For Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday I’m making apple charlotte (an idea I nicked from Tracy Chevalier) and I’m going back to Villette. Because I think it’s the real grown-up Charlotte Brontë novel.
Unlike its more popular sister Jane Eyre, Villette has no Gothic melodrama (well, OK, there is a sort of ghost), no touching female friendships, no happy ending. I love how Jane shares everything, how she joyously, intimately confides, “Reader, I married him”. Villette’s heroine Lucy Snowe would never do such a thing. She shares nothing. On my first read, I hated her. And she hated me right back. She lied in my face, she withheld key information. And she tries so hard to crush her desires that she feels like she is driving a tent-peg into her own head. Villette is very odd. It’s been called unfilmable. It’s constricted, frustrating and unpleasant. That’s why it’s so good.
Because in real life, passion is often thwarted, we don’t always get justice, moral choices are muddy, and there are no tidy endings, let alone happy ones. Villette is by a woman who has lived. Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre happily and innocently. She wrote Villette dazed by grief, jaded by bad reviews, lonely and depressed. She couldn’t write a winning heroine. But she could write an honest one.
Lucy is the kind of heroine who, returning home after a long trip, says, “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.” I like how spiky she is, how sly, how she doesn’t care about being nice. She clearly hates her relatives! Or does she? Soon afterwards, they all die. At least I think they do; all Lucy says is that there has been some kind of shipwreck, possibly metaphorical.
Lucy takes opium and goes to a carnival. She reveals the secrets of her heart. And she gets a revelation in return
Alone, she travels to the fictional city of Villette (basically Brussels) and tries to salvage her life. When Jane is alone, penniless and starving on the moors, she gets taken in by some long-lost cousins. But Lucy knows this would only happen in fiction. The real world is cruel and anything she loves can be taken away, so she pretends she wants nothing. But she can’t help herself. First she has to listen to her ambitions. She isn’t working just to make ends meet; she is absorbed in her job, and she turns it into a career.
Then, she pursues love. In the school play she takes a male role and seduces the marvellous mean girl Ginevra Fanshawe live on stage. She also has two men on the go and she’s truly torn – unlike Jane. Only Charlotte ever thought St John Rivers was a real choice. For Jane, and, frankly, for me, it was always Rochester. But it’s properly hard to choose between sexy whimsical Dr John (think Laurie in Little Women) and Monsieur Paul, who is a nightmare and a lot like Professor Bhaer. He locks Lucy in an attic infested with rats, cockroaches, black beetles and a ghost, and criticises her constantly. But he also hides romances in her desk, scented with cigar smoke which Lucy calls “the pale blue breath of his Indian darling” and you don’t have to be Freud to have thoughts about that.
When Lucy is rejected (I won’t tell you who by; see, I have learned something from Lucy!) she imagines that “in that goodly mansion, his heart” there is a room called “Lucy’s Room”. It’s “not so handsome as the chambers where he lodged his male friends; it was not like the hall where he accommodated his philanthropy, or the library where he treasured his science, still less did it resemble the pavilion where his marriage feast was splendidly spread.” This breaks my heart. Because haven’t we all tried to rationalise rejection, to bury our feelings? Lucy literally does. She rolls up her love letters, wraps them in oiled silk, ties them with twine, and puts them in a bottle, which she stoppers, seals and buries under a tree. And still her desire won’t die.
So she lets rip, it’s exhilarating. It starts with a makeover. She is given a pink dress and protests that “no human force should avail to put me into it”, but it makes her feel fantastic. She takes opium and goes to a carnival. She reveals the secrets of her heart. And she gets a revelation in return.
But there are no easy answers. Because grown-up life is difficult. And instead of pretending it isn’t, Charlotte gave Villette its infamous double ending. It made me question whether I believe in happy endings, whether life is fair, and whether it’s better to face the world with pessimism or with hope. It’s not comforting, but I don’t care. For comfort, I’ll have the apple charlotte. For learning to live, I have Villette.
Samantha Ellis’s How to be a Heroine is published by Vintage.