Before re-reading: First published in 1853; I encountered it as a teenager back in 2004, and have re-read it at least once since then. It's the narrator, Lucy Snowe who makes this, Charlotte Bronte's most accomplished and most enjoyable novel, so brilliant, with her secretiveness and unreliability. The exploration of Lucy's selfhood makes this feel strikingly modern, and, on a less literary note, Paul Emanuel beats Mr Rochester any day (could Rochester cow a class of misbehaving French teenage girls? I think not). I also listed this as one of my top three classic novels in my very first blog post.
After re-reading: My opinion remains the same - although I'm even more impressed by the development of Lucy's psychology, especially her struggle with what appears to be clinical depression. What is most interesting about Lucy Snowe, of course, is that she cannot simply be pigeonholed as the shy, stoic person that she tries to pretend that she is - there is an element of slipperiness, of excessive diffidence, of, indeed, coldness about her that makes her name especially appropriate. (Charlotte Bronte originally wanted to call her Lucy Frost, but the change is apt; Lucy isn't sharp or sarcastic, but she manages to successfully chill most of her acquaintances all the same). And, given that she narrates the novel, she's remarkably hard to get a handle on. I remain as impressed as I was when I first read this book with its first few chapters, which feature Lucy as a narrator who hardly features at all; she is so much of an observer to the mild drama of their six-year-old house guest, Polly's, hero worship of her godmother's teenage son, Graham Bretton, that we don't even learn her name for some time. When we do get a glimpse of Lucy's inner world, we aren't surprised that she is quiet and self-controlled, but we are, continually, shocked at the iron self-discipline she exercises upon herself in the name of 'Reason', and how dark and cold her mental prospects are, if not her physical ones. Lucy is imprisoned within her own self, but it's not as clear as it is with Jane Eyre that she's simply a 'blazing heart', as she puts it to Paul Emanuel, trying to get out. Instead, Lucy has too successfully (and ironically, given her violent aversion to Roman Catholicism) mortified the flesh; the various layers of her selfhood can no longer be so easily separated.
Paul Emanuel's uncertain fate at the end of the novel was controversial when it was first published, and remains controversial today. Charlotte Bronte's response to the continued questioning (it it is impossible to read the ending of Villette and not understand what has happened, even if you don't want it to) is incredibly revealing about Lucy Snowe. Asked whether Paul dies in the shipwreck, or lives to marry Lucy, she wrote:
'The merciful... will of course choose the former and milder doom - drown him to put him out of pain. The cruel-hearted will, on the contrary, pitilessly impale him on the second horn of the dilemma, marrying him without ruth or compunction to that - person - that - that - individual - "Lucy Snowe"'.
Given the obvious autobiographical element to Villette, there is something very dark in this, but putting Charlotte aside for the moment, I'd like to talk about Lucy. The tortured but shy woman that we feel we get to know in the pages of Villette does not initially seem to match this picture, and on a shallow reading, there seems to be something in the idea that Lucy is simply too cold and unsuitable for love, that she wouldn't be a fitting Victorian wife, a helpmeet, a 'angel in the house'. However, the strength of the words 'that - person - that - that - individual' seem to speak to something much more profound than Lucy's failure to fit the mould of nineteenth-century femininity, as personified by the grown-up Polly with her sweetness, tenderness and trust. There does seem to be something about at least one of the Lucy Snowes we encounter that is somewhat frightening, somehow undefinable, and while Lucy shares her inner struggles with us, there's a lot she isn't saying about her psyche; obviously, when she doesn't tell us she has re-encountered Graham Bretton for several chapters, and less obviously, when we cannot understand why she has built such a fortress for herself in her head.
In a rather odd mismatch, I re-read this novel alongside Sheila Heti's How Should A Person Be?, another semi-autobiographical work, which takes a very postmodern approach to the questions of identity and meaning, and has been praised for deconstructing the 'nineteenth-century' idea of the singular, fixed self, taking a fragmented approach to the idea of selfhood. However - quite apart from the fact that Heti is hardly the first writer to play with ideas of multiple identity - I found myself questioning this binary between nineteenth-century solidity and twenty-first century dissolution as I read Villette. 'Sheila' in How Should A Person Be? is utterly self-centred and rather unlikeable, but I would guess that Lucy, in her quest to efface herself, is far more alien to a modern mindset - and hence reading Villette gives the reader much more radical ideas than Sheila's tinkering over yet another draft of her failed play. More than that, however, it is evident in Villette that Lucy is a construct; we get different versions of her at different times, find out information when she chooses to tell us, and occasionally are deliberately misled. Unlike Jane Eyre, where a repressed and ignored woman finally asserts her identity, Lucy continues to hide who she really is - in ostensible service to how she 'should' be - even as she faces the prospect of a happy ending (and for Lucy, I think 'face' is the right verb). Perhaps that's why this novel could not have been called Lucy Snowe.