Our narrator introduces herself a few pages into the novel, although we know she is speaking to us right away. Lucy Snowe is an Englishwoman who takes a position at a boarding school in an attempt to escape her loneliness. I’m not convinced that she succeeded in that attempt, however, the most captivating part of Charlotte Brontë’s last work for me was not the actual story. Rather, Lucy Snowe’s speeches, inner feelings and thoughts, and general descriptions of what she sees or witnesses were enough to keep me moving through the pages with ease.
Like this reflection, regarding the end of her residency with Miss Marchmont: “My little morsel of human affection, which I prized as if it were a solid pearl, must melt in my fingers and slip thence like a dissolving hailstone.” Besides this sentence’s aesthetic beauty, there is so much here to digest! Imagine having just a morsel of human affection; one delicate as a pearl, though solid, that you know can and will disappear without giving you a chance to save it – much like ice, a hailstone, in your hand.
The book is written almost entirely in this descriptive manner, and also written throughout the book are allusions to the weather and nature. For many events, Lucy Snowe predicts the outcome based on how the environment acts, or more frequently, predicts doom and disaster during thunderstorms and windy, rainy nights. Belief in Fate holds a vast amount of space in Lucy’s mind; events and situations beyond her control shape her life, although she is quite independent and driven for someone who believes in such things (not wanting to be idle, she travels far and wide to gain employment).
I stumbled upon many words I had never encountered before, and I’ll admit, this was frustrating in the beginning. When I’m starting a novel, especially one of this magnitude, I don’t want to be consulting a dictionary with every page. Luckily, Charlotte Bronte wrote with such eloquence that my frustration did not overcome my will to read; after six or so chapters I welcomed new words much more willingly (you can find some of these words in next week’s Word of the Day post).
Unfortunately, the story did not captivate me as much as the actual words that were woven together to create said story. My experience with Villette can, however, serve as an example of a way to enjoy a novel, poem, short story, or lines of prose: through the actual language, as opposed to the action or inaction of characters, plot, and the technicalities of a published work (although, the use of the alphabet is perhaps the most technical part). Sometimes, many times, just reading beautifully written sentences, paragraphs, chapters, discourse can be enough to pull a reader in and to impress upon them feelings of enlightenment, enhancement, and at the very least, new vocabulary.
In her introduction, Laura Engel briefly mentions the autobiographical nature of Villette. The town (which holds the title of the novel) and school allude to those of Charlotte Brontë’s past, and particular love interests of Lucy Snowe are either similar or doubles to those of the author herself. Brontë took many trips to London, an admired and sought after location in the novel, and she experienced romantic and familial loss that reflects in the sensibility of Lucy Snowe’s character. The passion and romantic feelings of Charlotte Brontë troubled those who knew her for reasons of the time in which she lived (ixpresseive and in love with more than one suitor of authority?!), although Lucy Snowe hides much of her sensibility throughout the novel from the people in her life, though not with us, the reader. This coping mechanism, shall we say, fuels the dramatic and soul-reaching explanations of feelings and thoughts, which, for me, is the infinitely permanent glue that holds the novel together.
I suppose animals kept in cages and so scantily fed as to be always upon the verge of famine, await their food as I awaited a letter. Oh!–to speak truth, and drop that tone of a false calm which long to sustain, outwears nature’s endurance–I underwent in those seven weeks bitter fears and pains, strange inward trials, miserable defections of hope, intolerable encroachments of despair. This last came so near me sometimes that her breath went right through me. I used to feel it, like a baleful air or sigh, penetrate deep, and make motion pause at my heart, or proceed only under unspeakable oppression. (302)
Has a novel, a work of fiction, nonfiction, biography or other work affected you in this way? Do you have a preference, or are you equally impressed with a nearly flawless story as you are with carefully chosen prose?
Charlotte Bronte, Villette (New York, Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005)*
*Villette was originally published in 1853 in three volumes