Celebrate Women’s History Month with Charlotte

Villette

It’s Women’s History Month here in the United States, and Dover would like to suggest that you celebrate with a British author, that author being Charlotte Brontë.

It’s all too easy to be sad when we look at the Brontës. The siblings (Emily, Anne, Charlotte, and Bramwell) lived in a remote, damp place with a stern religious father. They had to work as governesses and teachers in a time and place where these professions were not accorded the respect they deserved. The prospects for personal happiness in marriage and family were nearly nonexistent. And illness stalked the Brontë family in a most cruel and heart-breaking fashion.

And yet …

Do you think that’s how Charlotte Brontë saw herself? As a person trapped by time and circumstance? A victim? Or did she know herself to be a formidable person who kept writing and kept working? As someone who used her life experience and her imagination to soar to a place where no one could stop her — and who never considered stopping?

“[Villette] is her finest novel. All her force, and it is the more tremendous for being constricted, goes into the assertion, ‘I love. I hate. I suffer.’” — Virginia Woolf.
Jane Eyre

Charlotte Bronte’s Villette is a nearly-forgotten book, outshone by the rags-to-riches of Jane Eyre. Both novels are about women in straightened circumstances who are thwarted by class oppression (yes: “class oppression” is a more modern phrase — but not by much). Lucy Snowe, the protagonist of Villette, is a darker personality that Jane. Lucy is less knowable, harder to root for, more complex than her literary younger sister, “dear-reader-I-married-him” Jane.

The book is full of sly turns, like the French names of towns. Since everything sounds better in French, readers might be forgiven for not understanding that the wonderful sounding names have low meanings. The novel takes place in the country of Labassecour (“farmyard). Lucy Snowe makes landfall in the port of Boue-Marine (“sea mud”). However, it wouldn’t be Charlotte doing the forgiving.

“Villette is a still more wonderful book than Jane Eyre. There is something almost preternatural in its power.” — George Eliot.

When we look back, we look back with our own eyes and our own judgement. We wonder why people tolerated their situations and why they didn’t speak out or simply pack up and leave the damp home on the moors, maybe relocate to the south of France where they might at least avoid tuberculosis or typhoid or, if they had to succumb to alcoholism like Bramwell Bronte, at least do it with good French wine rather than bad English gin.

But we weren’t there. And people in the future will judge us and wonder why did what we did, why the women of 2018 didn’t do what the women of the future will do.

We all stand on the shoulders of giants, even small giants like Charlotte Brontë.

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