaching in such horror! Alas, this isolation – this banishment from my kind! Not only the anchor of hope, but the footing of fortitude was gone – at least for a moment: but the last I soon endeavoured to regain.

“I can but die,” I said, “and I believe in God. Let me try to wait His will in silence.”

Lucy, the heroine of Villette, goes through a different ordeal. She has work, food, and a place to live, but no hope. Her ordeal is a dark night of the soul, what we would now call a mental breakdown, or some form of depression. The looming disaster is apparent when in the middle of the busy school term, she is stung into life by a storm. The passage which describes it is a stunning account of a soul tempest, of a person who is in mental agony.

Oh, my childhood! I had feelings: passive as I loved, little as I spoke, cold as I looked, when I thought of past days, I could feel. About the present, it was better to be stoical; about the future – such a future as mine – to be dead. And in catalepsy and a dead trance, I studiously held the quick of my nature.

At that time, I well remember whatever could excite – certain accidents of the weather, for instance, were almost dreaded by me, because they woke the being I was always lulling, and stirred up a craving cry I could not satisfy. One night a thunderstorm broke; a sort of hurricane shook us in our beds … The tempest took hold of me with tyranny: I was roughly roused and obliged to live. I got up and dressed myself, and creeping outside the casement close by my bed, sat on its ledge, with my feet on the roof of a lower adjoining builidng. It was wet, it was wild, it was pitch-dark. … I could not go in: too resistless was the delight of staying with the wild hour, black and full of thunder, pealing out such an ode as language never delivered to man – too terribly glorious, the spectacle of clouds, split and pierced by white and blinding bolts.

I did long, achingly, then and for four-and-twenty hours afterwards, for something to fetch me out of my present existence, and lead me upwards and onwards. This longing, and all of a similar kind, it was necessary to knock on the head; which I did, figuratively, after the manner of Jael to Sisera, driving a nail through their temples. Unlike Sisera, they did not die: they were but transiently stunned, and at intervals would turn on the nail with a rebellious wrench; then did the temples bleed, and the brain thrill to its core.

But the daily round of school life keeps her from thinking too much. It’s only when the long summer vacation starts, and she is left to her own devices, that her sickness flourishes.

My spirits had long been gradually sinking; now that the prop of employment was withdrawn, they went down fast. Even to look forward was not to hope: the dumb future spoke no comfort, offered no promise, gave no inducement to bear present evil in reliance on future good. A sorrowful indifference to existence often pressed on me – a despairing resignation to reach betimes the end of all things earthly. Alas! When I had full leisure to look on life as life must be looked on by such as me, I found it but a hopeless desert: tawny sands, with no green field, no palm tree, no well in view.

Lucy collapses, both physically and mentally, but she is rescued, by a kindly priest and a kindly doctor, who turns out to be a long lost family friend from her childhood (like Jane Eyre, there are some utterly unbelievable coincidences in Villette, and eventually, it is just not worth worrying about them).

But she recovers, and falls tremulously in love with the doctor, only to see him turn to another. At last, she finds love with another man, who sees her finely tempered spirit, and her true self. Finally, it seems, she will be happy.

Ultimately however, Villette is a story of loss. Despite the one, tremendous loss in Jane Eyre, it is a novel about finding. Jane finds a school, a home, a child to love, a lover, and though she loses that lover for a period, through that loss she also finds her family, and in the end, she is reunited with her lover. For all its seriousness, Jane Eyre is a fairy tale, with a prince, a wicked witch, a test, and a happy ending.

In contrast, Lucy loses family, friends, and home, and for a while, her own sanity. She recovers to find friends and someone to love, only for her friends to be more engaged elsewhere, and for the man she loves to be lost to her, if only because he is too facile to perceive her worth. At the end of the novel, she finds another love whom she is to marry, and she has prospered, but alas, it seem that all she has gained might yet be lost.

And that is where Charlotte Bronte makes a stunning move, anticipating the dual ends of The French Lieutenant’s Woman by over a century. She does not tell us whether her heroine’s fiance comes home through yet another vast tempest. She leaves it to the reader to decide what the ending of the novel will be.

John Fowles does this in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, inviting the reader to choose which ending of the book is more appropriate, while acknowledging the tyranny of the last written version being perceived as the real ending. In doing so, he invites us to consider which is the more likely account of human nature – John Donne, and ‘No man is an island’, or Matthew Arnold, and the ‘unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea’ that stretches between people.

Charlotte Bronte’s challenge is more subtle. She invites us to read the book, understand its themes, and then work out what the likely ending is. Do we think that out of the storm will come hope, or will it be another loss for Lucy? And if we prefer one ending to the other, do we dare to override the author’s will, and impose it on the narrative?

I found Villette to be a fascinating book, both engaging, and disturbing. It amply repaid the effort put into reading it.


3 responses to “Villette

  1. I was also amply repaid the effort I put into reading your review. I am trying to remember how old I was when I read those two books, I am thinking early teens, tacked onto the end of my Nazi Germany phase. It is funny what remains in your memory of what you have mostly forgotten. I was digging around in my recollections of Villette and I really for the life of me can’t remember the plot but I do have a sense of drama and tragedy with a kind of 14 year old me flavour about it…..
    Odd, and certainly no reflection on Jane Austen.

  2. That link in the first paragraph doesn’t seem to work.

    I have never read Villette: will look for it in my next trip to the bookstore.

  3. I think I deleted the page when it became clear that I wasn’t keeping up with it… as in, I was about six months behind on recording what I had been reading. Alas, it’s lost forever now.