Reading a good book is a pleasure, but reading a great book is an experience in itself, strong, inescapable experience which makes the sinews of your heart echo with emotions as the book lifts you up and transports you to its own world, forcing you to feel and experience what its characters feel and experience.
Such a book, I can boldly assert, is Villette. It was first published in 1853, and boasts as its creator the same hand and genius that created Jane Eyre.
AND YET, I WISH I HAD NOT READ IT.
Not now, at least, not till I could find myself enveloped in some blazing sunshine of happiness, and in need of a bitter draught of life’s realities to keep my heart and head from getting too gay. But as of now, I could really have done without such a painful lesson, or rather a reminder of what life lacks, what it will never have and what it is capable of robbing away from me. And now that I have read the book through, its pain is resting on me still, not the sort of pain that evokes burning tears, but of the kind that weighs on heart like a dense dark cloud weighs down the air below, making it sigh and groan and become stifled.
And yet, it is such a marvel of literary fiction that I am going to take a peek into it again and again, just to imbibe some of its virtues and hope to transport some of its genius into my poor little brain, and from thence into my books.
Villette, in short, is a book full of sadness, not violently so, but constantly so. Its story moves forward leaden with sorrow and disappointment that stays with the main protagonist from the first to the last. The book leads you, not so much through a story, but through a wrenching psychological turmoil of a woman battling with loneliness, hopelessness and fears of a dark and dreary future.
This woman, Lucy Snowe, the heroine of the book, is a woman racked by tragedies and though she forces herself to remain sedate and in control of her emotions, the many attacks of grief leave their undeniable mark on her psyche and almost make her more prone to seek tragedies than happiness. And of these tragedies, she finds in her share more than enough.
But let us first linger a while and understand why the author who wrote a delicious love story like Jane Eyre created, as her final novel, a book so unbearably sad.
The author, Charlotte Bronte (1816 -1849), was born in a family at once gloriously blessed and tragically cursed. Blessed because it cannot be otherwise but by a glorious divine blessings that three girls of the same family become celebrated novelists and two of them earned the distinction of being among the most important and influential women authors. Cursed, because of the death that found their home most dear place to come visiting again and again.
Charlotte was one of the six children born to Maria Branwell Bronte and Patrick Bronte who was a clergyman in a small English village called Haworth. The six siblings were each other’s best friends, often collaborating to bring up little fictional accounts and creating merry fictional worlds for their entertainment. Yet, they did not live in a merry world. John Stores Smith, also a novelist and Charlotte’s friend, has written about Haworth, “The most dead-alive, melancholy looking place it has ever been my lot to see, the very houses seemed miserable…’ And in this lonely miserable village, the Bronte family had their home right next to the churchyard. So death was really a neighbour, and it came calling frequently. So frequently, in fact, that one by one, Charlotte lost all her siblings, and finally succumbed herself at the age of 39. She lost her mother in 1821, and her two elder sisters in 1825. The remaining four Bronte kids gathered their life again after this grief, and gave each other solace. The three girls Charlotte, Emily (author of Wuthering Heights) and Anne (author of Agnes Grey) tried earning their living by becoming governess etc. But all they got in their various positions was misery and disrespect. Finally, they decided to try following literary pursuits, and it was here, and here only that good fortune favoured them. But death again came knocking, and within a year robbed Charlotte of all her remaining siblings. She was left to roam alone in her now vacant house, and soothe, as well as she could, herself and her aging father. About this period of grief and loneliness, she wrote in a letter, ‘Still, I can get on. But I do hope and pray that never you, or anyone I love, be placed as I am. To sit in a lonely room – the clock ticking loud enough to still house – and have open before the mind’s eye the record of the last year, with its shocks, sufferings, losses – is a trial.’
From such a troubled and lonely heart did Villette then germinate. It couldn’t have been anything but sad.
But no novel can be known, respected and revered just because it is sad. What the book has to lift it above the common bulk of literature is its naked description of a woman’s heart. It’s a psychoanalytic study of a lonely soul. Every feeling, every emotion, has been laid bare. I haven’t yet read any book that equals the psychological depth that Villette displays, even by skilfully remaining silent about what is the most painful.
Like all Bronte heroines, Lucy Snowe also has a happy childhood that gets snatched from her too soon. And like all Bronte heroines, she starts up on a journey to find a new life for herself. But her luck is such that her escape brings her back to her past and old associations even though she flees from her country to another. All through the book we see Lucy trying to subdue her emotional hunger and thirst, trying to tame her feelings by a strong hand of reason. But again and again, nature breaks through. Storms leave her shaken because they pull her feelings out, and when her dearest treasure is taken from her, even a sedative drug fails to put her down. Instead, it makes her more active, more frenzied, forcing her to break the bonds she had so far forced herself to submit to.
The back cover of the copy of Villette that I have calls it a story of loss and defeat. Story of loss and defeat it is, but also of endurance because despite all pain, the heroine endures and even prospers.
It’s not just words that raise the sense of the book’s loss and defeat. Under the masterful hands of the author, even silence is used to bring out the acuteness of pain. When you start the novel, it strikes you that the details of Lucy’s childhood are not quite clear. The sense and inferences of her experiences are given, but the relations, the experiences not stated. Merely because it is too painful for her to mention them (the novel being a first person narrative). The loss, the bereavement is just too intense to be put into words. And the same technique is used again at the end, when the severest blow is stuck. The news is not uttered, it is even allowed to the reader to hope for the happier end, but the end is clear enough and cannot be beguiled by false hope. Yet, it is not stated, because it is too painful.
Another device by which the author expresses the acuteness of grief is by making her narrator an old woman with white hair under her white cap. If a woman so old can still recall each sentiment felt in her youth to its tiniest detail, how deeply must she have experienced it then?
Besides the brilliant psychological detailing that makes this book so great, there are also characters to marvel at. Besides the heroine, there’s John Graham, a man inherently good, but who manages to be careless of Lucy’s emotions, though innocently so. Then there are his mother and Madam Beck who assert the independence of women. Madam Beck is really complex character. She is wile and vengeful, and yet has ways and attributes that Lucy, her victim, cannot help but admire. There is Polly whom we meet as a weird precocious child. She, in a way, is Lucy herself, as Lucy would have been had the tragedies not so stuck her. She grows up to be a perfection of disposition, beauty and graces, and wins her due rewards, posing again a contrast to Lucy’s lot.
And then there is M. Paul Emanuel, a professor of Literature in the boarding school where Lucy teaches and lives. He is perhaps the most complex characters of all. A short man, not capable of boasting good looks, a man whose anger can make a whole class of rowdy girls burst into tears, a man who seems to take delight in crushing down whatever pride and vanity poor Lucy has, a man whom even Madame Beck prefers to let alone to his means, and yet can easily influence him to sacrifice his hopes for her desires. He is a man who cherishes a dead love for twenty years, becomes a dutiful caretaker of the people responsible for the ruin of his love, refuses to care for his happiness in the face of call of duty, and a man who looks beyond Lucy’s plain exteriors and freely bestows on her his deepest, fondest regard, carefully taking care of her every need, often without telling her so. Brilliant characterization, simply brilliant, even though he feels unrealistic and impossible in today’s world of frail feelings and faiths.
As for the book’s other points, the plot is firm and well paced, and the language capable of leaving a marked influence on you, fully imparting every little beat of emotion the author wished to impart on the reader’s heart. The vocabulary, though, might be beyond the reach of many.
The main problem I faced with this book (though it’s not the fault of the book, rather my own ignorance) is that there are too many dialogues in French. And often no hint is given before and after the French words as means of explanation. There was no option for me but to skip the French dialogues and hunt for where the English began again.
Also, the new acquaintances co-incidentally turning up to be the old ones might feel unrealistic or improbably to some readers.
In the end, let me just say, it’s a great literary masterpiece. Yet, if you are currently under the shade of a tumultuous cloud, and the sun seems far away and the moon just a lost wanderer, stay away from this book!
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