Some books bother me for reasons I struggle to articulate, and I sit there poised between turning the page or throwing the thing away entirely so as to avoid having to undergo the restlessness it inspires.
Charlotte Brontë’s Villette is one of those books. I am currently halfway through, almost to the page, and yet I can’t for the life of me understand why such a character had to be committed to so many pages (all five hundred and forty-six of them) or where the depressing, tedious minutae of her life could possibly lead, other than to a depressing, tedious end. I can see what is coming for Polly and Graham. I can see what is coming for Ginevra. I feel if I dare to hope that what is coming for Lucy Snowe is anything other than what she has endured so far, then I will end up feeling like I had been tricked into spending energy on a lost cause (I am convinced that what’s coming is simply more of the same).
I suppose, in a political sense, the narratives of women were not so commonly told back then, and that there is some objective value in having them available now, even in fictional form. Perhaps in one way I’m being uncharitable — my discomfort in the reading comprises only a fraction of the time that would have been spent living such a life. Perhaps I should give her the space to tell her story, however she wants to tell it. These books are still read for a reason. Still, Lucy is not a character I’m disposed to like, or get excited by, or warm towards, or feel particularly sorry for, even as she becomes less reserved as the story goes on.
If this is a political book, even unconsciously, about the terrible lot of the solitary woman, then it is undermined repeatedly by Lucy’s fabrications — or rather, deliberate non-disclosures, as they have been so far — partly because as the book plods (drags) along and her narrative becomes more and more unreliable, that narrative and the entire experience of it becomes increasingly frustrating and unsettling. Are her circumstances really as bad as she has been making out? Why doesn’t she tell us where she came from and who she is? And why is it, given she is so independent, she does not attempt to make more of her situation?
Perhaps this says more about me than it says about her. There are two ways to deal with adverse circumstances: buck up or buckle. She, frustratingly, does neither: she lets the tide carry her along like a passive piece of driftwood, doing only just enough to stop herself from sliding under completely, after which she seems content to let her head sit just above the water until the next wave comes along. No wonder she’s so fucking depressed.
So, she bothers me. This story bothers me.