Villette Study Guide

Kate Millet, author of Sexual Politics, wrote of Villette that it was "too subversive to be popular." Mrs. Gaskell, Charlotte Brontë's friend and her first biographer, said that the story of Villette was not as interesting as that of Jane Eyre. The book is not as often read as Jane Eyre, and many readers, even those who admire Brontë, have no idea she wrote more than one novel. Villette often languishes unread on library shelves, attended to only by graduate students or literary scholars.

Villette is in many ways a difficult novel. There is nothing immediately accessible about the heroine, Lucy Snowe, and the darkness of despair always seems to be lurking under the surface of the narrative, even during happy episodes. The extreme caginess of the narrator, and her unreliability, make the novel different in many ways not only from Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre but also many other novels from that time period. Brontë was exploring the literary ideas of point of view and first-person narration, but her work is not experimental. It is masterful in its execution, yet it is not what readers usually expect from a Victorian Gothic novel.

Villette is simultaneously deeply personal, deeply culturally conservative, and fatalistically feminist. Brontë not only shines an unrelentingly unflattering light on all cultures other than English (while simultaneously criticizing and lauding features of English culture, too) but also conveys her own sense of despair and her lack of belief in the "happy ending." Brontë felt that God predestined certain people for happiness and certain people for sorrow, and this is very evident in the story of Villette. Brontë also was acutely aware of the marginalization of women, the evils of class structure, and the utter hopelessness of most people's lives in her time and place. The particularly unfair position of middle-class women without family, beauty, or prospects is her feminist crisis. Brontë contrasts the limitations and hopelessness of an educated but poor and unlovely woman, like Lucy, with the nearly limitless opportunities given to a man like Dr. John, a member of her own "degree" and class. However, as is evident from her own life and letters, Brontë saw no way for feminist liberation to be achieved, so her despair and hopelessness run over into the depression and limitations of Lucy Snowe.

While this acknowledgement of reality runs under the surface of Jane Eyre--a much more widely read and celebrated novel--in Villette it is front and center. Lucy is an enigmatic, almost unknowable character, not always sympathetic to the reader. This requires the reader to consider more than Lucy's point of view, an exercise which reveals more facets of this piece of literature and requires more intellectual energy--and less immediate emotional response from the reader.

The novel is partially autobiographical because Charlotte herself taught in Brussels and became enamored of a schoolmaster there. The satire, the sexual subtext, and the underlying philosophical despair, however, are more dominant in this novel than any story from Brontë's life. The story is less break-neck than Jane Eyre and the heroine more thoughtful and mysterious. It is a masterpiece of cultural commentary and literary merit, full of both humor and pathos. It is a novel, Charlotte Brontë's last, with a voice for outsiders of every kind.