I had never heard of this book before I started this challenge. Villette is a semi-autobiographical novel by Charlotte Brontë, loosely based on her time in a pensionnat (boarding school) in Brussels, Belgium. Set in the fictional town of Villette, in the fictional country of Labassecour, it is told in first-person narrative by the English protagonist, Lucy Snowe.
At first the narrative seems somewhat disjointed, as we are flung from a scene of domestic bliss through a series of barely touched on personal tragedies to Lucy’s decision to seek her fortune abroad. On board ship she meets Miss Ginevra Fanshawe, who is on her way to study at Madame Beck’s pensionnat in the Rue Fossette. Arriving in Villette alone and disoriented, Miss Snowe takes a wrong turning, and instead of finding the English-speaking hotel that had been recommended to her, she winds up on the doorstep of this same establishment. She is immediately hired, first as a nanny to the directress’ children, and later as the English teacher.
To be honest, I found Lucy Snowe to be a fairly annoying character. Although she writes with humor about her trials and tribulations, she bears them far too patiently. If I was placed in similar situations I’d kick up a fuss, but Lucy never does. Although well aware that her employer is spying on her, she never complains about her lack of privacy. Although she clearly has feelings for at least one male character throughout the story, she gracefully steps aside when she feels that other ladies of her acquaintance have a better claim on his affections. Only two characters ever really stir her up, and both are portrayed (at least at first) as genuinely odious people who would drive a saint to blasphemy.
That said, I still enjoyed reading Villette, although it was hard going until a few of the seemingly disconnected characters and events started to interlink. There were occasions when Lucy deliberately chose not to reveal details she’d learned about characters until later because ‘it did not suit her humor’. Personally I would have found it an easier read if it had.
Note: I was grateful that the library’s edition of Villette was annotated, as much of the dialogue in the book is in French, and although I was able to follow some of it, I would never have finished the book without the translations provided!