Monday, June 08, 2009
Summer Reading Project II: Villette
I am only just returned to a sense of the real world around me, for I have been reading Villette, a still more wonderful book than Jane Eyre. There is something almost preternatural in its power. (George Eliot to Caroline Bray, 15 February, 1853)
Why is Villette disagreeable? Because the writer’s mind contains nothing but hunger, rebellion, and rage, and therefore that is all she can in fact put into her book. (Matthew Arnold to Mrs. Forster, 14 April 1853).
Although there were a number of good suggestions in response to my previous message about a summer reading group, no consensus emerged for any other specific choice and several people expressed interest in Villette, so this book, which Charlotte Bronte’s friend Harriet Martineau considered “perhaps the strangest, the most astonishing” of her novels, will be the focus of this year’s Summer Reading Project. The format and tone of last year’s were both, I thought, very successful: we had wide and steady participation, the pace seemed manageable, and the discussions were always interesting and almost always congenial. Accordingly, I propose doing everything pretty much the same this time, and in fact will poach shamelessly from the previous set-up post:
Villette was Charlotte Bronte’s fourth novel. Her first, The Professor, was eventually published posthumously in 1857. Her first success, Jane Eyre, made its sensational debut in 1847; it was followed by Shirley, in 1849, and then by Villette in 1853. Villette was the first novel Charlotte wrote entirely without input from her sisters Anne and Emily, both of whom had died during the composition of Shirley: in the words of her biographer and friend Elizabeth Gaskell, “down into the very midst of her writing came the bolts of death:”
She went on with her work steadily. But it was dreary to write without anyone to listen to the progress of her tale,--to find fault or to sympathize,--while pacing the length of the parlour in the evenings, as in the days that were no more. Three sisters had done this,--then two, the other sister dropping off from the walk,--and now one was left desolate, to listen for echoing steps that never came,--and to hear the wind sobbing at the windows, with an almost articulate sound.
Villette was hailed as a work of genius; notable reviews compare Bronte to George Sand and to Balzac. Yet even among those who admired it, some found it morbid, disturbing, unfeminine, and coarse. I wonder what we will think!
As many people as are interested will read Villette this summer, in instalments as outlined below. The idea is to complete the specified chapters by the date given. If the pace turns out to be too fast or too slow, we can change it. Each week, a simple message will be posted here at The Valve inviting discussion of the reading so far. Everyone is welcome to contribute; discussions will simply follow people’s interests. People who have their own blogs can post there and provide excerpts and/or links over here if they want (or the links and I’ll collate and post them). As a slight variation on last year’s procedures, we will follow our reading of the novel with a couple of weeks of posts on critical articles (specifics TBA). If this approach proves too open-ended and those involved would like more structure (e.g. posts to respond to, or questions to initiate discussion), we can consider how best to do that. Initially, though, let’s just see what people want to talk about. Lurkers especially welcome! Blogging is not meant to be a spectator sport.
By the given date, we’ll aim to have read at least the chapters specified. As I’ll be away on holiday over the end of June, we’ll start in early July.
July 7: Chapters 1-8
July 14: Chapters 9-15
July 21: Chapters 16-22
July 28: Chapters 23-27
August 4: Chapters 28-35
August 11:Chapters 36-42
August 18 & 25: Criticism
E-text of Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte
Thanks for setting this up.
I had checked in yesterday to see if anything had started yet, and now it’s here! Looking forward to it.
Been looking forward to this, Rohan, many thanks. I have never been keen on Villette (or CB, for that matter) but maybe Valve readers will change my mind ...!
Isn’t Ray Davis a fan of this book? I think he is.
Indeed he is! But Ray Davis has been a complete loser as regards time-available-for-writing for a few years now (after having well established himself as a complete loser in other ways), and so he’s been reluctant to make a public commitment on this one.
My “plan” is to participate if I can, and to look on longingly (and possibly belatedly) if I can’t.
Excellent! I was planning to read Villette this summer, and this will just enhance the process.
Do you have any exact information as to whether the text is unfeminine and coarse? If so, that may influence my decision.
For or against, Joseph? But FWIW, I think by 19th-century standards it is certainly ‘unfeminine,’ and probably ‘coarse,’ though both terms need a lot of parsing. There are ghosts (sort of) and buried letters, and there’s even some cross-dressing, in case any of that helps make up your mind. And Bronte said (rather as Austen did of Emma, as I recall) that she meant “Miss Frost“ to be somebody few would like.
Joseph, it depends on whether you think prison movies are feminine and refined.
A response worthy of Wilde, Rohan - it’s going to be a great summer!
Yes, It would prove useful to review Charlotte Bronte’s Belgian experience and compare that with the persons and events in Villette.
Oh, this is great, thanks for doing it! I haven’t read Villette since college. This will be a good motivator for a long-overdue re-read.