This review is for two books by Charlotte Bronte: The Professor and Villette. I read them in the Wordsworth Classic version (with a blue cover, not black) and the Bantam Classic version, respectively. The books were originally published in 1857 and 1853. Although The Professor was written before Charlotte Bronte’s other novels, it was repeatedly rejected and then published posthumously. I feel it is quite safe to review these two books together, since they are very similar, and I wonder if Villette was actually an attempt to re-write The Professor from a different perspective with some plot changes and the lens of maturity.
If what I just suggested is true, then my basic opinion of these two books justifies Bronte’s decision; The Professor is only okay. Villette is wonderful. In the past two-and-a-half years of reading and reviewing, only one other book–The Great Gatsby–has come so close to making it to my list of very-favorite books. As it stands, I highly recommend Villette for anyone who enjoys Victorian literature. As for The Professor, unless you are studying Charlotte or the Brontes, you can leave it.
Issue number one: French. A fair amount of dialogue in both books is, indeed, in French. Being that I took no less than seven years of French and have studied in Paris (a very long time ago), I was able to work out bits of it with the help of a phone app. As for the long paragraphs, I tired of thumbing in phrase after phrase and just relinquished the section with an irritated sigh. Sure, I get that these books take place largely in French-speaking areas (Belgium and France), and also that speaking French was en vogue at the time, but what I don’t get is why publishers are printing it now for English-speakers without translation of the French parts. It is quite irksome, especially when many of the French parts are in French for emphasis, so the dramatic sentence is perhaps the most important in the chapter, but you can’t read it. Oi.
Second, I am just so tired of the whole physiognomy thing. Physiognomy is defined by Wikipedia as the “assessment of a person’s character or personality from his or her outer appearance, especially the face.” These days, we call that judging a book by its cover and we not only believe it poor taste, but also (rightly so) inaccurate. Authors of the 19th century, however, considered it a normal part of everyday life, and have no issues making characters the sum of their features. After every Bronte book in the world and all of Sherlock Holmes, I have had it up to HERE with physiognomy.
Third, Bronte is a bit of a culture snob. She paints whole countries of people with a monochromatic paintbrush. With one swoop of her pen, she portrays the Belgians as dumb and ignorant, incapable of depth and intelligence. Not cool. But not completely distracting.
Fourth, Bronte is very fond of having segments of her novels that are extra-plot, like in Jane Eyre when Jane goes to her cousins’ home. In both The Professor and Villette, the opening is basically a side-story, and it is a while before we see the real plot and identify the supporting characters. Back in the day, readers didn’t have as many options, so they patiently read what was available to them. The cover, the first line, the first few chapters–in fact the whole book–did not have to be so absolutely gripping as it does today. So it takes some patience. Let me just assure you that Villette will pay off, eventually, as many Victorian novels do.
Fifth, both books take some swallowing when it comes to the intellectual and mental submission of the women and the intellectual and mental domination of the men. Of course, Bronte was ahead of her times with her more independent, free-thinking, and intellectual women characters, but there is still a general fragrance of women submitting themselves as a matter of course, even if they are more open-minded than their peers, especially in marriage and the nuclear family. It’s odious to the modern reader, and yet it is worth noting to oneself that the Brontes are a step UP on the ladder to equality of the sexes, and that their works are full of vivid, colorful, intelligent, strong women characters, Villette bringing us one of the best in Lucy Snowe (despite all of her “humble” claims to the contrary).
So I’m not going to say much else about The Professor. It was fine. You will probably enjoy it a bit if you have to read it for whatever reason. It’s not very long. But what I would not recommend is reading it after Villette, because, like I said, they are almost the same book with the main difference being that one of them is superior in almost every single way.
As for Villette, I loved it. I do have very mixed feelings about the ending, which you might as well be told now was way before its time: it is inconclusive, on purpose. The book started slow, like I said, but it got better and better with each turn of the page, until I was holding my breath between the stolen moments when I could read another chapter. I finished the whole book hunched over my copy in front of a WholeFoods, oblivious to everything else for four hours. Bronte really learned to nail the “black moment” or whatever it’s called (when the romance looks like it just can’t happen). Characters really pop. There’s a breath of the Gothic, a subtlety of voice, and a real mastery of suspense. And all in all, I don’t know why it’s not twice as famous as other books of the same genre, including Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. It is both opaque and revealing, sophisticated, and symbolic.
Besides what I mentioned above, I would like to complain that there were a couple things incommodiously withheld (like the narrator doesn’t give us hints about something until it’s like, “Oh yeah, that. I knew it all along but I didn’t feel like telling you yet”). The rest, perfectly timed and communicated.
Always books of the time period of the Brontes spend a bit too much time telling, but the real knack of Villette and similar books is in the slight-hand of metaphor and double entendre. Charlotte Bronte masters this technique in Villette. Just like Jane Eyre and basically all the Bronte’s books (especially Wuthering Heights), the narrator or character might say one thing but mean another, or think/portray one thing but by doing so, subtly reveal the opposite. The language acrobatics are amazing.
Lucy Hughes Hallett wrote in The Telegraph, “[Bronte] honours Lucy’s urge to conceal herself from us, but–with masterful duplicity–refuses to allow it. Try as she might to pass herself off as a dull, quiet little person, the vigour of Lucy Snowe’s true nature keeps showing through the narrative Brontë has ascribed to her.”
Lastly, since I have found that the synopses of the classics on the backs of the books tend to give away the best twists of the story, I am going to five you my synopses for these two novels:
The Professor is about a younger brother without a family, a station, or a future. With what little he has–including a solid education and a small savings–he buys a one-way ticket to the continent and seeks employment in a boys’ school. The last thing on his mind is romance and expansion, but with hard work and English manners there is little of life’s simple pleasures that can’t, eventually, open up to him.
Villette is a story about Lucy Snowe, a young woman who is alone in the world but is determined to find a way to support herself while remaining dignified. She remembers her first days after tragedy, staying with her warm, hospitable god-mother, her busy, flitting god-brother, and the mysterious, particular child, Polly. Fate and determination guide her as she seeks a life in a new country, one without–as she knows it–a friend or a friendly face. She faces mental breakdown and religious quandaries, and gives us an honest and fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of a “stoical but not stoic” woman. As an employ of a girls’ school, Lucy begins to construct a life and a future for herself out of the people around her, watching as romance and favor pass her by time and time again.
“…better to be misunderstood now than repulsed hereafter” (p15).
“No man likes to acknowledge that he has made a mistake in the choice of his profession, and every man worthy of the name will row long against wind and tide before he allows himself to cry out, ‘I am baffled!’ and submits to be floated passively back to land” (p20).
“Pity Fortune has balked Nature!” (p26).
“‘Well,’ said he, ‘in all this I see but one thing clearly–that is, that the whole affair is no business of mine'” (p37).
“I never linger over a painful and necessary task; I never take pleasure before business. It is not in my nature to do so” (p42).
“It is a bad omen to commence any career by hesitation” (p45).
“Light not being taxed in Belgium, the people never grudge its admission into their houses” (p47).
“So impressionable a being is man, or at least such a man as I was in those days” (p58).
“Human beings–human children especially–seldom deny themselves the pleasure of exercising a power which they are conscious of possessing, even though that power consists only in a capacity to make others wretched” (p96).
“Distasteful effort–to leave what we most prefer” (p108).
“Indisputably, mademoiselle,’ was my answer. ‘Your opinion admits of no doubt;’ and fearful of the harangue being renewed, I retreated under cover of that cordial sentence of assent” (p111).
“Far more is to be done in this world by dexterity than by strength” (p115).
“‘Hope smiles on effort!'” (p133).
“Examine the footprints of our august aristocracy; see how they walk in blood, crushing hearts as they go” (p175).
“Though the only road to freedom lie through the gates of death, those gates must be passed, for freedom is indispensable. Then, monsieur, I would resist as far as my strength permitted; when that strength failed I should be sure of a refuge. Death would certainly screen me both from bad laws and their consequences” (p190).
“Tell it not in Gath, I believe I was crying” (p77).
“That hag disappointment was greeting her with a grisly ‘all hail!’ and her soul rejected the intimacy” (p106).
“That evening more firmly than ever fastened into my soul the conviction that Fate was of stone, and Hope a false idol—blind, bloodless, and of granite core” (p166).
“…that insufferable thought of being no more loved, no more owned, half-yielded to hope of the contrary” (p166).
“Where, indeed, does the moon not look well?” (p190).
“A pink dress! I knew it not. It knew not me. I had not proved it” (p216).
“He always wished to heal—to relieve—when, physician as he was, neither cure noR alleviation were, perhaps, in his power” (p239).
“Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure. Happiness is a glory shining far down upon us out of Heaven” (p263).
“Doctors are so self-opinionated, so immovable in their dry, materialist views” (p270).
“Though stoical, I was not quite a stoic” (p311).
“Whatever my powers—feminine or the contrary—God had given them, and I felt resolute to be ashamed of no faculty of his bestowal” (374).
“But afterwards, is there nothing more for me in life—no true home—nothing to be dearer to me than myself…?” (p384).
“It is right to look our life-long accounts bravely in the face now and then, and settle them honestly” (p384).
“Call anguish—anguish, and despair—despair; write both down in strong characters with a resolute pen” (p385).
“Offer to the strongest, if the darkest angel of God’s host—water, when he asked blood—will he take it? Not a whole pale sea for one red drop” (p385).
“Life is so constructed, that the event does not, cannot, will not, match the expectation” (p437).
“…that there is a Mercy beyond human compassions, a Love stronger than this strong death which even you must face, and before it, fall; a Charity more potent than any sin, even yours; a Pity which redeems worlds—nay, absolves Priests” (p449).
“…to Him whose home is Infinity, and his being—Eternity” (p450).
“How seem the difference of man? But as Time is not for God, nor Space, so neither is Measure, or Comparison. We abase ourselves in our littleness…” (p450).
“Deeper than melancholy, lies heartbreak” (p454).
“His legacy was suspense—a worse boon than despair” (p475).
“I kept a place for him, too—a place of which I never took the measure, either by Rule of compass; I think it was like the tent of Peri-Banou. All my life long I carried it folded in the hollow of my hand—yet, released from that hold and constriction, I know not but its innate capacity for expanse might have magnified it into a tabernacle for a host” (p489).
“I always, through my whole life, liked to penetrate to the real truth; I like seeking the goddess in her temple, and handling the veil, and daring the dread glance” (p497).
“To see and know the worst is to take from Fear her main advantage” (p497).
“I was full of faults; he took them and me all home” (p524).