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The flip side of having a massive best-seller under your belt is that it can eclipse all other great books you write. I suspect this is the case with Charlotte Bronte’s Villette – it was completely overshadowed by Jane Eyre. Having said that, I found Villette exhausting...how do I put it...in a ‘good’ way. The narration has an unrelenting heaviness, and the reader cannot afford to take even a single page lightly. Many witty conversations are in French – so be ready with a dictionary/google translate!
Lucy Snowe, a woman in her early twenties, finds herself alone, without means and family connections due to some unspecified tragedy. We watch her bow her head and plough through life – her youth rebelling against the pressure of monotonous existence. One fine day, the timid, demure, lonely girl decides she has to spread her wings – so she sails to France and lands up in the fictional town of Villette. She takes up the position of a teacher in a local pensionnat (boarding school). We follow Lucy through the seasons – her depression, her fears, her unrequited love, her spiritual resolve, her falling in love again, her triumphs, her tragedies.
This is one of those books where the word ‘plot’ cannot be associated with it - it would sound crude and distasteful to ask, “What is the plot of Villete?” Indeed it is not a ‘story’ as such – it is more of an account of the life of a young woman. If one were to look for a plot, then this is indeed a wrong choice of book – the ‘plot’ here is as liquid and meandering as our own lives. The focus of the book is its characters, chiefly Lucy. Nowhere have I come across such an incisive insight into the mind of a young woman – Bronte has dissected this character with surgical precision and laid bare every thought, every nuance, every feeling with the finest detail possible. Some passages have a mirror-like quality (at least for me) – and I could see a part of myself in Lucy, and I am sure this was the case with many readers.
From the outset, we find Lucy to be a quiet, withdrawn person – never the focus in a crowd. She is not one with a ‘sunny disposition’, the ‘life of the party’ or the one to swing into action. Lucy confesses – “...and with my usual base habit of cowardice, I shrunk into my sloth, like a snail to its shell, and alleged incapacity and impracticability as a pretext to escape action.” Sounds familiar, reader? How many times have we made such excuses to escape doing something new and interesting, professing lack of time? We give up even before we try, don’t we?
This trait, coupled with unfortunate circumstances where Lucy is deprived of peer company and good friendship - well surely depression is bound to take over. Possibly no scientific journal or psychology text book can give such an accurate account of depression, especially from the perspective of the sufferer. I reached out to Lucy as she said, “A sorrowful indifference to existence often pressed on me – a despairing resignation to reach betimes the end of all things earthly.” She goes on to describe her lonely life as “...a hopeless desert: tawny sands, with no green field, no palm-tree, no well in view.” Depression – the cancer of the mind - can be so deadly that anything and everything can increase the intensity of suffering. Lucy observes – “I do not know why that change in atmosphere made a cruel impression on me, why the raging storm and beating rain crushed me with a deadlier paralysis than I had experienced while the air remained serene...”
But as they say, love is an antidote. And when one suffers as Lucy does, even an innocent act of kindness and friendship can heal the heart, at the same time rendering it hopelessly vulnerable. By a quirk of fate Lucy ends up in the house of the handsome Dr. John Graham – a person she’s known from childhood. It is touching to go through her account, knowing very well her love, untainted by lust, will never be reciprocated. She is nothing more than a good friend to the Doctor – and he never discovers her feelings for him. I suppose we’ve all been in that place – of adoring and admiring in silence – all the while being acutely aware that the object of our affection is clueless about the effect he/she has on us. When Dr John finds his own life partner - a girl superior to Lucy in beauty and social position, Lucy heartrendingly tells us – “That goodly river on whose banks I had sojourned, of whose waves a few reviving drops had trickled to my lips, was bending to another course: it was leaving my little hut and field forlorn and sand-dry, pouring its wealth of waters far away. The change was right, just, natural; not a word could be said: but I loved my Rhine, my Nile; I had almost worshipped my Ganges, and I grieved that the grand tide should roll estranged, should vanish like a false mirage.”
All through Lucy’s one-sided romance, she has an unusual guardian angel – a fellow teacher – Monsieur Paul Emanuel. If Dr. John is suave, sophisticated, handsome and predictable, M. Paul is his opposite. He is a man of mercurial restlessness, quick temper and action. Societal approval is a critical factor in Dr. John’s decisions – even in selecting his life partner; but M. Paul is only ruled by his heart.
M. Paul is the eternal child of nature – he knows only one way to love – unfettered and unbridled. He jealously cherishes Lucy the way a child possessively loves a doll or a candy. His love is the love of the roaring sea beating against the coast, shaping it and shaped by it. He is the tint that makes Lucy’s grey outlook colourful; he is the spice that brings her out of blandness; he is the exasperating accelerator that shoves Lucy out of indolence, springs her into action and pushes her limits. Lucy and M.Paul’s friendship is delightful in its child-like squabbles – he unable to temper his taunts, and she unable to understand that the taunts are the only way M. Paul knows to love. We rejoice with Lucy when she finally understands herself – her feelings towards M. Paul, and her acceptance of his uncharacteristic, undying love and adoration. Of course there are obstacles – the universal obstacles of love – greed and religion. Will they surmount these, and come together in one glorious song? Find out for yourself!
Had this book been written in this day and age of political correctness, it would have undergone severe editing to tone down Bronte’s views on religion...and the French ‘attitdue’! As far as I am concerned, this book is a prism, and depending on your state of mind, it reveals fresh perspectives of the human character and psychology. It is definitely a book I shall visit again and again.
© Sumana Khan - 2012