The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Mmmm, I’m full…of books!

Posted on: April 2, 2008

(I have no excuses for this nonsensical post title. I did just have a nice bowl of chilli.)

Villette is proving to be a completely different experience from Jane Eyre which may not be a bad thing — it’s only made me more curious and unsettled (so far). Brontë’s prose still possesses that alluring quality that leads you by the nose, calling you to pick the book up again regardless of what other things may need your attention. In Jane Eyre I credited it to the novel’s rhythmic, formal, steady prose that’s typical of 18th and 19th century British novels; it’s the sort that you can sink into, that isn’t ornate or elaborate but is rich in detail — about the characters, the geographical locale, the weather, the architecture, all setting whether tangible or intangible. In many ways it is what I regard as “the novel” form and style, although I would expire from boredom if all books were like that.

Villette contains most of those characteristics except that, to my surprise, the prose becomes even more formal, stilted, with an abruptly elusive energy that pushes me out of the story and the heroine’s mind, both of I which I had expected to easily settle within. I had to reread certain phrases because their complex, unfamiliar, obsolete structures disarmed me. Brontë calls attention to its written nature rather than make any effort to simulate a person’s speech patterns. (I’m sorry I did not taken note of examples but if I come across anymore (or decide to spend time scanning read pages) I’ll edit the post.)

I suppose it fits Brontë’s heroine Lucy Snow whose personality in this first person narrative is abrupt, adverse to easy intimacy and who puts a lot of energy into appearing as cold as her surname suggests, both to the reader and the novel’s other characters. This I did not expect, knowing nothing about the book before I started except that the girl is a teacher at some point. Jane Eyre 2.0 she is not.  She is not as open as Jane but makes cryptic remarks about her home life. I know, or she leads one to assume, that home and its inhabitants hold no warm associations for her and that in her early 20s they went through a crisis that left her adrift to seek her own fortune. But the identity of those inhabitants, “kindred” she calls them, and whether there is any love lost among them is still a secret at page 66 with no assurance that it will be revealed. Her godmother and her son with whom Lucy spent a few vacations are the only ones she likes tolerably enough. They left her tranquil which is what she craves most. From this one can ascertain that her childhood was of comparable misfortune with Jane Eyre’s, perhaps not as bad, but no Avonlea, yet Snowe’s painfully polite and proper prose dares you to feel any pity or sympathy for her. If you’re looking for charming, courageous urchins more loveable because others describe them as unlovely seek out Dickens.

Yet I do not dislike Lucy Snowe. Her reticence piques my curiosity and Brontë layers in little scenes and lines that hint at Lucy’s more tempestuous inclinations and vulnerabilities. Brontë ably sets her heroine’s story with dramatic phrasing — “How deeply glad I was when the door of a very small chamber at length closed on me and my exhaustion. Again I might rest: though the cloud of doubt would be thick to-morrow as ever; the necessity for exertion more urgent, the peril (of destitution) nearer, the conflict (for existence) more severe.” — and suitable Biblical allusions — of major characters in peril, from Joseph abandoned in the well to Jesus’ crucifixion –that inject the book with excitable energy. You’re just waiting for it all to burst out. In some respects it is a “Jane Eyre II” for we have again an almost poor and unfortunate, not conventionally attractive young woman tossed to fate who must depend almost entirely on her mental resources to find the right environment in which she can thrive. A different character gives different results, as it should.

Clearly, Brontë can do whatever she likes and have me tag along. This forced me to consider more closely what precisely is it she does that makes her a favourite: her novels’ characters but not a single type; her prose but a particular style; maybe her plot. But there are thousands of books that follow similar formulas that I wouldn’t read free of cost. And though her novels have strong plots they are not “plotty” (so I awkwardly termed those) that move quickly, with simple prose that really is just simple, with empathetic characters created to be most appealing etc. She takes her time to illustrate each part of each stage in her protagonists’ lives, every character written as though he had a special importance vital to that particular scene. So, you know, the books take a while.

I approached an answer some hours after breakfast but lunch muddled my brain. Let’s see…I still think the characters are part of her winning strategy. She has the talent of creating resilient, flawed characters in perilous situations and they prove their hardiness before she plunges them into true desperation. Starting out with a milquetoast as your main guy never, ever works unless a) you’re not writing a “character” book or b) your technical writing skills are so stellar as to allow one to ignore the milquetoast. Who doesn’t like gumption? There’s also a tantalizing tension in her writing that mirrors the one in her characters — the pull between control and passion. This sets her apart from dear old Emily who’s passion from beginning to end, I think, which was “atmospheric” in her descriptive natural scenes and “drama-queen-oh-just-off-yourselves-already” in her characters. For Villette so far Charlotte’s prose is more restrained and Lucy is crying one sentence but berating herself for doing so in a mature, stalwart tone in the next. Besides’ Snowe’s personality this may also have something to do with the fact that she’s penning this story in her old age so if Lucy seems like a fuddy duddy in her 20s you can imagine how she is in her 60s, say.

No, I’m not satisfied with that answer but it will have to do for now.  I’m more pleased with the fact that the book has given me so much to think about and I’m not even in sight of the 100th page in a 500+ book.

The only problem I have is with the edition. Helen Cooper is the lovely woman who wrote the introduction and annotated the latest Penguin Classics issue and it’s clear her specialisation is in post-colonial studies. That’s fine. I appreciated the historical contextualization she did in the introduction, as well as the relevant remarks on Brontë’s racism as it pertains to Celtics and her anti-Catholic, anti-French attitude. Good, good. I can’t help thinking, though, the she’s narrowed her lens too much in writing the notes. A character can’t drink tea or use a guinea in this thing without it being linked to the slave trade in a tone of slight disapproval. I’m surprised that when Brontë described a cotton dress she didn’t mention anything about American South plantations. Unlike Jane Eyre which has a strong theme of slavery and rebellion and is certainly riper for that analysis considering that ol’ Jane’s inheritance was from, you know, actual slavery, and the link to Bertha Mason etc. Snowe never sees herself in similar terms at all.  In other words, I don’t see how my understanding of the novel is advanced by this tedious flotsam. The introduction promises me I’ll see the point of all this later but right now she just seems to be filling up a word count.

Especially since she over-explains some, a trend I also noticed in the Penguin Classics Jane Eyre. It’s fine to tell me of the Pilgrim’s Progress allusions and inform me that Lucy “embarks upon a similar journey — emotional, professional and spiritual”; but I’m not so dim as to not be able to see for myself that Lucy’s “name emphasizes her external coldness: the novel her inner passions”. That’s the damn story isn’t it? Or she notes and explains a reference to monomania as it was understood in the 19th century, highlights a bible verse describing a comparable attitude towards God, used in reference to the same monomaniac but feels the need to explain Brontë’s purpose for doing so. It’  I remember in Jane Eyre whole themes being explained in the notes as my jaw hung open in shock after which I checked the front to make sure I wasn’t reading one of those odious yellow Cliff notes.

Quit it! Make it relevant, save the trees and my patience.


10 Responses to "Mmmm, I’m full…of books!"

So glad to read your reactions to this book! It’s one of my all-time favorites–truly Great. It’s been a few years since I last read it, though. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts. (Although I adore Jane, my heart is closer to Lucy.)

I’m seeing so much about the Brontes around the web, it makes me want to read more of their work.

amcorrea is it odd, then, that it seems to be fairly underrated? Charlotte seems to be represented by a single book; I took so long to display any interest in her this and The Professor because I figured they were significantly lesser works.

Danielle have you read anything by Anne? She’s the one I plan to try next after I get through Villette.

I love love love Villette… I feel a reread of it coming up soon!

Jane Eyre is more popular with the public, which makes Villette underrated in a general sense–but I believe many critics consider the latter to be her masterpiece.

I think The Professor could be considered a “lesser work” as it was her first attempt and more autobiographical (although her first-person narrator is a man…). But by the time Villette arrives, it’s astonishing to see her mastery of the same material–the carefully wrought detail of feeling, the depths she willingly plumbs. (Incidentally, Villette was the book that L.M. Montgomery could not forgive Charlotte for… )

Shirley is in between. It’s good–but will always be lost in the shadows of JE and Villette.

I’ve got a copy of Shirley on my shelves; I’m interested in what amcorrea says about it, as I’ve read JE and Villette already (although I don’t remember it well). Perhaps I’ll get to Shirley this summer, and I’d love to reread Villette at some point too.

Amanda A. yes! go read it. After all you did make me reread Jane Eyre last year.

amcorrea I seee, I had not been aware so that will affect my expectations, somewhat. The introduction writer did not make any value assessments relative to the other novels. I can’t remember it coming up when I studied it for A levels either. So thanks very much for doing so.

Odd trivia there about Montgomery considering that so many of her fans can’t forgive her for what she did to Jo and Teddy in Little Women. (Fine! They can’t be together but giving him to Amy?! Ugh! Just…UGH.)

Dorothy I don’t know anything about Shirley at all. Does it follow the same pattern of unfortunate girl in desperate circumstances makes her own way? I shall have to get that one too since I’m sure it’s available used in my town.

I wanted to get to Agnes Grey at some point as well. I never see it covered anywhere except on blogs.

I think you probably mean what she did to Walter in Rilla of Ingleside… 🙂 But this actually makes me wonder what Alcott thought of Charlotte… Hm.

Shirley is pretty interesting. It follows the friendship of two women (which is unusual as her other two more famous books focus on the plight of solitary women)–the shy Caroline and the vibrant Shirley (this actually makes me wonder if Montgomery gave Anne this surname with Shirley Keeldar in mind? Considering all the literary allusions in her work, it’s quite possible).

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