Wow! I can’t believe it’s been two weeks since I posted. I’ve not had such a long break in awhile, but lately my brain has been mush. I’ve been enjoying Bronte’s last two books, but I’ve been preferring more mindless activities, like watching TV (How To Get Away With Murder, Biohackers) and playing computer games (Guild Wars 2, obsessively). I did finally finish these though and I’m excited to tell you about them.
Bronte’s last two novels have a lot in common, but also some significant differences. As always, her writing is beautiful and distinctive. Like most classics, I enjoy the vocabulary and sentence structure, the challenge of reading something that doesn’t conform to current norms. Bronte writes particularly gorgeous, flowery descriptions of nature. I really loved her occasional eloquent outburst, protesting the limited avenues of employment open to women in her time. Her insightful observations about human nature are another strength these books have in common with other classics. (Also in common with some other classics, there are some dated sections that today read as racist, ableist, fat shaming, etc. In all of her books, she seems quite into phrenology.)
Neither of these books had much in the way of plot. I won’t spoil them for you, but I think the full story of each could be summarized in just a few short phrases. Most of the action takes place in our heroine’s heads. Each has to accustom herself to living in pretty dreary circumstances, with little hope for improvement.
Although that shared premise may sound grim, Shirley was by far the happier of the two books. The ending is happy enough, but mostly the tone throughout is more cheerful. Bronte uses her characters and some breaking of the third wall to respond to her critics in entertaining ways. The writing felt like a romance; I just had confidence throughout that everything would work out. Shirley is the only one of Bronte’s books to include broader social issues in a meaningful way. It was fascinating to learn some history in this way and to get more of Bronte’s opinions. On the other hand, Villette is focused on Bronte’s belief that some people are granted happy destinies, while others are doomed to suffer. Her writing is particularly heartbreaking because it seems likely some of the sorrow she writes for her heroines mirrors her own life.
I think a lot of my enjoyment of these books came from knowing some things about Bronte’s life. Spotting places where she was likely speaking from experience or responding to critics gave this reading experience more depth. I’d definitely recommend checking out some biographies before picking this up.