Charlotte Brontë, Villette
Brontë, Charlotte. Villette. New York: Modern Library, 2001 (1853).
Virginia Woolf said that Middlemarch was one of the few English novels written for grown-up people; Villette must also be on that short list, and its unerring wisdom and sobriety must be the reason it gets read less than Jane Eyre despite being, as I just found out, one of the very greatest novels in the literature. Lucy Snowe, our narrator/heroine, is not herself unerringly wise or soberthat wouldn’t make much of a novelbut she knows her own heart and spares herself nothing, not least the constant recognition that by usual standards she ought not to be in the book at all. Plain and poor, possessing no virtues but a fathomless moral intelligence, she is obliged to work for a living without hope of relieving that obligation by inheritance or marriage; thus if she could be expected to claim any place in the novel, at most it would be that of confidante to the real heroinehere, either the boundlessly annoying Ginevra or the more artless Paulina, both of whom Lucy does advise, and both of whom do claim their appointed rewards. That Lucy is, notwithstanding, the structural center means that she has to spend the entire book fighting for her own existence. And what existence might be possible for such as herwhat is given, what is taken awayleads into one of the cruelest and most beautiful endings I have ever read.