I’d gone too long without reading a big old English novel, and Villette fit the bill perfectly. I enjoyed this story of the narrator’s coming of age and her quest for a kind of independence and self-sufficiency working as a teacher in Belgium at a time when the necessity for a woman to earn her own living often met with scorn and/or pity (as initially shown even by her closest friend, Polly, when she realizes her position). We watch Lucy Snowe learn the ropes at Madame Beck’s school for girls and root her on as she shares her insights into human nature as derived from the behavior of her students, fellow faculty, and small group of friends. Lucy challenges herself academically and is an acute observer of character. At the same time, she is also passive/repressed in many frustrating ways, while we get a clear picture of the people around her striving for what they want in life, sometimes nobly but more often greedily. We see the self-interest of others displayed in an unflattering light but then have to take into account the narrator’s own failures to act on (and at times even to acknowledge) her own interests. The novel ends on a somewhat inconclusive note, though it’s clear that not all of Lucy’s dreams will come true.
The British versus Continental and Protestant versus Catholic conflicts throughout are interesting at first, though I eventually felt bogged down by them. Still, it might be helpful to trace some of them forward into the Brexit era. This felt like a relatively light read but with a lot of wisdom in its pages.
Availability: SMCM, COSMOS, USMAI
Review Submitted by: Eric Blomquist
Rating: Highly Recommended
Challenge: A book with a one word title.