This Victorian novel (672 pages) was published in December of 2004 by Wordsworth Editions. The book takes you to 19th century Belgium. Melissa read Villette and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.

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Charlotte Brontë

This was Charlotte Brontë’s final novel, and for some literary critics, it was her best.

The story is pretty straight-forward: an orphaned girl with zero prospects pulls herself up — time and time again — to be a teacher in a fictional Belgian city called Villette. But don’t be fooled: This is a challenging and weird book. If you’re a Jane Eyre fan, prepare yourself for something completely different.

Our heroine Lucy Snowe could not be more unlike Jane, despite their surface similarities. She’s a slippery narrator, and though you will probably find yourself rooting for her, you may not like her very much. Many of the other characters’ motives remain murky, as well, but one young lady — Ginevra Fanshawe — is transparent as chiffon, and she is a hoot.

There’s plenty of plot to chew on when you’ve finished wondering whether you should trust Lucy, what little Polly is up to, and what’s become of Ginevra.

As Brontë keeps the action moving, she also tackles big issues of the time: Feeling vs. Reason, Catholicism vs. Protestantism, the infantilization of women to keep them in line, and the limited roles of unmarried (and, therefore, unworthy) women.

But this novel isn’t preachy — it’s actually a bit gossipy. Lucy’s story gives us an intimate peek inside the classrooms of the school: the petty squabbles, the challenges of dealing with the headmistress, the privilege of the students, secret love letters and assignations, and… Oh, goodness! Is that a ghost?!

There’s an unsettling dreamy quality to the narrative and archetypical gothic elements that crash into an ambiguous ending you’ll be thinking about for a long time.

No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure. Happiness is a glory shining far down upon us out of Heaven. — Charlotte Brontë

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Private schools can be like a psychology experiment about what happens when you jam x-number of kids into an enclosed environment and crank up the stress. It's agony for the characters, and such good fun for us.
This is a challenging and odd Victorian novel by Charlotte Brontë. But if you invest in it a bit, it will pay you back in spades with atmosphere, vivid descriptions of Brussels, and an ending you'll never forget.

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