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Yes, it’s that time of the week again!

The most notable thing about these chapters is how quiet they were. While in the earlier ones I underlined many paragraphs and made several notes with lots of exclamation marks, in this section I only had five. Just as Lucy breathed deeply, paused and relaxed, I had a ‘soft’ reading experience and found little to make my blood boil, for good or evil. This alignment of states of mind between character and reader is proof of great workmanship on Bronte’s part, don’t you think?

It was good to see Lucy enjoy herself, but I suspect  it only happened because she found herself among people of her class and nationality. We were even treated to a mild ugly duckling/make-over scene, which is probably my favorite plot-gimmick ever (I should post a list of Top 10 Favorite Ugly Duckling Moments in Literature soon).

And talking about favorites, my favorite scene happened when Lucy saw herself and her group in the mirror without realizing it –  it would look great in a movie:

Thus for the first, and perhaps only time in my life, I enjoyed the “giftie” of seeing myself as others see me. No need to dwel of the results.

Why the use of the word “giftie”? Seems off-key somehow.

I also found interesting the part about the gallery and the Cleopatra. It’s clear that Bronte wanted us to compare the attitudes of the two men in Lucy’s life towards an open display of sexuality. Dr John was all coolness, while M. Paul was his frantic self, ready to cover the modest eyes of any woman in the vicinity. Another not so veiled comparison between Catholics and Protestants – or Continentals and English?

Once again Bronte was not kind to the poor Labassecouriens, especially the women. They all seem to be bulky, “barrel-shaped” and artificial, and can never be trusted – “You never find her [Ginevra] lying, as these foreigners will often lie.” I’m glad that at least the Queen seemed to have pleased!

One last note: I would like to see some more character development around Dr. John. I like him, but I don’t see him as a romantic hero. He actually doesn’t create any strong feelings in me, especially now that he stopped orbiting around Ginevra, and I don’t want to slap him upside the head all the time.

When is Polly coming back?!

(SPOILERS for these chapters)

Well, I wasn’t expecting that! The most surprising thing wasn’t that Dr. John was Graham, but that Lucy knew for several chapter and didn’t tell us, her dear trusting readers. It makes me smile over the several comments about her powers of observation (including mine), only to see her reveals herself as an unreliable narrator. I’ll need to pay more attention to what she says (and how she says it) it the future.

(Someone from the Brussels Bronte Group once told me that the Church which inspired the place where Lucy almost turned Catholic was the Notre Dame du Sablon (photo) – can anyone confirm?)

Looking back at her motives, I thinking I’d also not tell Dr. John who I was if he failed to recognize me. This is actually one of the only two moments in these chapters where I could understand Lucy, the other being her sarcastic ode to de Hamal (he he he!).

Ever since the chapter in London I’ve been moving further and further away from Lucy. I just don’t get her and it frustrates me a little, because many bloggers I follow loved the book exactly because they recognized themselves in Lucy. Oh well!

For instance, here’s something I couldn’t understand: during school months Lucy’s always craving for solitude and as soon as she has it, she’s more depressed than ever! She even goes mentally and physically ill (but not enough to fall into the hands of those cunning Catholics, hey?). And what sin did she confess that so much impressed her confessor?

Another: she’s a strong, resilient, self-reliable woman, so why did she let herself be locked in an attic full of rats to better memorize a play?

AND YET! And yet she can laugh!

How I laughed when I reached the schoolroom. I knew now she had certainly seen Dr. John in the garden.

But alas not for long… two sentence afterwards:

Yet as the laugh died, a kind of wrath smote me, and then bitterness followed: it was the rock struck, and Meriban’s waters gushing out.

The thing is, as I feel less empathic towards Lucy, I become more curious to see what the Bronte has in stall for her. I’m fascinated by Lucy’s depthness, repression and slightly psychotic mind, and I don’t mind at all that she also became an unreliable narrator – it add more layers to the story!

Brussels Park Royal, the inspiration for the Park Lucy crossed with Dr. John on arriving at Villette

O Lucy Snow, we were getting along so well… these new six chapters made me wish you had continued behind your mystery veil.

I really like the “London” chapter because the exhilaration of being a stranger in a strange town, with an uncertain future in front of you, is one I can recognize. I admired her strength in keeping her “consciousness of anxiety” at bay and allow herself to enjoy the step she’s taken:

I went up Cornhill; I mixed with the life passing along; I dared the perils of crossings. To do this, and do it utterly alone, gave me, perhaps an irrational, but a real pleasure.

I was much less sympathetic once she arrived in Labassecour and Villette or even as soon as she was abroad the vessel out of England – I believe she has yet to say something completely nice about someone she meets, although she seems kinder to English gentlemen… As an expat, this is a type of attitude that makes me cringe: that of other expats or tourist who constantly compare their host country to their home country, which usually comes up as a better place, full of better people. Lucy is like that. She’s been a little bundle of negativity ever since leaving London, which in my view makes her look ungenerous and slightly ungrateful.

A bluff little personage this maitresse was – Labassecourienne from top to toe; and how she did slaughter the speech of Albion (Really Lucy! You’re in a French-speaking country, have you noticed? Let’s see you speak it a bit, shall we?)

Madame’s visitations for shortcoming might be slow, but they were sure. All this very un-English: truly I was in a foreign land. (It this a compliment veiled as a criticisms or a criticism veiled as a compliment?)

(…) she would talk to me (…) about England and Englishwomen, and the reasons for what she was pleased to term their superior intelligence, and more real and reliable probity. Very good sense she often showed; very sound opinions she often broached (…)

Where an English girl of not more than average capacity and docility would quietly take a theme and bind herself to the task of comprehension and mastery, a Labassecourienne would laugh in your face, and throw it back to you with the phrase, – “Dieu, que c’est difficile! Je n’en veux pas. Cella m’ennule trop.”

I’m sure I’m more affected by this attitude because I know Charlotte based it on her own experiences in Brussels. After more than five years living here, the city has become more home than anywhere else, and I feel very protective of it.

Lucy’s attitude towards Mrs Beck, made me “enjoy” the Madame more. Her character and the eccentric way in which she rules her business were superbly written (as really all the book so far). I especially liked the scene where she wants Lucy to go from nanny to a teacher and Lucy is crying with fear:

“Will you,” she said, “go backward or forward?” indicating with her hand, first, the small door of communication with the dwelling-house, and then the great double portals of the classes or schoolrooms.

“En avant.” I said.

Brava, Madame!

Maybe my sight is now clouded by prejudice, but didn’t you feel that Lucy’s observations of Dr John were bordering on the “stalkerish”? She was rude when she was caught staring at him and then ignored his question, and she also does her bit of spying, when she realises the maid has upset him…

Still think the writing is beautiful and gripping, but for now, the heroine has fallen in my humble consideration.

I went into this story without know anything apart that it’s about a woman moving from England to live in a foreign place called Villette. I still know nothing about it apart from these first five chapters.

My first thought after finishing them was this: Lucy Snow, who are you? Something tells me I won’t get much closer to an answer by the end of the book, and it surprised me that Charlotte decided to create such a mysterious heroine after letting us into bit of Jane Eyre’s mind (or maybe because of it?).

Lucy, we find in these first five chapters, is a keen observer and gives us an intimate glimpse of two homes. The first is her godmother’s, whom she’s visiting and where she meets Polly-the-creepy-child. Polly is a relative that’s staying with them while her father is out of the country for his health. She’s a six-year-old drama queen who transfers her almost morbid attachment to her father to the godmother’s son, Graham. Lucy’s descriptions of the way Polly clings to these two men made me slightly uncomfortable – her gestures and dialogues are those of a wife or a lover, and in modern times would deserve serious counseling. Take a look at this eerie description of Polly:

Opposite where he had placed himself [Graham] was seated Mr. Home, and at his elbow, the child. When I say child I use an inappropriate and undescriptive term—a term suggesting any picture rather than that of the demure little person in a mourning frock and white chemisette, that might just have fitted a good-sized doll—perched now on a high chair beside a stand, whereon was her toy work-box of white varnished wood, and holding in her hands a shred of a handkerchief, which she was professing to hem, and at which she bored perseveringly with a needle, that in her fingers seemed almost a skewer, pricking herself ever and anon, marking the cambric with a track of minute red dots; occasionally starting when the perverse weapon—swerving from her control—inflicted a deeper stab than usual; but still silent, diligent, absorbed, womanly.

Flashes of “Village of the Damned” keept crossing my mind…

The second home we’re introduced to is that of invalid Miss Marchmont, to take is Lucy as a companion/nurse after an unexplained tragedy happens. I had to go back and re-read the metaphors about boats and storms to realize Lucy was telling us she’d lost all her family and was now alone in the world. Did Charlotte know that by not telling us what happened, the reader would imagine the worst?

Lucy spends years confined to the two rooms Miss Marchmoors is limited to, and dedicates her life to the Lady’s comfort. I came to see this time in her life as a necessary harbour of safety and constancy, after her unnamed difficulties. My favorite part of these chapters were Lucy’s thoughts when Miss Marchmont dies and she is forced out of her emotional hibernation:

It seemed I must be stimulated into action. I must be goaded, driven, stung, forced to energy. My little morsel of human affection, which I prized as if it were a solid pearl, must melt in my fingers and slip thence like a dissolving hailstone. My small adopted duty must be snatched from my easily contented conscience. I had wanted to compromise with Fate: to escape occasional great agonies by submitting to a whole life of privation and small pains. Fate would not so be pacified; nor would Providence sanction this shrinking sloth and cowardly indolence.

This is the second book I’ve read this year where we’re left ignorant of the heroine’s background and it’s interesting to see the difference it makes in character development. You really are the sum of all your experiences and the decisions you make are a consequence of a past cause. So why did Charlotte decided to give us a “past-less” Lucy Snowe? Something I’m looking forward to explore in the next chapters.

So this is it, I’m finally reading Villette by Charlotte Brontë. It’s happening because of the timely Villette Read-Along organized by Wallace over at Unputdownables.

I’ve been curious about this one for a while now, ever since moving to Brussels actually, because this city inspired the fictional one which gave the name to the novel . Emily and Charlotte lived here for a while and that’s why there’s a Brussels Bronte Group, of which I’m a proud member. It seems that several of the references to places in Villette are clearly connected to real places in Brussels, so I’m really looking forward to this!

The Pensionnat Héger in Quartier Isabelle, where the sisters lived, has long been destroyed, but the Group placed a plaque in the only piece of original street still visible above ground (there’s another part in the catacombs of a local museum). This was done without asking the Brussels municipality, so shhhh, it’s just between you and me, ok?

Whenever friends come to visit I always pass by while giving my usually city tour, but usually my enthusiasm is way above theirs… “Brontë who?! Whatevs!”

A piece of rue d’Isabelle in the Belvue Museum:

A small piece of Quartier Isabelle still remains. See the plaque between the doors? Tinny blue spec?

The plaque. You can read here all about the Secret Mission to put it there! Notice the reference to Villette:

Part 2/2 of the Cranford Read-Along (Chapters XIV to XVI)

All my deep and intellectual comments ran out with the first Cranford post, so for the second half all I have left are random and disconnected thoughts 🙂

I know from other reviews that most people found “The Panic” the funniest chapter in the whole book, but for me, all the embarrassing public giggles happened while reading “Signor Brunoni”. It starts with the disappointment of Miss Matty’s over the turban, and no mater how Mary tries to justify it, she should have known better! How great would it be for Miss Matty to walk down Main Street with a really outrageous headpiece? She’d be the belle of the village.

Other great scenes in this chapter were Miss Pole’s description of meeting the magician Mr. Brunoni (the forgotten glove! :)), Miss Matty trying to learn the tricks’ scientific explanations from her encyclopedia, and of course the show itself. As the ladies accepted they were facing real magic, they began to fear the Church might disapprove their attendance:

“Will you look my dear – you are a stranger in town, and it won’t give rise to unpleasant reports – will you just look round and see if the Rector is there? If he is, I think we may conclude that this wonderful man in sanctioned by the Church, and that will be a great relief to my mind.”

This beats imaginary burglars anytime!

In this second half I still missed my Mr. Holbrook, but I felt compensated by Mr. Hoggins. We don’t know much about him, but somehow I became a fan (I wonder how much of it has to do with the Dr. in the series… hummm). If on the first half I wanted a whole book just on Mr. Holbrook, now I want one just on the romance between Mr. Hoggins and Lady Glenmire. The Cranford ladies didn’t see that one coming and like them, I was craving for all the details.

Despite all the emotional scenes, Cranford only gave me one teary moment, when Mrs. Forrester is justifying to Mary the size of her contribution to help Miss Matty. Sniff.

The conclusion is, I had fun during my stay at Cranford. Not only was it a gentle book, full of characters you’d like to know in real life, but it also confirmed my belief that no one tops BBC when if comes to adapting classics. I still have the “Return to Cranford” DVD waiting for me on the shelf. I’ve been saving it for a rainy day 🙂

A big thank you to all of you who participated in the Read Along. It was my first, but for sure not my last.

(in the Brussels metro, Andre experimenting with his new camera)

Part 1/2 of the Cranford Read-Along (Chapters I to XVIII)

Without melodrama, without even an actual plot, Cranford develops at the gentle pace you’d expect from an early-Victorian small town. Elizabeth Gaskell is the Queen of Domestic Life and from page 1 the reader is immediately involved in the small pains and pleasures of a group of middle-aged genteel women. With just a few anecdotes, she is able to build distinct individuals and I was often left with the vague impression I actually knew someone who, as Miss Matty and her candles, is obsessed about saving something or other, or who would defend his/hers favourite author as devotedly as Miss Jenkins’ did her Dr. Jenkyns (the dialogue in that scene is priceless).

I also found the narrator delightful. She’s the outsider looking in and has just the right amount of clever irony, like asking the readers if they would find some of Cranford’s eccentricities in London. My favorite:

The greatest event was, that Miss Jenkyns had purchased a new carpet for the drawing-room.  Oh, the busy work Miss Matty and I had in chasing the sunbeams, as they fell in an afternoon right down on this carpet through the blindless window!  (…) We were very busy, too, one whole morning, before Miss Jenkyns gave her party, in following her directions, and in cutting out and stitching together pieces of newspaper so as to form little paths to every chair set for the expected visitors, lest their shoes might dirty or defile the purity of the carpet.  Do you make paper paths for every guest to walk upon in London?

What a great image, I’m sorry they didn’t use that in the series!

Cranford is my fourth Gaskell after North & South, Wives & Daughters and The Life of Charlotte Bronte. In comparison it’s much lighter and I can easily imagine Gaskell having fun writing it. She avoided the major social convulsions and deep moral dilemmas of the others, but her recurrent theme of tradition vs. progress is still very much present in Cranford. Change in this village does not come through the arrival of rail line or a factory, but is more subtle. Almost every chapter is about how these women gently adapt to the developments around them, especially after the death of Miss Jenkins, the village’s bastion of tradition. Sucking oranges in company, burning old letters (why didn’t the narrator offer to take care of them?!) had the scale of revolutions in the quite life of Miss Matty.

Don’t you sometimes wish that a separate story would be written about another book’s secondary characters? I get that a lot – the one that comes to mind immediately is Faramir from Lord of the Rings (one of my biggest literary crushes!). I got that same feeling about “Mr. Thomas Holbrook, yeoman”, my favourite character in the first half of the book. I would have liked to know more about his daily life, what he reads, his relationship with tenants and servants, but most of all, I’d have liked to see Paris through his eyes. I was very sorry to see him go so soon.

These are my 2-euro cents about the first 8 chapters. Looking forward to see what the other Read-Along participants thought!

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