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Tony Grist

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Villette [Jan. 17th, 2012|11:40 am]
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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Comments:
[User Picture]From: ideealisme
2012-01-17 11:44 am (UTC)
The Belgium bit is autobiographical. Charlotte Bronte went to a school over there and fell in love with her teacher, who was married and did not return her feelings. He was a very seductive chap though - used to blow cigar smoke into his pupils' desks so they could smell him.

Oddly enough when he destroyed all her letters by ripping them up and putting them into the waste paper basket years later, it was his mrs who took them out and stuck them back together again. Probably aware they might have some value on the market.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2012-01-17 11:57 am (UTC)
I'm sorry she didn't get her man.

Paul Emmanuel is such an attractive chap- in his nutty, Jesuitical way. I'm a little in love with him myself.
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[User Picture]From: ideealisme
2012-01-17 12:02 pm (UTC)
She did in time, get another one, an Irish curate in her father's parish called Arthur Bell Nicholls, who had been mad about for years and years and whom she kept turning down.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2012-01-17 12:33 pm (UTC)
I should find out more about her. We live quite close to Haworth. I'm beginning to feel an outing is called for.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2012-01-17 04:25 pm (UTC)
Wherever I go my camera goes with me :)
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[User Picture]From: ibid
2012-01-18 07:12 pm (UTC)
I suspect strongly writing it was an act of catharsis and enabled her to move on.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2012-01-19 10:29 am (UTC)
That seems very likely.
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[User Picture]From: steepholm
2012-01-17 01:06 pm (UTC)
That's a lovely review - thank you.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2012-01-17 01:13 pm (UTC)
I'm very pleased you like it
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[User Picture]From: pondhopper
2012-01-17 01:26 pm (UTC)
Most excellent observations!I0m going to read it very very soon. So, thank you!
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2012-01-17 01:49 pm (UTC)
I'm glad. I think it's a terrific book.
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[User Picture]From: ooxc
2012-01-17 01:32 pm (UTC)
I loved this when I was about 13 - although it was some years before I discovered the autobiographical aspect - I was particularly taken with the - er - "non"-ending you'll see what I mean!
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2012-01-17 01:50 pm (UTC)
Yes, I haven't quite finished yet. A non-ending? How intriguing.
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[User Picture]From: ooxc
2012-01-17 01:34 pm (UTC)
PS I'm delighted that you liked Mary Rose - another favourite of my youth
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2012-01-17 01:56 pm (UTC)
Mary Rose is beautiful.

I understand Hitchcock wanted to film it. I wish he had.
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[User Picture]From: ooxc
2012-01-17 02:29 pm (UTC)
It was performed at the Shaw in about 1972 - but it was done "in the round", which ruined the mystery of it - you could even see the stage makeup
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2012-01-17 04:28 pm (UTC)
I've been wondering what sort of stage magic you'd use to pull off the disappearance on the island.

In the round I'd have though that particular coup de theatre- and a number of others- would have been impossible to manage.
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[User Picture]From: ooxc
2012-01-17 04:34 pm (UTC)
It was more catwalk than in the round - Mia Farrow kept running along a catwalk into the audience - and the "coups" were adminstered with a back platform and lighting. I was so disappointed - except that casting her was an excellent idea, if it hadn't been for the cosmetics!
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2012-01-17 04:59 pm (UTC)
The young Mia Farrow had just the right elfin quality for the part.

Barrie wrote for the proscenium arch just as Shakespeare wrote for the projecting stage of the Globe.
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[User Picture]From: jenny_evergreen
2012-01-17 01:55 pm (UTC)
I'll be interested to see what you think of Jane Eyre. I read it in my early twenties and loved it, but I suspect the reasons I loved it are the same reasons you won't!
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2012-01-17 01:58 pm (UTC)
I love Villette, so I think I will probably love Jane Eyre too. Bronte is a fascinating writer.

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[User Picture]From: ibid
2012-01-18 07:13 pm (UTC)
Angela Carter said of all the great novels it was the closest to being trash, which is probably true but despite that it is impossible not to love it (though I love Villette more)
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2012-01-19 10:35 am (UTC)
Bronte isn't afraid of being trashy. That's one of her strengths as a writer. She pushes things to the limit- and sometimes beyond.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2012-01-17 04:38 pm (UTC)
It's a novel that continually surprises. For the first hundred pages or so I hadn't a clue where Bronte thought she was going.
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[User Picture]From: lblanchard
2012-01-17 04:28 pm (UTC)
I've read them all, although I'm sad to say that I had read Jane Eyre so often before doing so that the other three have blurred in my mind to "stories of love and longing that aren't Jane Eyre."
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2012-01-17 05:03 pm (UTC)
Yes, I can see how that might happen.

Little Dorrit was the first Dickens I read as an adult- and it remains my favourite for reasons that have little to do with its intrinsic quality.
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[User Picture]From: sovay
2012-01-17 11:38 pm (UTC)
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.

That's beautiful.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2012-01-18 10:00 am (UTC)
Thank you.
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