Thursday, February 17, 2011

"Villette" Read-A-Long: Chapters 6 - 11

Second post for this read-a-long, initiated by Unputdownables.

I am writing this on the Sunday prior to Thursday's posting deadline as I can't help but want to read ahead.  Before doing so however, I need to stop and write for fear that knowing more of the story will influence this post.  This is a new exercise - to stop in the middle of reading, think deeply about what's been read and write.  Depending on how this goes, who knows - a new habit may begin!

In chapters 6 - 11, we read about Lucy Snowe 's move from London to France, more specifically a town called Villette.  As an impoverished, single woman with no family or friends (as far as we know), she has only herself to rely upon.  I find her decision-making process haunting.
"I had nothing to lose.  Unutterable loathing of a desolate existence past forbade return.  If I failed in what I now designed to undertake, who, save myself, would suffer?  If I died far away from - home, I was going to say, but I had no home - from England, then, who would weep?  I might suffer; I was inured to suffering: death itself had not, I thought, those terrors for me which it has for the softly reared.  I had, ere this, looked on the thought of death with a quiet eye.  Prepared then, for any consequence, I formed a project." 
Any other woman, including myself, might have been in the throes of depression if this were her life.  No home, no family, no one who would weep if she died.  A woman familiar with suffering, one not "softly reared" nor afraid of death. It is this lack of fear that gives her the courage to sail to a different country and attempt to find work.  On this trip, when events occur that would frighten many, she gives cool appraisal to herself.
"I asked myself if I was wretched or terrified.  I was neither.  Often in my life have I been far more so under comparatively safe circumstances.  'How is this?' said I.  'Me-thinks I am animated and alert, instead of being depressed and apprehensive?' I would not tell how it was."
She assesses her situation again, once safely bunked.
"Some difficulties had been passed through, a sort of victory was won: my homeless, anchorless, unsupported mind had again leisure for a brief repose: till the 'Vivid' arrived in harbour, no further action would be required of me, but then..Oh!  I could not look forward.  Harassed, exhausted, I lay in a half-trance."
The words she uses to describe her mind, in fact, aptly portray her current state:  homeless, anchorless, unsupported.  "Poor thing," I think.  But she has no self-pity - in fact, as she later stands on the ship's deck alone, she feels happy and confident that as long as she has health and a stable mind, Hope is not far.
" peril, loneliness, an uncertain future, are not oppressive evils, so long as the frame is healthy and the faculties are employed; so long, especially, as Liberty lends us her wings, and Hope guides us by her star."
A fellow passenger, Miss Ginevra Fanshawe, tells Lucy of a position as an English governess for Madame Beck, directress of her school.  Lucy decides that she will pursue this opportunity and in anticipation of the reader having issue with the decision, she says:
"Before you pronounce on the rashness of the proceeding, reader, look back to the point whence I started; consider the desert I had left, note how little I perilled: mine was the game where the player cannot lose and may win."
With this passage, it is clear we are reading about Lucy Snowe's accounting of her life - her memoir.  And while writing, she presumes judgements made by the reader and attempts to dispel them or at least, to justify her actions.  On her trip to Villette, she describes her mounting anxiety like a tiger.  I find this analogy haunting and horrible. She is someone who is close to being victimized and perhaps devoured by anxiety.
"These feelings, however, were well kept in check by the secret but ceaseless consciousness of anxiety lying in wait on enjoyment, like a tiger crouched in a jungle. The breathing of that beast of prey was in my ear always, his fierce heart panted close against mine; he never stirred in his lair but I felt him: I knew he waited only for sun-down to bound ravenous from his ambush."
With fate guiding her, Lucy manages to not only find Madame Beck, but is hired first as governess, then as an English teacher.  Her description of M. Beck is riveting:
" attempt to touch her heart was the surest way to rouse her antipathy, and to make of her a secret foe. It proved to her that she had no heart to be touched: it reminded her where she was impotent and dead. Never was the distinction between charity and mercy better exemplified than in her....In philanthropic schemes, for the benefit of society at large, she took a cheerful part; no private sorrow touched her: no force or mass of suffering concentrated in one heart had power to pierce hers.  Not the agony in Gethsemane, not the death on Calvary, could have wrung from her eyes one tear."
Upon hearing that Madame Beck wants her to take over an English class from a departing teacher, she is mortified as it would mean leaving her "comfort zone."  Her reasoning to settle for an unobtrusive and uninteresting life is this:
" work had neither charm for my taste, nor hold on my interest; but it seemed to me a great thing to be without heavy anxiety, and relieved from intimate trial; the negation of severe suffering was the nearest approach to happiness I expected to know.  Besides, I seemed to hold two lives - the life of thought, and that of reality; and, provided the former was nourished with a sufficiency of the strange necromantic joys of fancy, the privileges of the latter might remain limited to daily bread, hourly work, and a roof of shelter."
This passage really hit me.  She has suffered.  Even severely.  I have as well, with the tragic death of our son.  And with that horrific event, went all feelings of happiness, either for present or for the future. And so Lucy's thought - that happiness would simply be the absence of severe suffering rings true for me.

I am surprised at the number of interesting quotes in these 6 chapters.  Will the rest of the book be this way?

What I am learning about Lucy:

  • she is self-reflective, assessing her thoughts and feelings as honestly as possible. 
  • she is an observer - like a fly on the wall.
  • she is quiet which makes her unnoticeable, in the case of young Dr. John. To others like Miss Fanshawe, she is a good listener. 
  • when push comes to shove, she is quite resourceful.  Eg. obtaining employment from Madame Beck, handling a class of 60 testy students - with no support, whatsoever. 
Questions about Lucy:
  • Where did she come from?  Who is her family?  What happened to her?  How did she come to be in such a desperate situation? Will we ever learn about her past?
  • She seems to just "go with the flow."  What else will happen to her?  Is there any happiness in her future? 


  1. She mentions something, fleetingly, about her family; how people will assume the worst and she will let them. I have a feeling they are dead since she wears only mourning clothes and has not a soul to care about whether she lives or dies.

    I, too, would be terrified. But I wonder, if there is nothing left to be afraid of (because everything has already been taken from you) maybe that is what enables this "courage" that we see. The fact that there really is no other choice because staying or going will result in the exact same situation for her. Aloneness.

    Very sad, but I am hoping some good things are heading her way!

  2. I am loving a lot having to stop at some milestones and being forced to reflect on what I've read! I'm sure I would not get as much from the book otherwise!

    I find it interesting that Lucy hardly talks about herself, she shuts herself from us (what is she hidding?), but then the people she meets & her actions let us have glimpses on her personality!

    I am enthralled as well by Charlotte's writing!

  3. I'm also finding it an interesting exercise to reflect on a book in a concentrated manner before finishing it. I'm surprised that I have so many thoughts to discuss...I'm thinking that it may be a great way to get through the classics.

    Lucy is surprisingly resourceful, isn't she? I tried to imagine myself, an introspective, observant person, take control of a classroom like she did and I don't think I'd do nearly as well. That definitely says something about her!

  4. I agree that Lucy's a great observer, but I felt she was a little too disapproving of everything around her. I could not find one single person that she thought well off, except maybe Dr John (and he was an English gentleman, which seemed to help!).