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The Custom of the Country
Edith Wharton, Linda Wagner-Martin
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Leo Tolstoy, Louise Maude, Alymer Maude

Villette (Modern Library Classics)

Villette - A.S. Byatt, Charlotte Brontë, Ignes Sodre What is it about Brontë that pulls a reader in so quickly? Many years ago, when I was in seventh grade, perhaps, I remember starting Jane Eyre. Within a page, I was hooked. I couldn't put the book down and knew my mother would soon be announcing "Bed time - it's a school night!" I raced against time, and then begged to read just a little longer, a little longer. Similarly, when I was thinking about Villette which I hadn't read for a while, I opened the book just to scan it a bit and soon read over 50 pages before I came up for air.

Though equally compelling, Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe (Villete) couldn't be more different. Where Jane is all fire and rebellion, Lucy is restrained. Where Jane would rush in and fight against injustice, Lucy observes but does not act.

The world of Villette initially appears as dark and claustrophobic; where movement is circumscribed, measured, and almost ritualistic in its repetition, and movement of any distance--such as Lucy Snowe's voyage from London to France--is undertaken only in desperation. We wonder why Lucy fears movement and gravitates to such womblike settings.

Her description of her past homelife--following her last visit with the Brettons--is vague: "a heavy tempest lay on us; all hope that we should be saved was taken away. In fine, the ship was lost, the crew perished" (94). Our conjecture from Lucy's skeletal narrative is that her family has died and further contact with the Brettons, useless. Alone, and in need of employment, Lucy's conditions literally propel her into motion. Her employment appears custom-made. Unwilling to join life's mainstream, Lucy cares for an invalid, Miss Marchmont, in a cramped home described as ...
Two hot, close rooms thus became my world; and a crippled old woman, my mistress, my friend, my all. Her service was my duty....I forgot that there were fields, woods, rivers, seas, an everchanging sky outside the steam-dimmed lattice of this sick-chamber. I was almost content to forget it. All within me became narrowed to my lot. (97)

When Miss Marchmont dies, Lucy again trudges reluctantly into motion, and in taking the position of governess at Madame Beck's, trades the two boxes of the "Marchmont" world for a whole building of little "boxes" at the Pensionnat de Demoiselles. The school, ruled under the intense surveillance of Madame Beck, appears at first a dark, dismal place. Lucy's description, as she is led to her quarters, presents a cramped, dreary setting of "former nuns' cells" so overheated the "air" is "oppressive" (130). At this point, we want to shout at Lucy, "Get out!" as we, too feel as though we are suffocating.

Of course, the point-of-view in Villette also constricts our focus. Philip Momberger states "this narrowing of scope is well adapted to Charlotte Brontë's purpose, for it allows maximum concentration on her abiding interest: the experience of a single consciousness" (340). And Brontë's focus is inward; the first-person narration allows Lucy to slowly reveal herself--her psyche--as she moves from passivity to action and consciously shapes her world, a world where choice can make a difference.