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.


Wallace said...

I agree with how well Bronte did at making us feel nervous for Lucy arriving in a strange land where she didn't know the language. I was thinking about that as I read. In my opinion it comes from the depth of Bronte actually having lived that experience, which so many women were not able to have (and then write a published work about it) back then.

I still cannot place Madame. I try to get a good picture of all characters in my mind as I am reading, and she is fuzzy for me. Not so much her appearance as her personality. I have no idea what to expect from her. It actually makes it a bit more exciting!

Alexandra said...

Loved the photo os the Pensionnat Heger! Didn't you feel that Lucy was being too negative about her new home? That was what struck me more, but maybe I'm over-sensitive because I now live in Brussels.

Alexandra said...

Loved the photo os the Pensionnat Heger! Didn't you feel that Lucy was being too negative about her new home? That was what struck me more, but maybe I'm over-sensitive because I now live in Brussels.

Serena said...

there is a lot of differences pinpointed in this section of the book. But what do these differences tell us about our narrator? I've got some ideas, but I've also got a bunch of questions.

I've posted about these chapters here:

Bellezza said...

I agree with you about her intelligence being a great help to her, but so is her determination and courage. Those are the traits which I admire most in our Lucy Snowe, although sometimes I wish her passivity wasn't quite so evident.

Charlie said...

Oh I agree entirely about Lucy's determination and courage. I haven't really talked about it in my own posts, but have left comments on other blogs when it has been discussed. Even in today's connected world, undertaking a journey such as Lucy's would be a plucky decision; but in her day, with uncertain transport (and Charlotte certainly makes us aware of the scary difficulties when she is boarding the boat) it was an extremely brave thing to do.