Probably all of us have read Jane Eyre, about one of what biographer Lyndall Gordon calls Charlotte Bronte’s “searching spirit” heroines. But more passionate, more personal and autobiographical, and more searching is Bronte’s Villette.
The three Bronte sisters had many fictional characters who suffered terribly, who were orphaned, impoverished, sick and lonely. But they loved. Oh, how they loved!
I think of passages in Villette that are a torrent of desire. Not sexual desire (though we can certainly, and reasonably, read some of that kind of passion into the stories), but other desires and aspirations that seem to have been better recognized in the past than they are today.
Villette is a layered love story but it is also the expression of a writer who longed to have it all, to live large in a way that is perfectly recognizable now, but quite extraordinary for someone whose real life was narrow, constrained by her society and family.
Anyone who has longed to transcend the limits of their upbringing or talents will recognize a kindred spirit in the heroine of Villette. I’m not alone in this view. Here’s British writer Lucy Hughes-Hallett on “Why Villette is Better than Jane Eyre.”