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Villette - Charlotte Brontë “Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars--a cage, so peril, loneliness, an uncertain future, are not oppressive evils, so long as the frame is healthy and the faculties are employed; so long, especially, as Liberty lends us her wings, and Hope guides us by her star.”

When I was growing up in Kansas, my father farmed and worked long hours, and my mother worked the night shift at the hospital as a nurse's aide. Since my mother slept during the day, I had to be very quiet. I found that by being as silent as a church mouse I achieved about the most freedom a young lad could hope to obtain.


Books became my friends, and they were outwardly quiet companions, but inwardly sparked fires in my thought processes. I suppose I was lonely, more lonely when I tried to talk about books with the people I knew. It was like the excitement of finding a gold mine (books) only to discover that people preferred silver (television). Lucy Snowe, the heroine of Villette, is lonely; life whirls around her and occasionally spins her into a light that requires people to see her. She is uncomfortable, knowing she will be found lacking the qualities people admire most. She learns to live by observing others and most importantly to be quiet, to be the wallflower on the verge of participation, but never taking that tenuous step forward to join the fray.

"Day-dreams are delusions of the demon."

Day dreams were truly dangerous delusions for Lucy Snowe. She could not afford dreams because she could not stand the disappointment in failure to achieve those dreams. Life had to be real for Lucy. The novel begins with Lucy in the care of the Bretton's, a distant relation. She is 14, and something, never explained in the novel, has happened to her family leaving her alone in the world under the care and kindness of strangers. The reality of her situation is that she has no dowry; she is not deemed attractive, and she has few opportunities to improve her position. As she comes of age she works as a helper to an elderly, rich woman who dies leaving her again without prospects. She makes the momentous decision to move to Villette, a fictional French city, without a job or any inkling of what will become of her. Through misadventure and a bit of luck she finds herself on the doorstep of Mme. Beck's boarding school for young girls. A position is found for her teaching English to young, aristocratic girls. She is surrounded by rich people, and like a lot of wealthy people they don't understand poverty. She is asked why she teaches.

"Rather for the roof of shelter I am thus enabled to keep over my head; and for the comfort of mind it gives me to think that while I can work for myself, I am spared the pain of being a burden to anybody."

Lucy Snowe could have presented herself as feeble, in need of care, and her relation would have certainly come forward to help her, but she chose to make her own way, and even though she elicits pity from her young, rich students, she is determined to be independent. I couldn't help but be impressed by her determination and pride in taking care of herself. Life dealt her few cards, but what few cards she had was enough to keep her from the clutches of poverty.

Lucy Snowe falls in love with the dynamic Dr. John Graham Bretton, but he is in love with one of her beautiful students Ginevra Fanshawe. Lucy convinces him not only of the immaturity of his love, but the fallacies of Miss Fanshawe. He turns his attentions for a time to Lucy and starts to send her letters. Lucy knows this is too good to be true. "Reason still whispered me, laying on my shoulder a withered hand, and frostily touching my ear with the chill blue lips of eld."

Despite her best efforts Lucy can't help but hope for the fairy tale, and when Graham turns his attentions to another, she does feel the pain. The five precious letters that Graham wrote to her she symbolically buries in the bole of a tree so that she put them away from her and also keep them from the prying eyes of Mme Beck who is constantly going through the possessions of the teachers.

Bronte Letter

Charlotte Bronte became infatuated with a Belgian Professor and wrote him a series of love letters. He became incensed with this unsolicited attention and tore them to pieces. The professor's wife saved them from the trash and sewed them together for posterity. Here is an article giving a few more details. http://www.independent.ie/todays-paper/charlotte-brontes-lost-love-letters-revealed-3001985.html The wife, I can only assume, was a Bronte fan and may have been flattered that Charlotte found her husband attractive.

I was rather shocked to find that Villette has not been hashed and rehashed by Hollywood. With all the films based on Jane Austen's work and on the works of the other Bronte sisters why has Villette been ignored? There was a five part mini-series back in the 1970s starring Judy Parfitt as Lucy Snowe. I couldn't find any usable stills from that series to include in my review. Netflix does not have the series available. I can only hope it has not been neglected and been allowed to disintegrate

Judy Parfitt

There was also a BBC radio production done in 1999 with Catherine McCormack supplying the voice of Lucy Snowe.

Catherine McCormack

Villette was published in 1853 and was the last novel published during her lifetime. Charlotte had finally married in 1854 and became pregnant almost immediately. She suffered from incessant nausea and frequent fainting spells. Charlotte died with her unborn child in 1855 just short of her 39th birthday.

Photo of Charlotte Bronte circa 1854

Charlotte Bronte explores the psychological implications of being an outsider. The anguish, the dashing of hope, the moments of despair, and yet the haunting specter of expectations keep Lucy attempting to achieve a life filled with love and happiness. She does, as the novel concludes, get an opportunity to fulfill her dreams and gain not only independence but a chance at love. “His mind was indeed my library, and whenever it was opened to me, I entered bliss.” I have read that other reviewers felt the novel ended abruptly, and I too wanted more than just the sliver of explanation that was given at the end of the novel, but I think that has more to do with the way we feel about Lucy Snowe than it does about disappointment in Charlotte Bronte's plotting. Highly recommended.