Reading Villette: Chapters 1 to 5

A copy of Villette sat, unread, on my bookshelves for longer than I dare say. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to read it, it was just that other books always seemed to call just a little bit more loudly.

But sometime around Christmas I began to hear Villette amidst the hubbub of other books. A lovely new copy appeared in the library. A Vintage Classics edition, with a red spine and a striking cover image of a single candle. There was no introduction, there were no notes, and so the first words I saw were the words that opened the story.

“My godmother lived in a handsome house in the clean and ancient town of Bretton. Her husband’s family had been residents there for generations, and bore, indeed, the name of their birthplace – Bretton of Bretton; whether by coincidence, or because some ancestor had been a personage of sufficient importance to leave his name to his neighbourhood, I know not.”

Scene-setting and story-telling. Simplicity, elegance and clarity.

I knew that I had to read Villette, and sooner rather that later. And then, with perfect timing, Wallace of Unputdownables proposed a readalong.

And so it was that I finally picked up Villette. And now, a few days late, because it has been one of those weeks, I come to my thoughts about the first five chapters.

I went in blind, knowing only that this is the story of Lucy Snowe, and Charlotte Bronte’s most autobiographical work, wanting to focus only on the words, the story, the characters before me. So far it’s working very well.

The first few chapters found Lucy, a young woman alone in the world and dependent on the kindness of others, staying with her godmother. She fits into the household unobtrusively. Something, perhaps, to which she is accustomed, but Lucy gives little away.

Instead she observes. Mrs Bretton plays host to Polly, the six-year old daughter of an old friend who has lost his wife, Polly’s mother. Polly is an extraordinary child, in some ways older than her years but is others so very, very young. Quaint is the word that comes to mind.

Polly is the centre of her own world, but her devotion to her father consumes her. And, in time, she forms an attachment to Graham, the son of Lucy’s Godmother, and a strong bond is formed between the pair.

Soon it is time for Lucy to leave, but I suspect that Polly and Graham will reappear. You see, the first three chapters have revealed little of their heroine, and so I can only assume that they have revealed instead other players. I do hope so.

Lucy must earn her living, and make her own way in the world, and finds a position as a carer by the frail, elderly Miss Marchmont. Again, she settles into the household unobtrusively, maybe just accepting, maybe appreciating her position.

However, in an evening with dramatic weather changes, Miss Marchmont magically regained all her energies and felt young again.

Eventually Miss Marchmont shared that sad story of the love that she lost thirty years ago, and her belief that they would be reunited in death, with Lucy. And she realised, as she felt able to tell her story, that she cared for the young woman who listened, and could help her.

The next morning Lucy found that Miss Marchmont had died peacefully in her sleep.

Lucy was alone and in need of a new position. She set out into the world with a quiet determination …

Lovely writing, engaging characters, and interesting possibilites are carrying me forward.

Bust Lucy is still an enigma, quiet, intelligent and self-possessed, and though I know little there is just enough there to make me want to learn more.

Who is she?

What will her story reveal?

Time will tell …

8 responses

  1. I do love that Vintage cover. Villette was to be my autumnal read but as you said, other books called a little bit more loudly. Better late than never as they say, so good for you for joining in with everyone for a read-along!

  2. That is an interesting cover… I can almost make out a couple of figures in the wood panel – very evocative. Your post reminds me that I have had a Wordsworth edition of ‘Shirley’ sitting on my shelves for years and I should really make an effort to read it soon.

  3. I so agree with you about the lovely characters, engaging writing, and most of all, who, exactly is Lucy Snowe? I’m very much enjoying this book, although unlike you, I didn’t have a copy on my shelf. Had to download one onto my Nook, without the red spine and candle. 😦

  4. That copy is gorgeous. Vintage know what they are doing with book covers, I have to say.

    Villette is a simply outstanding, and astounding, book. It shook me to the core when I first read it. I think it’s far more accomplished, but less endearing, than Jane Eyre. It’s a shame it’s not as widely read; I think because it doesn’t have the strong romantic hero of Jane Eyre, and the obligatory happy ending, it’s been left to languish on many a shelf, and not given the attention it deserves. I must re-read it. Though, Shirley does not, I feel, warrant the same treatment. I always felt that was the ugly sister of the trio of Charlotte Bronte’s major works!

  5. I love the cover too — those new Vintage editions make me want to buy all new copies! I also like the idea of no introduction, just getting right to the novel as readers did originally. I try so hard to avoid introductions and endnotes with spoilers so I can decide on my own. I was very surprised at how little we learned about Lucy the first few chapters and I’m curious to know whether Graham and Polly will reappear and in what capacity — will they be married? Is Graham a future love interest for Lucy? I don’t think I’ll be able to limit myself to only 5 chapters a week.

  6. I admire Villette, I’ve read it several times & I really want to read it again but I don’t know when I’ll fit it in. Just reading your post made me want to pick it up. I love the fact that you’ve just started reading without any ideas about the plot. I love notes & introductions but to just jump into a classic is also an appealing idea. That new Vintage edition is just gorgeous.

  7. I read this last year for my book group, but had forgotten most of the details before I got around to reviewing it… I’m glad I’ve revisited my least favourite Bronte sister (!!) but I couldn’t get past disliking the romantic hero and heroine. Polly, on the other hand, was a wonderful character.

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