Likely Stories: Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Sep 20, 2018

The masterpiece of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette as we continue the tour of the Brontë sisters


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Charlotte Brontë is best known for her masterpiece, Jane Eyre.  While I do admire all of her work, Villette is far and away my favorite of her novels.  This novel is loosely based on Charlotte and her sister, who traveled to Belgium to take a job as teacher in a private school.  While there, Charlotte develops a crush on the headmaster of the school, M. Paul.  As a result, the two sisters are sent home. 

Lucy Snow is the main character, and she takes the place of Charlotte.  Even after being dismissed from her position, Lucy continues to hope that the headmaster will recall her from England.  She receives a letter.  Charlotte writes, “I might have been angry, but not a second for the sensation.  Yes: I held in my hands not a slight note, but an envelope, which must, at least, contain a sheet: it felt not flimsy, but firm, substantial, satisfying.  And here was the direction, ‘Miss Lucy Snow,’ in a clean, clear, equal, decided hand; and here was the seal, round, full, deftly dropped by untremulous fingers, stamped with the well-cut impress of initials, ‘J.G.B.’  I experienced a happy feeling—a glad emotion which went warm to my heart, and ran lively through all my veins.  For once a hope was realized.  I held in my hand a morsel of real solid joy: not a dream, not an image of the brain, not one of those shadowy chances imagination pictures, and on which humanity starves but cannot live; not a mess of that manna I drearily eulogized awhile ago—which, indeed, at first melts on the lips with an unspeakable  and preternatural sweetness, but which, in the end, our souls full surely loathe; longing deliriously  for natural and earth-grown food, wildly praying Heaven’s Spirits to reclaim their own spirit dew and essence—an aliment divine, but for mortals deadly” (318).

Later, Lucy Snow has a vision.  Charlotte writes, “when the moon, so dim hitherto seemed to shine out somewhat brighter: a ray gleamed even white before me, and a shadow became distinct and marked.  I looked more narrowly, to make out the cause of this well-defined contrast appearing a little suddenly in the obscure alley: whiter and blacker it grew on my eye: it took shape with instantaneous transformation.  I stood about thee yards from a tall, sable-robed, snowy-veiled woman. // Five minutes passed.  I neither fled nor shrieked.  She was there still.  I spoke. // ‘Who are you? And why do you come to me?’ // She stood mute.  She had no face—no features: all below her brow was masked with a white cloth; but she had eyes, and they viewed me. // I felt, if not brave, yet a little desperate; and desperation will often suffice to fill the post and do the work of courage.  I will advance one step.  I stretched out my hand, for I meant to touch her.  She seemed to recede.  I drew nearer: her recession, still silent, became swift.  A mass of shrubs, full-leaved evergreens, laurel and dense yew, intervened between me and what I followed.  Having passed that obstacle, I looked and saw nothing.  I waited.  I said,-- ‘If you have any errand to me, come back and deliver it.’  Nothing spoke or reappeared. // This time there was no Dr. John to whom to have discourse: there was no one to whom I dared whisper the words, ‘I have again seen the nun’” (382).

Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece, Villette is an absorbing excursion through the middle of the 19th century.  Her stories of love and heartbreak are every bit as real today as they were a century and a half ago.  5 stars!

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!