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.


Wallace said...

THAT is the picture?!?!? Oh my goodness, how times have changed! I was expecting something MUCH more risque. I know they were conservative in the Victorian era, but come on.

These were exciting chapters, weren't they?! And I (accidentally) read ahead, and more excitement is to come.

Bronte has such a way with words -- I am in awe of her. Glad you are enjoying that as well!

mindy said...

Thanks for posting the picture-- it is nothing like I pictured! Your discussion of the English/Euro-Catholic contrast was particularly interesting. Now that M. Paul is becoming increasingly important to the narrative, I think Bronte is going to have more and more opportunities to address such issues.

Josh's mom said...

Glad to have you join - I have enjoyed reading your two posts. I agree with your comments on the brilliance of the language - this is what I am enjoying most about the book.