Villette by Charlotte Brontë
Hosted by Yiyun Li
Began on November 15, 2022 (31 Days)
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Published in 1858 and partially autobiographical, Villette is a lesser known work by Charlotte Brontë than Jane Eyre, though the two novels share some thematic connections. However, Villette to me is a quintessential novel about working, and it is also not far-fetched to call it a novel about an immigrant’s experience (before novels began to get that label: immigrant novels). Lucy Snowe, an orphan who does not have many prospects in England (though there is always the marriage option, one imagines), decides on a whim to travel to Villette (a fictional Brussels). There she takes a job as a nanny and works her way up to become an English teacher in a French-speaking boarding school. The economic uncertainty, the religious pressures, the language and cultural barriers that Lucy faces in a new country, her emotional journey through loneliness, depression, romance, and losses—precisely the experiences I’ve had as an immigrant.
Join us on December 15 for a virtual discussion of Villette with Yiyun Li.
is the author of several novels, including The Book of Goose (FSG) and Where Reasons End, which received the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award; the memoir Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (both Random House); and Tolstoy Together (A Public Space Books). She is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, Windham-Campbell Prize, and the PEN/Malamud Award, among other honors. A contributing editor to A Public Space, she teaches at Princeton University. Her essay “Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life” appeared in A Public Space No. 19.
(1816–1855) was one of six children of the clergyman Patrick Brontë and his wife, Maria Branwell Brontë. With her elder sisters Maria and Elizabeth and younger sister Emily, she attended the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, later thinly veiled as Lowood Institution in perhaps her most well-known work, Jane Eyre. Brontë lost two of her sisters, as well as her mother, early in life; and her sisters Emily and Anne and her brother Branwell between 1848–1849. In 1846, with Emily and Anne, she published, at their own expense, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. She later published the novels Jane Eyre, Shirley: A Tale, Villette, and the posthumously published The Professor.
Villette. Chapters I–II
November 15, 2022 by Yiyun Li
“My godmother lived in a handsome house…” An odd opening, not starting with the first-person narrator or her family, but her godmother.
Villette. Chapter III
November 16, 2022 by Yiyun Li
"Nobody spoke. Mrs. Bretton, being a mother, shed a tear or two. Graham… lifted up his eyes and gazed at her. I, Lucy Snowe, was calm.” This structure, “I, Lucy Snowe,” always thrills: the urge to conceal is underlined by a strong statement about herself.
Villette. Chapters IV–V
November 17, 2022 by Yiyun Li
"Though I forced myself torealize evils, I think I was too prosaic to idealize.” This is why I place Villette above many novels, including Jane Eyre. Nothing in life—love, loss, travail, triumph—is idealized. Reality never fits into a neat narrative arc.
Villette. Chapters VI–VII
November 18, 2022 by Yiyun Li
These chapters bring back the memory of my first day in the US. I couldn’t find a payphone—not in the three American airports en route to Iowa City nor in the guesthouse—that would allow an international call. I knew no one in the entire state of Iowa.
Villette. Chapter VIII
November 19, 2022 by Yiyun Li
"Wise, firm, faithless; secret, crafty, passionless; watchful and inscrutable; acute and insensate—withal perfectly decorous—what more could be desired?” Madame Beck: as thrilling as Tolstoy’s Napoleon!
Villette. Chapters IX–X
November 20, 2022 by Yiyun Li
There is an air of masquerade around Madame Beck. Miss Fanshawe, Dr. John, even the children, and of course Lucy, all participate.
Villette. Chapter XI–XII
November 21, 2022 by Yiyun Li
"He perhaps was not in love; but how many people ever do love, or at least marry for love in this world? We waited the end.” Fascinating slip here: Lucy uses “we” instead of “I.” She doesn’t have anyone to be part of a “we”; only her urge to hide.
Villette. Chapter XIII
November 22, 2022 by Yiyun Li
"The eyes of the flowers had gained vision, and the knots in the tree-boles listened like secret ears.” Lucy in the garden, just as Alice in the Garden of Live Flowers, though here the flowers are more threatening than the tiger lilies and daisies.
Villette. Chapter XIV
November 23, 2022 by Yiyun Li
Lucy’s wry humor shines in this chapter. My favorite moment: she threatens a duel with St. Pierre (“if she were not a lady and I a gentleman”). M. Paul, not missing a beat, offers his pistols to settle “the old quarrel of France and England.” Hohoho.
Villette. Chapter XV
November 24, 2022 by Yiyun Li
"Religious reader, you will preach to me… and so will you, moralist; and you, stern sage: you, stoic, will frown; you, cynic, sneer; you, epicure, laugh.” A strong indictment from someone who suffers a debilitating depression to those who don’t understand.
Villette. Chapter XVI
November 25, 2022 by Yiyun Li
"The divorced mates, Spirit and Substance, were hard to re-unite: they greeted each other, not in an embrace, but a racking sort of struggle.” An apt description of depression: self wrestling with self.
Villette. Chapter XVII
November 26, 2022 by Yiyun Li
"The general tenor of a life” and Lucy’s aspiration to “enable it to be better regulated, more equable, quieter on the surface”: so much of her willfulness to self-regulate results from the necessity of being an orphan, now rootless in a foreign country…
Villette. Chapters XVIII–XIX
November 27, 2022 by Yiyun Li
"He often talked nonsense; but I strove to be unfailingly patient with him.” It may be that my mood is wrong for today’s reading, but I find this chapter with Dr. John and Lucy, both blinded by love, rather giggle-worthy.
Villette. Chapter XX
November 28, 2022 by Yiyun Li
Lucy seeing herself in the mirror is the same moment when Natasha sees herself in the mirror at her first ball in War and Peace. What an experience of seeing oneself anew, which is lost to us who have mirrors of all sizes, shop windows, and phone cameras.
Villette. Chapter XXI
November 29, 2022 by Yiyun Li
"I dearly liked to think my own thoughts; I had great pleasure in reading a few books, but not many.” Lucy speaks my heart!
Villette. Chapters XXII–XXIII
November 30, 2022 by Yiyun Li
"No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness.” Poor Dr. John. Really a prototype of a self-help author in today’s chapter.
Villette. Chapter XXIV
December 1, 2022 by Yiyun Li
Lucy speaks of herself in third person, in the generic form of a hermit, of his inward winter. “Poor wretch!” Oh poor Lucy. In that aspect I beat you. I do speak to myself in second person: “You, you idiot!”
Villette. Chapter XXV
December 2, 2022 by Yiyun Li
An oddly disheartening chapter! Mr. Home and Mrs. Bretton engaged in an endless conversation, Polly and Graham playing hide and seek with their feelings. A rerun of the earlier chapters in Bretton, though Lucy feels a bit subdued.
Villette. Chapter XXVI
December 3, 2022 by Yiyun Li
"One day after she had borrowed them of me (in speaking of so suave a little woman, one ought to use suave terms)...” I rather enjoy the relationship between Madame Beck and Lucy: refreshingly unfussy and unemotional, unlike most female relationships we read.
Villette. Chapter XXVII
December 4, 2022 by Yiyun Li
"In a second of time, a head, chest and arms, grew above the crimson desk.” Quite an astonishing way to introduce a character’s physical appearance. Almost cinematic, with such a giggly sense of humor. M. Paul inspires freshness in the narrative!
Villette. Chapter XXVIII
December 5, 2022 by Yiyun Li
M. Paul brings out hilarity and humor not only from Lucy but from minor characters. Rosine, a functional character so far, speaks against M. Paul’s tantrum, that for her service, “Madame must really hire a gendarme.” Brava, Rosine.
Villette. Chapter XXIX
December 6, 2022 by Yiyun Li
"I like to see flowers growing, but when they are gathered, they cease to please. I look on them as things rootless and perishable; their likeness to life makes me sad.” All lives, dear Lucy Snowe, are perishable, rootless or rooted.
Villette. Chapters XXX–XXXI
December 7, 2022 by Yiyun Li
"I am ignorant, monsieur, in the knowledge you ascribe to me, but I sometimes, not always, feel a knowledge of my own.” Lucy Snowe and Seneca would have made perfect friends. Her stoicism and her eloquence both live up to Seneca’s standard.
Villette. Chapters XXXII–XXXIII
December 8, 2022 by Yiyun Li
"There was about Dr. John all the man of the world; to satisfy himself did not suffice; society must approve—the world must admire what he did, or he counted his measures false and futile.” On the cusp of being a pessimist today: methinks that it’s people like Dr. John, not Mme Beck, who make this world a lonely place for all the Lucy Snowes.
Villette. Chapters XXXIV
December 9, 2022 by Yiyun Li
Is Madame Beck a witch, or a fairy godmother in disguise!? This chapter is taking a turn more toward the evil fairytale.
Villette. Chapter XXXV
December 10, 2022 by Yiyun Li
Yesterday and today’s chapter asks M. Paul the same question as Miss Fanshawe asks Lucy Snowe a few chapters ago—who are you? A question deeply connected to livelihood. The two characters facing this question both have to strive to make a living…
Villette. Chapter XXXVI
December 11, 2022 by Yiyun Li
"...a small spanieless (if one may coin a word)...” A spaniel is not enough to describe the cute little dog; a spanieless it must be. (It reminds me that two friends both sternly demanded that I remove the word “poetess” from a manuscript once).
Villette. Chapter XXXVII
December 12, 2022 by Yiyun Li
A chapter titled “Sunshine” is an outlier in this novel: bright happiness of ever after is granted to two minor characters, whose love story is sweet; perhaps a bit predictable; far from being memorable. And yet not all love stories have to be memorable.
Villette. Chapter XXXVIII
December 13, 2022 by Yiyun Li
A chapter titled “Cloud” follows the chapter “Sunshine.” After a fairytale of ever after we enter the enchanted dark forest. The febrile scene at the midnight fête is rather disturbing, even when a reader is not drugged.
Villette. Chapters XXXIX–XL
December 14, 2022 by Yiyun Li
What I love about the family junta is that M. Paul doesn’t seem to be an easily manipulatable person, and yet the Père Silas, Mme Beck and Mme Walravens still manage to scheme, more or less successfully. A superior mind begets superior manipulators.
Villette. Chapters XLI-XLI
December 15, 2022 by Yiyun Li
The penultimate chapter is where a fairytale ends. It is a fairytale in itself. And yet, and yet, a novel like VILLETTE cannot end with a fairytale.