Jane Eyre is the most famous work by Charlotte Brontë, the one which is taught in high schools and which appears regularly on lists of great works of literature. I first read Jane Eyre when I was in my early teenage years. My library had no other works by Charlotte Brontë on the open stacks, but, as if by fate not long after reading its more famous sister-novel, I received a gift card and found Villette at a bookstore. The small paperback is still one of my most beloved books, even if, at the age when I first read it, I did not completely understand it.
Lucy Snowe is a difficult heroine, as cold as her name suggests. Jane Eyre is easy to connect with. She is open and passionate. If the reader does not know something, it is because Jane does not know it either. However, Lucy Snowe intentionally keeps secrets from the reader. When she recognizes a face from her past, she waits until the absolute last minute to reveal this to her audience. Unlike Jane, Lucy builds her narrative on secrets, on hiding her emotions, on trying to convince the reader that she does not feel a certain way. Something tragic and undefined has happened in Lucy’s past, and therefore she feels it is necessary to hide.
My first reading of Vilette, to be frank, was muddled. I did not fully appreciate all of the nuances of emotion. Nothing seemed to happen for a long time. In terms of plot, it is less exciting than Jane Eyre. There is no one hiding in the attic, the hero is not in possession of a dark secret, there are no secret cousins to give the heroine an instant family in the end. Lucy Snowe does not readily mingle with her fellow teachers. She prefers solitude, quiet, her own company. She spends far too long trying to convince the reader that she does not love. In Lucy Snowe, Charlotte Brontë created a character who demands distance, who unwillingly accepts our company to tell us her story.
Yet, Villette is the book I return to and read and re-read compulsively. The heroine is self-reliant and reserved, and it is that enforced solitude that leads her on occasional downward spirals, into scenes which crackle with repressed emotion. At times, the very scenery around her seems disorienting due to her emotional state. In many ways, she is an unreliable narrator, but that is her nature, that is what makes her Lucy Snowe. She is not beautiful, is in fact deeply aware of her own external shortcomings, and finds herself in a strange land where she does not know the language, cannot communicate even basic things. Nonetheless, she does not want our sympathy.
In spite of all of her flaws, of the truths she refuses to tell, Lucy Snowe is a great favorite of mine. Even at the end, she cannot bear to give us a concrete explanation of her fate. She would rather let the reader decide, and it is in that decision that one can finally see that she hides things not to be cruel but as a means of protection. She leaves us space to imagine whatever happiness we would like, if we are so inclined, regardless of what actually happened. Although she often seems melancholy and repressed, Lucy is really hiding behind a protective barrier, meant to keep out additional pain and suffering. Villette is a much more complex book than Jane Eyre, with a heroine who it is at times hard to understand, and is deserving of more fame than it receives.