Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist


I used to think Villette (by analogy with Jane Eyre) was a person's name. No-one disabused me because no-one seems to know the book. It puzzles me how a major novel by a much-loved author can remain so obscure. It's not as if it were boring.

Posterity does this. It fixates on one or two books by an author and neglects the rest. It doesn't always pick the right books. I've been making a habit recently of reading the lesser known works of well known authors. H.G. Wells' masterpiece is Tono-Bungay. Mary Rose is a better play than Peter Pan. No Name is at least as good as The Woman in White. I believe many of the critics think Villette is better than Jane Eyre. I wouldn't know because I haven't read Jane Eyre. 

What a confession- An Eng-Lit graduate who hasn't read Jane Eyre! Well I will. I've been put off all these years by feeling I already knew the story. Elizabeth Taylor dies, Orson Welles gallops about on a handsome black stallion, There is a madwoman in the attic, the house burns down. 

Villette eschews that kind of melodrama. Bronte is moving on. We will, she proposes, follow the lives of a bunch of ordinary, seemingly well-adjusted people in a fictitious town that is probably Brussels. (How many great British novels are set in Belgium?) On the surface it could almost be Jane Austen. The characterization is acute-  not a single dummy in the cast- there is social satire, the dialogue is lively and the plot turns on a choice of beaux- an airy gentleman and a nutter. Nothing much happens. Lucy (our narrator) teaches school and has professional relationships, she goes to the theatre, visits are paid, flirtation happens, courtship happens, there is a ghost... Hang on a minute! A ghost? Yes, because actually this isn't like Austen at all. Under the surface passion roils and boils. Prim little Lucy in her grey dress and sensible shoes is a romantic poet. "Her" writing has a saturated texture. Why use one adjective when three will do? Go on- add a fourth!  Similes fork and put out twigs. There is Biblical imagery. 

Nature glares and glooms, angels flit in and out, perspectives open onto eternity.  And all the while the little life goes on. A schoolmaster takes his charges on a day trip into the country, rolls are spread with butter.
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