Sunday, October 30, 2011

Villette or The Sucky Life of a Prude

Lucy Snow, the supposed heroine of Villette, is Charlotte Bartlett of A Room With a View, but years earlier when she was younger.  

Before I start discussing how much I came to really hate Lucy Snow, I need to first admit that I dislike the works of the Brontë sisters with a passion.  I tried reading Wuthering Heights something like 12 times over the past 20 years and never got past Chapter 1.   I never read Jane Eyre because I assumed that Charlotte Brontë was just as much of a bore as her sister.  But then someone told me that Villette was an awesome book, way better than Jane Eyre, and that I should give it a chance.  The internets confirmed this, telling me that Villette was the epitome of a great, but underappreciated, novel.  So I went out and actually bought the book before I realized that it was available as a free eBook.

Reading the eBook would have saved me money, but buying the book meant that I actually read the whole damn thing.  I had to skip many words to get through the book -- and I spent the better part of my several months with the book rolling my eyes -- but I finished the damned thing.  I finished all 500+ pages of it.

The gist of the story is that Lucy's orphaned and pretty poor.  She gets a job as a governess in a school in Villette (Belgium) and ends up becoming a teacher.  She ends up living a miserable life.  She divides her time between passing judgment on others, feeling superior to everyone else, feeling sorry for herself and congratulating herself for being so good that she's miserable.  Oh yeah, and she "falls in love" with an abusive asshole who is, supposedly, our romantic hero.

You can see in Lucy the beginnings of A Room with a View's Charlotte Bartlett.  Charlotte is a single, older woman (a spinster, in the parlance of the time) who spends a good deal of A Room with a View judging others, feeling sorry for herself and congratulating herself for being so good that she's miserable.  Charlotte also spends a lot of A Room with a View trying to convince Lucy, her niece, that she should also be proper and miserable and marry the socially acceptable, but totally dickish and cold, Cecil instead of the more interesting George.

Now back to Lucy Snow and her miserable existence. 

Lucy could totally change her fortunes if she just chillaxed and stopped spending her time over-analysing everything and second-guessing every single minute action of hers.  You want to wear a pink dress to the ball?  Wear the damned pink dress and STFU!  Don't spend your time wondering what everyone thinks about your dumbass pink dress.  So what if the students snicker at you and M Paul makes fun of you.

Speaking of M Paul,  he gets alternately called M Emmanuel.  Just like Dr John also goes by Graham and by some other name I now forgot.  I'm not sure why Charlotte Brontë insisted on using more than one name for these two characters.  Maybe she thought her book was too readable and she needed to make it a little extra confusing.  Or maybe they get referred by different names depending on context and I didn't notice cuz I didn't give a flying fuck about these characters.


Lucy gets rescued by Dr John after she collapses on the road on her way out of a Catholic Church (and of course Lucy's all "Oh Noes!  Did he see that I went to a heathen Catholic church?!").  She could have totally made her life so much less miserable had she just let the guy pursue her.  But no.  That wouldn't have been proper for reasons that were very wordy but otherwise amounted to "because I'm meant to be miserable."

Instead, Lucy "falls for" Paul Emmanuel, the incredibly abusive asshole who spends 90% of the book insulting her and putting her down -- to her face!

OK, look, I like stories where two head-butting individuals find love as much as the next sappy girl, but this storyline was not right.   I mean, Pride&Prejudice would be a boring book if Elizabeth and Mr Darcy didn't spend most of the book hating each other, but at no time did Mr Darcy ever call Elizabeth names to her face! 

Paul Emmanuel, though, is an arrogant prick who calls Lucy names, "punishes" her for imaginary indiscretions and puts her down at every chance he gets.  Then, when he sees she's getting upset, he apologizes and does something nice.  And Lucy, like a good abused wife, takes it.  And she likes it.  And she falls for it.  And they're totally going to get married so that he can continue abusing his victim, except (spoiler!) he dies in a shipwreck. 

Of course the death by shipwreck is described by Lucy as yet another misfortune to befall her and she totally feels sorry for herself at the end of the book, despite the fact that this guy's untimely -- and hopefully slow and painful -- demise at sea was the best thing that ever happened to her.

In conclusion, I hated this novel more than I've hated any novel I've ever read.  I hated the writing.  I hated the characters.  I hated the story.  I hated it all.  I want to take this book and throw it into a murky, sewage-filled canal and hope that time forgets it. 


  1. ...Yeah, you should probably leave the rest of Charlotte Brontë's works. They're all terribly wordy, and she loves to use French.

    Emily's Wuthering Heights the book is better than any of the adaptations I've seen, but the characters are all very unsympathetic, which makes it quite difficult to read. Fortunately, my copy offered translations for difficult words (read: every time Joseph speaks in old Yorkshire).

    I think I prefer Anne's writing amongst the three. Tenant of Wildfell Hall is depressing, but well-written. She's more succinct than Charlotte. Then again, Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre, which I love, but crikey it's dull in places.

    I liked (not loved) Villette and thought Paul Emanuel was hilarious but I didn't like the way Lucy Snow toyed with the reader (like obscuring the fact that she'd known all along that the doctor and her childhood friend Graham were one and the same), and the ending was a let-down.

    The relationship between Lucy and Paul really should be viewed in the light of CB's crush on Constantin Heger, because then it makes more sense.

  2. Yeah, I've read that Villette should be interpreted more as a thinly-veiled memoir, but she could have made the interaction with Paul Emmanuel a bit more, I dunno, playful?

    I haven't managed to sit through any adaptation of Wuthering Heights. I can't even make an intelligent or informed comment on any of them. My attitude towards them is totally coloured by my dislike for the book.

    I'll check out Tenant of Wildfell Hall only if it's available as a free eBook. ;)

  3. Forgot to mention in my previous comment that I loved your snarky review. Made me giggle! :D

    Agree. Took me ages to realise Paul Emanuel was meant to be the love interest and not just some a**hole of a colleague!

    WH is weird and messed up. They've made a graphic novel of it now, maybe that's easier to digest?

    ToWH is about a woman who married the stereotypical rake ... and then running away from him because he's a drunken, gambling, wife-beating bully. Agnes Grey, Anne's first novel, is shorter and more cheerful (a governess's memoirs) and has great characterisation - and a happy ending!

    You'll find a load of classics free (and legal) to download at, so worth having a look, not just for Brontës, but classics in general. :)