A Very Bronte Blog Post: Villette and A Bronte Burlesque

Do you have a favourite Bronte novel? If not, go read some of their stuff. It’s okay, I’ll wait.

Villette Charlotte BronteThe perceptive Rory at Fourth Street Review suggests that many readers identify strongly with either Jane Eyre (Charlotte) or Wuthering Heights (Emily), but not both. I’ve been a Wuthering Heights girl since I read it 17 years ago, but I’ve broadened my Bronte horizons of late: I read my first Anne book, Agnes Grey last fall, I read Charlotte’s Villette last month, and just recently saw a play based on the Bronte’s lives.  I’m still Team Emily, but it’s time for me to give Charlotte her due: Villette is her masterpiece (sorry Jane fans) and she’s the most interesting of the siblings.

I didn’t even get around to reviewing Agnes Grey last year. It definitely had it’s moments, but the biggest impression it left was my wonder at how things were so different in Anne’s time; mostly in terms of the qualifications needed to educate children (be female, be unmarried, have a pulse?) Villette made me wonder about this stuff too, but I also felt the universality of Lucy’s situation. She could be anyone, at any time, not just a 19th century teacher, whereas Agnes was trapped in time. Indeed, if you have ever loved someone more than they love you, you’ll identify with Lucy Snowe.

Villette reminded me of a smaller-scope Middlemarch. Both novels are named for a city and are about the divisions between classes and sexes and have wonderful feminist perspectives. Middlemarch has much more going for it, from politics to academia to satire – so much, in fact, that I’m paralyzed to write a proper review. Villette is more of  a character study – a convincing portrait of Lucy and her world. It’s a tragedy, and at times gothic and romantic. It’s odd in its construction – a straightforward narrative most of the time, but then, BAM, there’s a stream of consciousness account of Lucy’s severe depression. Or a delerious description of Lucy tripping out after being drugged. An anti-Catholic rant. A ghost nun. And so on.

Jane Eyre is great, but it just wasn’t this ambitious or this awesome. I made the mistake of finishing Villette over lunch time at work, and spent that afternoon in a state of bewilderment. I may have said “oh no she DIDN’T” aloud. It’s pretty much the opposite of the satisfying “Reader, I married him,” but to me, the ending was more satisfying for being so ambiguous.

Charlotte, Emily, Branwell, and Anne via https://www.facebook.com/sendinthegirls

Send in the Girls in A Bronte Burlesque: Charlotte, Emily, Branwell, and Anne via https://www.facebook.com/sendinthegirls

Villette was the perfect preparation for seeing A Bronte Burlesque, a production of local theatre company Send in the Girls. Charlotte is the star, and we first meet her on her deathbed, her siblings having all died years earlier. Villette is never mentioned, and not often referenced (it’s all about Jane Eyre) but dying Charlotte, bitter and alone, put me in mind of Lucy Snow immediately.

In real life, Charlotte was newlywed and pregnant at her death, though this is never mentioned in the play. So, the story is manipulated, but what story isn’t? A Bronte Burlesque is confined to the insular world of the four Bronte siblings: Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell, the underachiever brother who I didn’t even know about till I saw the play.

It’s about exposing (get it?) the real Charlotte, how her ambition drove her to betray her siblings. She’s successful, but haunted by the past. Emily and Anne are laid bare as well – Anne and her jealousy, Emily and her depravity.

I had always wondered about Emily: how did she write so convincingly about obsession and loss, living such a short and isolated life? This play suggests that there was some Flowers in the Attic action going on up at Haworth, which made me question my teenage obsession with Wuthering Heights for a second before realizing this is a work of fiction about another work of fiction and every interpretation is as valid as the next – icky or not.

The burlesque element was fun, and worked well on a metaphorical level – you know, exposure, identity, femininity -but sometimes I would remember that they were supposed to be related and it got a a little weird. Or a lot weird. Seeing Emily throw herself at her own brother to the strains of Radiohead’s “Creep” was one of the more bizarre experiences of my life. This play was not exactly date night material.

The set, music and costumes were gorgeous. I was entertained and I gained a serious appreciation for Charlotte Bronte. And I simply love the fact that there’s a local theatre company doing something like this with literature and history! I never read biographies, but now I’m on the lookout for a good one – maybe Elizabeth Gaskell’s  on Charlotte, or Daphne Du Maurier’s on Branwell.

Tell me, are you Team Emily or Team Charlotte? Is there a Team Anne? Branwell?? 

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19 comments

  1. ttay1213

    Have you read Anne’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall? I read it last year and loved it. I also really enjoyed Du Maurier’s bio of Bramwell. Otherwise, I’m a Charlotte girl.

  2. Naomi

    I’m team Charlotte, so if you say Villette is her masterpiece then I think I better read it. I’ve never heard anyone talk about Agnes Grey, so my copy of it is still sitting there waiting to be read. What did you think of it?

    I also never read bios, but am still curious about the lives of certain people. I wish they had summarized versions of biographies, so I could get a good idea of their lives without it taking too long. If you end up reading one of them, let us know!

    A Bronte Burlesque sounds great! Maybe someday it will come my way.

    • lauratfrey

      Anges didn’t impress me that much. The children were a riot – worst behaved kids ever! Made me feel better about my own kids.

      Wikipedia is my summarized version of biographies 🙂

  3. ohsacrebleu

    I committed to read one book by each Bronte sister recently, and can now check of ‘Wuthering Heights’ ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.’ I loved them all, even though Wildfell Hall had it’s moments of dragging on it’s an amazing feminist text.

    But I think I’m mainly team Emily because I read her first 🙂

    • lauratfrey

      Yep, nothing compares to reading Wuthering Heights at 16 while going through your first heartbreak.

      I think I’ll give Tenant a whirl, after hearing some good things!

  4. chiggins82

    I have never read a Bronte novel and really never had an urge to, but after going to A Bronte Burlesque, it is kind of now on my read list.. problem for me is what one to read first??

    PS – Thanks for bringing me Laura! Even though I didn’t get all the literary references, it was still fully entertaining.

    • lauratfrey

      You should choose according to which sister you liked best in the play. If Emily, has to be Wuthering. If Charlotte, I recommend Villette (obviously). If Anne, try Tenant of Wildfell Hall – I haven’t read it but hear it’s good.

  5. jessicabono915

    I’m a Jane Eyre fan, so I would say Team Charlotte. When I started the book I couldn’t put it down. I’ve been carrying it around with me lately so I can go back and read parts here and there. It was a great 50 cent thrift store find. I just picked Villette up from the library and I will definitely be starting it as soon as I’m done with the current book I’m reading.

  6. writereads

    Eep! Can I say neither? I mean, I liked both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, but if I’m going to go Victorian, I’m going with Wilkie Collins or George Eliot. Sorry, the melodrama was a little high in the Brontes…dammit I’m feeling too bad about this, I’m going with Emily.
    -Tania

  7. Carolyn O

    Team Charlotte, yo. I can appreciate Emily’s writing, but Heathcliff and Cathy deserve each other, and I don’t mean that in a good way. Have you read The Glass Essay by Anne Carson (in the book Glass, Irony, and God)? I think I recommended it to Rick awhile back. It’s got lots of good stuff for those who love Emily.

  8. Branwell Brontë

    May I humbly suggest ignoring Gaskell’s biography and reading Julia Barker’s The Brontës instead? It’s a much better read and Barker is much more informed on the subject.

    And I’m Team Branwell, for the record.

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