This year, on Charlotte Brontë’s 198th birthday, it’s time for me to finally admit a secret that’s been haunting me for some time. I think Jane Eyre, Brontë’s masterpiece, is kinda overrated. I know what I’m saying sounds radical. It's one of the great Victorian classics -- and trust me, I would never advocate for totally dismissing this beloved novel. When I first read Jane Eyre as a teenager, I fell passionately in book love with it, and I was inspired to make the rounds of the Brontës, inhaling Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre, over and over again.
Jane Eyre spoke to my very soul, summing up all the adolescent angst that had plagued my uneasy transition into young adulthood. The Brontës and Jane Austen initiated me into the world of classic literature, but Jane Eyre was the book that felt most viscerally true and resonant. So it was with surprise that I realized, upon rereading it some years later for a college course, that I no longer found the novel virtuosic in its verisimilitude. It seemed maudlin, overwrought, almost absurd at points, and the triumphant finale of Jane’s marriage to the deeply flawed Mr. Rochester troubled me. Reading A Room of One’s Own, I agreed with Virginia Woolf’s assessment that Brontë’s anger at the restrictions she faced as a woman weakened her control as a writer, leading to unevenness and bizarre shifts in tone throughout Jane Eyre. Studying the racist, colonialist and anti-feminist implications of Rochester’s imprisonment of his “mad” Creole wife Bertha Mason caused me to further question my formerly high regard for the book. For the same course, I read Villette for the first time, and I found myself wondering why Brontë’s fourth novel hadn’t achieved greater fame than the second novel I now found so patchy and weak.
Despite my newfound academic concerns about Jane Eyre’s worth, as time wore on I realized the intellectual establishment still felt comfortably assured of it. It appeared at number 12 in The Guardian’s series on the top 100 novels of all time, and Flavorwire recently put it at number 2 on their list ranking the best 19th-century British novels -- outranking Middlemarch and Pride and Prejudice in a decision I can only describe as criminal. (Okay, that’s a bit hyperbolic. A bit.) Villette rarely, if ever, appears on these lists (though Flavorwire sneaks it in at number 48); Jane Eyre has been established as “the” Charlotte Brontë novel quite definitively.
There are good reasons for Jane Eyre’s esteemed place in the literary canon; it’s elegantly structured and energetically written, with dramatic flair that quickens the reader’s pulse. It boasts frequent bursts of truly inspired prose that flaunt Brontë’s genius. Despite its problematic depiction of Bertha, Jane Eyre also gives voice to the primal anger and frustration of thwarted women, with Brontë using Jane as a mouthpiece for her own denunciations of pervasive misogyny. Though Jane ends up lost in a caretaking marital role by the end of the novel, she has maintained her dignity and independence throughout, only returning to the domineering Mr. Rochester when he has been sufficiently humbled by blindness and injury -- and freed by the death of his mad wife. Jane ends up a wife after all, but she earns her homemaking role through self-sufficiency and moral strength, not passivity,
Villette, of course, is not itself free of mixed messages about female empowerment. But it offers an alternate and equally valuable narrative, one with equally compelling lessons that hold true for women today. Villette bears a certain Brontëan resemblance to Jane Eyre -- gothic mysticism, spiritual intensity, bursts of passionate lyricism, a plain heroine making her way in an unfriendly world -- but is in many other ways its inverse. Jane Eyre works in sharp black and white, while Villette works in psychological and even factual grey areas. Where Jane’s specialness is stipulated, despite her poverty and plain looks, the heroine of Villette, Lucy Snowe, is an unassuming figure who spends the majority of the novel as a quiet observer. Jane insists on her own agency, while Lucy is reactive at best. Yet it is Lucy who truly breaks free of the expected domestic fate.
A more psychological and subdued novel, Villette features a young woman struggling with the internal conflicts most of us grapple with here in the real world. With the high melodrama turned down, the nuance is turned up. Lucy Snowe faces all-the-more daunting emotional struggles because of their realistic complications; her romantic rivals Ginevra and Paulina are not wholly contemptible, and Lucy is too clear-eyed and mature not to see their virtues and love them despite her jealousy. The enigmatic mistress at the school where Lucy teaches, Madame Beck, can be scheming and manipulative, but Lucy also admires her force of will and leadership talent. Lucy’s perceptiveness and ability to embrace ambiguity results in a novel that is deeply loving to its characters, especially its women, expecting none to be paragons but elevating the good and accepting the bad in all.
Brontë’s turn to ambiguity is so determined that even the facts in Villette are often left unresolved. Lucy Snowe’s utter aloneness in the world seems to be occasioned by various tragedies, but she hesitates to directly describe her sufferings, instead offering the reader the option to believe a happier truth. She glosses over a great family loss early in the book with great reluctance:
It will be conjectured that I was of course glad to return to the bosom of my kindred. Well! the amiable conjecture does no harm, and may therefore be safely left uncontradicted. Far from saying nay, indeed, I will permit the reader to picture me, for the next eight years, as a bark slumbering through halcyon weather, in a harbor still as glass—the steersman stretched on the little deck, his face up to heaven, his eyes closed: buried, if you will, in a long prayer. A great many women and girls are supposed to pass their lives something in that fashion; why not I with the rest?
While making clear the pain that she did endure, Lucy offers readers a happier option, giving us the permission to read the story differently. We must choose whether we will look at the truth of her pain or take the pleasant path of willful ignorance. The novel sums up similarly, resisting neatness in favor of puzzling ambiguity. In Jane Eyre, Brontë gives us clear choices and dramatic finality, but in Villette she makes us work for our understanding, our moral judgments, and even for which facts we’ll accept as true.
The subtlety of Villette culminates in a finale that is revolutionary but deftly underplayed. In a moment, Brontë tosses aside the marriage plot and replaces it with a career plot, and she does it so quietly readers might miss the radical nature of her choice. Quiet Lucy has finally found love with M. Paul, a blustering but kind colleague at the school, but he’s sent abroad for several years before they can start a life together. He leaves her with a promise to return, helping her to set up a school of her own before he sets off. The school flourishes, and its success gives her an independent living. This appears to be merely another step in the traditional marriage plot, but suddenly Brontë throws out the script and ventures to insinuate that Lucy’s lover will never return to make her a wife. After describing a terrible storm overtaking his ship on the return journey, Lucy stops herself: “Here pause: pause at once. There is enough said. Trouble no quiet, kind heart; leave sunny imaginations hope. Let it be theirs to conceive the delight of joy born again fresh out of great terror, the rapture of rescue from peril, the wondrous reprieve from dread, the fruition of return. Let them picture union and a happy succeeding life.”
At the end, Brontë leaves us a lifeline, a fragile possibility of marital bliss for our heroine, but her implication is all too clear: M. Paul has died in a shipwreck. But the destruction of Lucy’s marriage prospects does leave her with a great purpose in life: her school. Lucy’s story builds not to a marriage, but to a career success. Even with the devastation her lover's death clearly causes Lucy, the vision of a successful single woman -- also embodied by Madame Beck in Villette -- offers an alternative option for a viable female lifestyle. Villette, where Jane Eyre faltered, dares readers to imagine a valid path for a female protagonist that does not end in a marriage, or any domestic role.
Despite my troubled history with Jane Eyre, my love for the novel will always endure. Villette, however, contains subtle, poignant pleasures that deserve acclaim at least on par with its more attention-seeking counterpart. To celebrate Charlotte Brontë’s birthday, let’s all give Villette a little more respect.