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."