Thursday, March 24, 2011

Villette read-a-long Week 7 : Chapters 31-35

I've been writing so much in these blog posts; some of it musings and thoughtlings and various witterings; some of it factoids learnt from my fascination with all things Bronte. I've read other posts from other excellent bloggers involved in this wonderful read-a-long by dearest Wallace and I like to think we're all gaining that little bit more love for this wonderful book. Even if you've found you don't really like the book very much.

I would love to just say something like "the big question I have is this...", but I just cannot. Villette is simply too complex a novel, too deep in its emotions, too nuanced in its examination of relationships (across the whole spectrum of that word's meaning) to be boiled down into anything so mundane or simplistic. And on top of that I have to keep pinching myself into reminding myself that Villette was written over 150 years ago. And with THAT in mind, I just keep getting struck with how similar Charlotte's world is to our own, not how different it is. From Villette (and I'm sure many of you will agree here), schoolgirls are very much the same creatures nowadays, as is much of human nature; whether it be Madame Beck's nosiness or Graham's pathetic blindness to Ginevra Fanshawe's spiteful side. Of course there is some Victorian drawing room etiquette to discard - although Charlotte's stories always have class structure at their heart, they're never as heavily bogged down in it or as reliant on it for their plot mechanics as say Jane Austen, whom I find very hard-going. But I digress...

In this week's reading, the chapters have very much focused on M. Paul and Lucy's budding - let's call it - friendship. She's had an idyllic little interlude in the country where Paul's feelings are becoming more open; and she's had a gothic tinged journey into the heart of Paul's private world, allowing us to better understand this strange little man - but also allowing us to better understand Lucy's growing feelings for him. Other characters have been briefly faded down in the mix; Lucy is now in M. Paul's world and not her own. When you get those flutterings of love everything else gets tuned out - at least in my experience - and perhaps Charlotte is helping us to feel this; creating a vacuum where only M. Paul's and Lucy's heartbeats are to be heard.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Villette read-a-long week 6 : Chapters 26-30

(The above picture is Constantin Heger, the real M. Paul, with whom Charlotte fell in (unrequited) love during her spell in Brussels. Not how I imagined M. Paul to look from reading the book...)

Lucy's relationship with Dr. John, their conversation so often revolving around other people, particularly the singular Ginevra Fanshawe, was surely a red herring for us readers in determining where Lucy Snowe's heart will find its berth. As other bloggers have so eloquently pointed out in their posts, Graham Bretton is the perfect suitor on paper only, carrying an inbuilt outward respectability that comes from being that icon of the Victorian age: a doctor, and yet being so silly and frivolous in mind as to be taken in by the shallow charms and selfish nature of Miss Fanshawe. Don't get me wrong - Graham is a wonderful friend and courteous gentleman to Lucy - but their relationship stays where it very much belongs; in a love of the surrogate sibling kind. I think we maybe knew this in our hearts all along, but we want Lucy to find the happiness that seems to so elude her that we read things into the little nuances of their relationship. I'm sure this is just as Charlotte Bronte intended.

And so we slowly open our eyes to M. Paul Emanuel emergence as Lucy's true romantic foil. For this reader, it is endearing to read of M. Paul's blundering, gruff, jealous attempts at gaining Lucy's attention, at wooing her. At least I think that's what he is attempting. It's almost as if we haven't really noticed it thus far; we think he's just a rude little man - a peripheral character simply there to add colour to Lucy's life in the school - whose outburst at the Hotel Crecy are something to be laughed at when overheard by the ever-mischievous Graham. But there seems to be a subtle turning point here. As Graham scurries away to flirt with Polly (his eyes having been forcibly opened by our Lucy), she reflects on how she felt about what Graham had said about M. Paul, and how her reaction might look in his eyes - how "the evening had not been one flow of exultant enjoyment for the volatile, pleasure-loving Mademoiselle Lucie".
Later in this chapter he have the 'mon-ami' conversation between M. Paul and Lucy. As Lucy knows very well, the literal English wording - 'my friend' - doesn't quite tell the whole story as it doesn't convey the sense of familial intimacy of the French phrase. And we just KNOW that M. Paul knows this very well. But she agrees to at least say the words in their English translation, and the beautiful observation of M. Paul's resulting smile takes up the best part of half a page and is as good a place as any to witness Charlotte Bronte's descriptive genius:

"You should have seen him smile, reader; and you should have marked the difference between his countenance now, and that he wore half an hour ago. I cannot affirm that I had ever witnessed the smile of pleasure, or content, or kindness round M. Paul's lips, or in his eyes before. The ironic, the sarcastic, the disdainful, the passionately exultant, I had hundreds of times seen him express by what he called a smile, but any illuminated sign of milder or warmer feelings struck me as wholly new in his visage. It changed it as from a mask to a face: the deep lines left his features; the very complexion seemed clearer and fresher; that swart, sallow, southern darkness which spoke his Spanish blood, became displaced by a lighter hue. I know not that I have ever seen in any other human face an equal metamorphosis from a similar cause."

What an amazing awakening of feeling which, through Charlotte's fevered pen, we get to feel first hand - the first sentence of the passage almost IMPLORING us to be there with Lucy. The power of simple muscular movements to evoke and disturb emotions lying too dormant for too long. We, along with Lucy, have just seen a fresh side of M. Paul we never imagined to be there.

I'm sure that I've written far too much for a weekly little post, so I should really leave it there. Chapter 28 (The Watchguard) is the beginning of the third part of the original triple-decker format of the novel, and it is interesting that it's opening words are "M. Paul Emanuel", leading as it does into the wonderfully funny 'broken glasses' sequence that so wittily encapsulates where his and Lucy's hearts are going. I'm sure there are still twists to the tale, but we can be sure that the final part of Lucy Snowe's adventures in this funny little town are now going to be very much more intertwined with a funny little man who is (like Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester) her intellectual and emotional equal.
Wherever they go, we follow, as ever, mesmerised.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Villette read-a-long week 5 : Chapters 20-25

It has struck me, more than anything else about Villette, in reading the novel again thanks to Wallace's read-a-long, how much Lucy's involvement with events fluctuates throughout the book. She gets involved with the story, and I mean involved as in a moving the action along kind of way, in only very brief interludes; coming to the forefront of the story almost as a last resort. This isn't the way of Jane Eyre, which is a much faster paced narrative, and so we must assume that Villette is deliberately so; profoundly meditative on everything Charlotte Bronte holds and held dear during that deeply tragic part of her life. Is Lucy in Villette deliberately aloof from events, enabling her to become a kind of diffusing screen for Charlotte's exploration of her own current events in a fictional form?

Anne and Emily were both dead, as was the troubled brother Branwell who had held so much promise and hope for all of the sisters. Alone in the parsonage apart from her blind father who was in her charge; Charlotte was facing un uncertain, unhappy future exacerbated by her distaste for the trappings of her newfound celebrity after the mega-success of Jane Eyre.
We only have to lightly scratch the surface of Villette to discover Charlotte's thoughts on many if not all her demons; and I'm sure I've mentioned some of my thoughts on these in past posts. In this week's reading it is Lucy's set-in-amber descriptions of the perfect family moments that resonate with me very much; John and papa Home returning from their snowy excursion creates a memorable scene that to my mind betrays a yearning for the vibrancy of family that no longer lit up the Bronte parsonage. So much sadness; yet I detect no bitterness in her musing.
Then there is Dr. John. I think of Branwell Bronte and the hopes and dreams bestowed upon him by three adoring sisters, when I read of Graham Bretton. Branwell couldn't possibly live up to the expectations thrust upon him (and which almost certainly contributed to his downfall), but in Dr. John / Graham they thrive; his unassuming good nature and proud adoration of his mother are the embodiment of a brother that never was, and a mother that Charlotte never really knew. Maybe I'm completely wrong of course. Charlotte's writing is too brilliant to be that literal, and wouldn't be still being read 170 years later if her secrets could be unlocked that readily; but when I read Charlotte's work, it is her that I think of (and I am but surely a little bit in love) scratching away short-sightedly with her pen.
I'd be interested to hear what others think on this subject; with a little extra knowledge of the darkness surrounding Charlotte when Villette was being written; what do other read-a-longers read into some of Lucy's situations and relationships?

Friday, March 04, 2011

Villette read-a-long week 4 : Chapters 16-20

Thanks to Wallace at, I am taking part in a read-a-long of Charlotte Bronte's Villette. Each week a handful of chapters are read and discussed...

For me, and indeed many bloggers if Wallace's comments section is correct, these chapters are when Lucy really comes out of her shell. We are seeing her in open public spaces really for the first time, and perhaps thanks to our ability to empathise with her in these situations (previously it has been hard to reconcile her 'outsider' characteristics when aloofly describing a family scene for example) we can understand where her 'head is at'.

The gallery scene, with M Paul catching our Lucy gazing at the picture of Cleopatra is certainly the funniest in the book so far. The scene's tone is undoubtedly deliberate as Lucy leaves behind (with a handful of bittersweet memories) the summer spent in solitude. She is brought to the gallery in the genteel glow of Graham's good grace and superior breeding. Finally acknowledged by and acknowledging a social equal in this strange country; "a cicerone after my own heart" as she puts it. For me, it is Graham's gentility perhaps just his sheer Englishness (or Protestantism!) that Charlotte juxtaposes with the disdain she shows for the Labassecourian (and no doubt Catholic) culture. The smaller Flemish pictures, dismissed comically as "excellent for fashion books" even though she notes "fragments of truth here and there which satisfied the conscience" are but an introduction the main event of 'Cleopatra', a painting of a lady "put into a scale of magnitude suitable for the reception of a commodity of bulk, would infallibly turn from fourteen to sixteen stone." A string of stinging insults to both the picture and its audience (noting a bench placed for viewers to sit once they had "gazed themselves off their feet") follows. Incidentally, the picture I have used at the top of this week's post (Une Almee by De Biefre) has been acknowledged as the inspiration behind Cleopatra, although Charlotte is also riffing on other Flemish masters such as Rubens. Charlotte saw the painting at the Salon de Bruxelles in 1842 (according to my Oxford edition of the novel). When Lucy is then discovered by M. Paul alone (gasp!) looking at the picture, the delicious dialogue which follows is pure Bronte genius, perfectly revealing Lucy's mischievousness in the face of M. Paul's indignation. I love it. It reminds me so much of my favourite scenes of Jane Eyre with Jane and Rochester's linguistic tete-a-tete's which they both revelled in equally. For me, this sort of wordplay is where passionate love always takes root in Charlotte's work, and Graham is simply a decoy (yet again with Lucy being an unreliable narrator maybe) for us readers to lay our romantic hearts.

I'll leave it there. I was originally going to write an extra section to just talk about the brilliance of the following concert sequence. Charlotte's powers of description here are so subtle yet so powerful, little do we realise until after reading, just how powerfully we have experienced the sensations Lucy has felt at the aural, visual and emotional escapades of the evening's spectacle. These emotions are of course heightened and offset by the powerful slash of Ginevra's true colours being revealed to Graham and his massive disappointment in her.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Villette read-a-long week 3 : Chapters 12 to 16

I'm really late this week, thanks to a fine little break in the beautiful city of Chester. Lots of English history here from all eras, with plenty to inspire my Bronte reading. I've read all of the other read-a-long bloggers posts this week, and apart from a few people flagging thanks to the sheer density of Charlotte's writing, there is lots of wonderful insight from readers with such a diversity of experiences. If you're reading this Wallace; I'm really enjoying doing this, and thanks for hosting it.

This week's chapters can indeed be heavy-going. There's some tongue-drying sentence lengths going on here, and we're busy grappling with characters in a narrative which is hampered by (as plenty of fellow bloggers have pointed out) a narrator who isn't being quite straight with us all of the time. Lucy Snowe is busy carving out her own little niche in the school. We've already seen how she has established herself in the classroom. Her assertiveness there however doesn't appear to be so forthcoming when it comes to the social aspect of school life. Indeed, Lucy finds a dark secluded backwater of the garden, where the "very gloom of the walk" attracted her, and with a little TLC and a scrubbing brush, made the area her own. Lucy's detached inner thoughts tell us that she is perfectly content with her outsider's perspective on life inside and outside the school:

"Quite near were wide streets brightly lit, teeming at this moment with life: carriages were rolling through them to balls or to the opera. The same hour which tolled curfew for our convent, which extinguished each lamp, and dropped the curtain round each couch, rang for the gay city about us the summons to festal enjoyment. Of this contrast I thought not, however: gay instincts my nature had few; ball or opera I had never seen; and though often I had heard them described, and even wished to see them, it was not the wish of one who hopes to partake a pleasure if she could only reach it—who feels fitted to shine in some bright distant sphere, could she but thither win her way; it was no yearning to attain, no hunger to taste; only the calm desire to look on a new thing."

Lucy is forcibly no longer the observer thanks to the mysterious casket thrown into her secluded corner of the garden. Her human instinct for intrigue is piqued. Far from the passive Lucy we have known thus far, strange passions are being stirred as she, gasp, interacts with other people:

"The spectacle of a suspicious nature so far misled by its own inventions, tickled me much. Yet as the laugh died, a kind of wrath smote me, and then bitterness followed: it was the rock struck, and Meribah's waters gushing out. I never had felt so strange and contradictory an inward tumult as I felt for an hour that evening: soreness and laughter, and fire, and grief, shared my heart between them. I cried hot tears: not because Madame mistrusted me—I did not care twopence for her mistrust—but for other reasons. Complicated, disquieting thoughts broke up the whole repose of my nature. However, that turmoil subsided: next day I was again Lucy Snowe."

Again, other bloggers have brought attention to how Charlotte Bronte uses weather as a powerful metaphor in her writing. In this week's chapters the rolling frisson of early summer is excitedly anticipated by the whole school, and this comes out gloriously in Charlotte's writing, recreating this "strange, frolicsome, noisy little world" for us to enjoy.
The fete really is the finally to this section of the book; things will never be the same again. In real life, Charlotte was no longer a nobody hiding away in a secluded garden watching the whirl of life but taking no part in it herself. Surely Lucy's enforced performance in the play echoes Charlotte's own experience as she was forced to come out into London's literary society, and forced to shed the Currer Bell facade as her fame grew. Just like Lucy in the play, Charlotte stood in front of her new audience on her own terms: as a woman.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Villette read-a-long week 2 : Stranger in a Strange Land

With thanks to Wallace at, we are reading chapters from Charlotte Bronte's last novel 'Villette', and writing a short piece of comments and/or thoughts. I won't bother with a synopsis. If you want to know where we're all at, please pop over to unputdownables and check out Wallace's posts there. The picture above is an impression of what the Pensionatt looked like when Charlotte was there. Clicking on it should give you the full version of the picture.


This week's chapters seem to be all about differences: differences in social status, differences in language, and differences in culture. She explores those differences with their petty contrivances and hollow conventions. Instead, I am finding that Lucy is using her wits to find a new world based on compassion, intelligence and humanity.

Lucy's arrival on the foreign shores of Labassecour is already foreshadowed by her arrival in London, with their use of English "odd as a foreign tongue". Already she is a stranger in a strange land, "confused with darkness, palsied with cold, unfurnished with either experience of advice to tell me how to act, and yet - to act obliged." (And just get a load of the beautiful rhythm in that sentence.) The minor characters she meets in London are grasping, arrogant; behaviour determined entirely by social status. Just like her narrator, Lucy takes solace from the world in a book to brighten her countenance. Only after this does the chapter come alive, and we have a last hurrah to the beauty of London's great sights. These joyful descriptions are in stark contrast to Lucy's first daylight take on Labassecour; "bare, flat and treeless was the route along which our journey lay; and slimy canals crept, like half-torpid green snakes, beside the road". All this beneath a sky deescribed as "monotonously grey", with an atmosphere "stagnant and humid". Charlotte leaves us in no doubt that Lucy is in a very alien place. So much so that we feel her joy as the French-speaking Englishman comes to her resue when the coach arrives. She describes the incident easily, with the two travellers, although strangers, sharing a bond of social status. This is soon to be turned on its head as Lucy, in a passage of almost dream-like logic, is delivered by fate at the door of the Pensionnat.

Soon we meet Madame Beck. Lucy finds it very difficult to pigeonhole her into any particular social status. She is truly bourgeoise, and Lucy's attempts to describe her physical aspects deliberately appear to contradict each other, her figure "short and stout, yet still graceful in its own peculiar way". She is described as a charitable, forward-thinking woman, and yet what sort of English lady would ever creep silently about at night and secretly violate personal property and space?

Lucy settles into her new life remarkably quickly, clearly her intelligence (I think Wallace also touches on this) stands her in good stead; her learning of French is definitely rapido, and she takes charge of the classroom with a sly wit and considerable skill. Once again Lucy Snowe proves she has some powerful passions lying dormant within her.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Villette Read-a-long (Belated introduction)

I'm participating in the Villette Read-a-Long hosted by Wallace at Unputdownables.  We're reading Villette by Charlotte Bronte over the next 8 weeks. I've read the book before, but it's really interesting to read the book again with a little grain of purpose and the opportunity to post a few thoughts on what my brain throws up over each set of chapters.

The reading schedule is as follows:

Week One/ February 1st-7th :: ch. 1-5 (i.e. read chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5)
Week Two/ February 8th-14th :: ch. 6-11
Week Three/ February 15th-21st :: ch. 12-17
Week Four/ February 22nd-28th :: ch. 18-22
Week Five/ March 1st-March 7th :: ch. 23-27
Week Six/ March 8th-March 14th :: ch. 28-32
Week Seven/ March 15th-March 21st :: ch. 33-37
Week Eight/ March 22-March 28th :: ch. 38-42

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Villette read-a-long : Week 1 (Chapters 1-5)

It struck me, upon reading Villette again, just how much our narrator Lucy Snowe is so very much the silent ghost, (the "noncom observer" for any Marillion fans out there haha), the watcher who digests the reactions and interactions of the characters we meet. Read any biography of Charlotte and you will discover the tragic conditions under which Villette was written; the despairing grief of the still recent losses of Branwell, Emily and Anne surrounds the writing, and Charlotte's ability to express those feelings so hauntingly is part of what makes this book so beautiful.

Miss Marchmont in chapter IV is very much a stand-in for those beloved siblings. Lucy/Charlotte discusses here what has just passed and what is possibly to come as she faced life as the only remaining child of an increasingly dependent father:

"I reflected. Of course it ought to appear tolerable, I argued inwardly; but somehow, by some strange fatality, it would not. To live here, in this close room, the watcher of suffering—sometimes, perhaps, the butt of temper—through all that was to come of my youth".

Polly's childish liveliness in chaper 3, in addition to being viewed by Lucy in a most dispassionate fashion, as if deliberately stripping away the excitement being described, is also barbed with a grief-stricken bitterness:

"How will she get through this world, or battle with this life? How will she bear the shocks and repulses, the humiliations and desolations, which books, and my own reason, tell me are prepared for all flesh?"

These early chapters of Villette are the sombre launchpad of the experiences to come. There is pain here to be sure, but it is tinged with the most delicate tendrils of hope, springing from a cautiously optimist mind. So deep is Lucy/Charlotte in her grief, that this delicacy can only be expressed by Miss Marchmont:

"I love Memory to-night," she said: "I prize her as my best friend. She is just now giving me a deep delight: she is bringing back to my heart, in warm and beautiful life, realities—not mere empty ideas, but what were once realities, and that I long have thought decayed, dissolved, mixed in with grave-mould. I possess just now the hours, the thoughts, the hopes of my youth."