Books That Beat Their Iconic Sister-Books: Jane Eyre vs. Villette
by Carrie Hill Wilner
ATTENTION ALL LADIES. YOU ARE BEING LIED TO. JANE EYRE IS NOT THE BEST BOOK. REPEAT: JANE EYRE IS NOT THE BEST BOOK.
The best book is Villette.
I promise I’m not some kind of modernist monster trying to make you read something with no pelisses or heaths in it. First, this new best book is still by Charlotte Brontë.
Second, to establish my cred here, you cannot imagine a Jane Eyre reader more fervent than I. Ever since I was 12 and my mom suggested that, hey, how about I take a break from cutting all my jeans into short-shorts and read something, it’s been a favorite. At different turns in my life, it’s been a balm, stimulant, puzzle, solution. I can pass entire evenings with my girlfriends talking like (spoiler alert I guess, but really, come on):
“Remember how nice that teacher with the cake was when that kind of annoying girl died?”
“That lady was nice! Definitely the nicest lady aside from those nice cousins.”
“The nice cousins, right! OK, but I mean, do you ever kind of wish she went to India after all?”
“WHAT?! Do I need to lock your crazy ass in an attic? LIGHTNING TREE.”
“Ohhh, lightning tree. Sooo good.”
I love these ecstatic female conversations about fictional people. They’re one of my top five life pleasures. Which is why I’m really trying so hard to make the ACTUAL best book, Villette, happen. I want to live in a world where I can say, “hey, Hairpin how cute is Dr. John?” and you be like, “SO CUTE.” And then you say, “Pink dress?” and I say, “but only pale pink, and with a black lace collar… buuuut do you think whattsit is dead?” and we both get really sad for a while, and then you say, “I hope she got to keep that nice china, also remember the time she did acid and went to that party and the Sphinx was there?” (IT HAPPENED.) And the whole time, we’re actually secretly talking about our most dearly held hopes and trying to figure ourselves out and also just being like, hail, fellow lady, well met.
Here is a chart to explain why if you liked Jane Eyre, and you did, you should read Villette so we can talk about it:
IF YOU LIKED: How Jane was like, fuck your fun party, I’m going to wear a fugly gray sack and stand in the corner, but also somehow talk an awwwwwfullll lot about exactly the shade of grey and the material and my accessories …
YOU WILL LOVE: How Lucy actually goes ahead and goes nuts! And allows herself to be coaxed into a pink dress one time (normally she sticks with, surprise, gray, and when she is going nuts, purple-y gray) and kind of likes it/kind of hates it and one of the love interests totally calls her out on it and is like, you are going around wearing SCARLET, and then a bit later she breaks his glasses totally by accident, not on purpose at all. Lucy’s as plain as Jane and as conflicted about the possibility of being noticed, but also more honest about her conflict, if less honest about absolutely everything else.
IF YOU LIKED: Jane trying to figure out whether to go with a surly, one-armed but somehow hottt jerk and live in a cold castle forever or a boring cute jerk and live in India and probably die of malaria because she’s so pale and fragile …
YOU WILL LOVE: The actual real tension between Lucy’s feelings for Dr. John and M. Emmanuel (as opposed to Rochester and St. John, who we knew never really had a chance). Kind of spoilery, but because Lucy IS plain and weird, there’s no chance that the cute one will actually ever like her that much, and so she spends about 90% of her time trying to convince herself how boring he is. Finally she resolves it like this:
“I believe in that goodly mansion, his heart, he kept one little place under the skylights where Lucy might have entertainment, if she chose to call. It was not so handsome as the chambers where he lodged his male friends; it was not like the hall where he accommodated his philanthropy, or the library where he treasured his science, still less did it resemble the pavilion where his marriage feast was splendidly spread; yet, gradually, by long and equal kindness, he proved to me that he kept one little closet, over the door of which was written “ Lucy’s Room.” I kept a place for him, too — a place of which I never took the measure, either by rule or compass: I think it was like the tent of Peri-Banou. All my life long I carried it folded in the hollow of my hand — yet, released from that hold and constriction, I know not but its innate capacity for expanse might have magnified it into a tabernacle for a host.”
AGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHsdfkljasfopqejlisar. I MEAN. Can you even? How much is that exactly how you think about that onnnneee guy who maybe, almost… but no, you could never be, because you are 10 and he is the lead in Strictly Ballroom.
IF YOU LIKED: Jane flipping her shit in the Red Room because of ghosts …
YOU WILL LOVE: What is probably the most wrenchingly accurate description of depression as fomented by/reflected in physical environment imaginable, when Lucy is left alone (well, with a “cretin,” which is not something we say now) in the school she teaches at over the vacation. The silence and the rows of empty beds multiply in her mind and drive her out in to the streets, pale and both needing and afraid of company.
IF YOU LIKED: That Jane was pretty independent and scrappy and had a job, but it wasn’t a hell-job like in Dreiser or Zola, just sometimes you gotta go to work …
YOU WILL LOVE: … the fuck out of Lucy, just trust me, oh my god does she have a job. Her job’s a really big deal!
IF YOU LIKED: That time Mr. Rochester dressed up like a gypsy and tricked everyone and kind of told Jane he liked her …
YOU WILL LOVE: Lucy dressing up like a dude, and that somehow being the first time one love interest really notices her, also the fact that she is always lying to you — the reader — about who everyone is. (Maybe Lucy is more Mr. R than Jane in some ways? Someone in English 201 C: Victorian Lit, there is your paper topic.) Also, and this has been noted by fancier pants than my own, but this book is just queered the fuck up in the most excellent way. Everybody’s ladies! Everybody’s dudes! All the time!
IF YOU LIKED: Those bitches Georgina Reed and the other one and how excellently horrible they were …
YOU WILL LOVE: Ginevra Farnshawe. The name says it all of course, but here’s the best part: Lucy kind of likes her. Their whole friendship is basically G being like, wow doesn’t my hair look cute, and Lucy being like, I HOPE YOU DIE, but also same time tomorrow?
IF YOU LIKED: LIGHTNING TREE OMG!
YOU WILL LOVE: OK, lightning tree wins this one.
IF YOU LIKED: Weird attic noises. Who could it be?!
YOU WILL LOVE: The N U N, spelled like that.
Hairpin, you guys. I wrote my friend Adrienne, who just finished this book. Subject line: “Villette”; message content: “SO GOOD?” And she wrote back “most depressing, real, awful, cruel and brilliant book ever? I’m confused why no one ever told me to read it.” So here I am, telling you. And then you tell a friend and your friend tells a friend and before you know it we won’t ever have to actually name our feelings anymore, we can just quote Villette at each other, and we will all save so much on therapy and then go spend it all on purple-y gray dresses.
Carrie Hill Wilner loves to read.