Charlotte Bronte’s brilliant novel, Villette, is not as popular as Jane Eyre, the Gothic romance we all loved as girls. More complicated and brutally realistic than Jane Eyre, Villette is a classic for adults, a feminist anti-romance with Gothic elements, ghosts, surveillance, unrequited love, and even drugs. The narrator, Lucy Snowe, is Jane Eyre’s doppelgänger, a plain, nearly invisible young woman who does not “get the guy” though she becomes a respected professional.
Like many impoverished 19th-century women, Lucy must work rather than marry, though she has no qualifications to earn a good living. She finds a position as a companion, and when her employer dies, decides to take her chances in a foreign country: she travels to Belgium. By leaving England for Brussels (known as Villette in the novel), she has the opportunity to succeed on different terms: serendipity leads her to a boarding school where she becomes a successful English teacher. In this alien Catholic culture, Lucy is able to construct a strong, independent personality that, we surmise, would have been impossible in England.
I’ve mentioned Villette often here as one of my favorite books, most recently in 2015, but have never blogged about it at length: I know it too well, I love it too much.
But I was fascinated to read about Villette recently in an excerpt from Joanna Russ’s book, How to Suppress Women’s Writing, at Literary Hub: she cited it as a book suppressed by the patriarchy.
Russ’s premise is that, by promoting a single novel by a woman writer as her “best, ” i.e., Jane Eyre in Bronte’s case, which Russ considers “less good,” and keeping the others out-of-print, publishers persuade readers that the output of great books by women is tiny, and that great women writers manage only one worthwhile book or poem. The sexist society wants to suppress anything subversive. Does this sound paranoid? Well, perhaps.
In about 1971 I was teaching Charlotte Brontë in a women’s studies course and decided to use her Villette instead of Jane Eyre. The number of different publishers who have in print different paperback editions of Jane Eyre I know not; I found several editions in the bookstore of my university (and one more, a year later, in the “Gothic” section of the local supermarket). But there was not one edition of Villette in print in the United States, whether in paperback or hardcover, and I finally had to order the book (in hardcover, too expensive for class use) from England. (The only university library editions of Villette or Shirley I could find at that time were the old Tauchnitz editions: tiny type and no leading.)
But I wondered if Russ had her dates right, because in the 1960s I found a hardcover copy of Villette at the public library–not a university library. Then my aunt gave me a used paperback copy. And in 1974 I bought a Penguin of Shirley (it’s in my journal!). So was there a long or short gap when these books were out-of-print? I would really need dates, not anecdotal evidence. If these books were out-of-print, one can only suppose that publishers raced to reissue them when the growth of Women’s Studies departments assured sales.
Russ, best-known for her SF novel, The Female Man (which I think is very dated), has a radical Second Wave feminist outlook, based on the belief that the patriarchal publishers deliberately suppressed certain women’s books. She writes,
I think it no accident that the myth of the isolated achievement so often promotes women writers’ less good work as their best work. For example, Jane Eyre exists, as of this writing, on the graduate reading list of the Department of English at the University of Washington. (This is the only PhD reading list to which I have access at the moment. I mention it not as a horrid example, but because it is respectable, substantial, and probably typical of first-rate institutions across this country.) Villette does not appear on the list. How could it? Jane Eyre is a love story and women ought to write love stories; Villette, “a book too subversive to be popular,” is described by Kate Millett as “one long meditation on a prison break.”
Wow, I love Kate Millett’s description! But do I believe the omission of Villette from the Ph.D. lists was deliberate suppression? No, I do not.
Men dominated English departments then. Men doubtless didn’t read Bronte much. Charlotte was a woman; why should they read her? That was probably the sexist attitude. They probably hadn’t even read Jane Eyre, just knew the title. Hence the need for women’s studies classes. Or not even women’s studies, just women at the university!
Women dominate publishing today, or so I’ve read: is that why Villette is in print? Did men or women dominate publishing in the ’60s and ’70s? Again, I don’t know whether Russ’s theories apply. Was she paranoid, or was it patriarchy behind it?
As for the patriarchy wanting to promote love stories so women subordinate everything to love… it sounds paranoid, but it is possible. Today book review publications edited by men and women are reviewing romance novels. I find that disturbing. Does that prove Russ’s theory?
Honestly, I would be more likely to reread Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics than read Russ’s book, but I do laud University of Texas Press for reissuing this. But there was, and is, a lot of criticism written by people with political agenda and insufficient data. My attitude: proceed with caution.