All you need to know about the books you meant to read

This week: Charlotte Bronte's Villette (1853)
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The Independent Culture
Plot: Charlotte Bronte's semi-autobiographical narrator, Lucy Snowe, explores both her own psyche, and the possible roles for women in Victorian society. She stumbles upon worlds of voyeuristic fantasy and aimless tedium.

Lucy, physically unprepossessing but spiritually aflame, works at a repressive girl's boarding school in the foreign city of Villette (Brussels). She is watched by the sinister and kinky headmistress, Madame Beck.

With little else to think about, Lucy conceives a passion for her former childhood friend, John Bretton, whose ruinous good looks fail to conceal a personality that is leaden and conventional. Two other girls compete for his charms: Ginevra Fanshaw and Pauline Home. Eventually, flighty Ginevra and dowdy Lucy lose out to dimpling Paulina, the girl with good intentions.

Lucy finds a new love in the awkward, irascible shape of Paul Emmanuel, fellow teacher and anti-hero. At the close of the novel, Paul is called away to the West Indies on business and Lucy is left waiting for him; but she is now in charge of her own school and her position is one of strength, not of pathos.

Theme: Bronte chooses an unattractive introverted heroine who has to be admired for her courageous determination and intelligence rather than liked for traditional feminine attributes such as tenderness and understanding. The novel shows how much women can achieve even in the toughest, most alien, of circumstances.

Bronte also exposes the fatuity of "male" judgement and the limitations of conventionally attractive femininity.

Style: Crisp and poetic, at its best Bronte's prose achieves a downbeat lyricism. Beautiful phrases appear unselfconsciously, as if by accident.

There are, however, lapses into melodramatic effusion when exclamation marks replace emotion.

Chief strengths: Bronte gets inside Lucy's head and shows how boredom creates acute suffering. Lucy's world has a tangential relationship to our own: as in much modern fiction (but with far more excuse), ordinary objects and casual remarks are made strange. Nothing is neutral and trivial incidents ignite violent, perverse and self- destructive feelings. Lucy's inner life soars off the page. Surprisingly enough, there are also moments of satiric humour.

Chief weaknesses: Lucy's incurable desire to mystify the reader - she is the classic "unreliable narrator" - can seem like a poor joke repeated to excess. The anti-romantic, lovable Paul Emmanuel bears an unfortunate family resemblance to Hercule Poirot.

What they thought of it then: George Eliot believed it "still more wonderful" than Jane Eyre; Matthew Arnold considered that it contained only "hunger, rebellion and rage", imagining these things to be undesirable; Harriet Martineau thought it unwholesomely passionate.

What we think of it now: Ranked, unfairly, below Jane Eyre. In fact, it is more incisive in its social criticism and more uncompromising in its assertion of women's independence. Unquestionably a great feminist novel precisely because of its refusal to court sentimentality. Bronte's heroine remains both absurd and heroic.

Responsible for: The confessional woman's novel.

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