A Year in Reading: Mona Simpson

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My favorite characters in literature make catastrophic marriages: Dorothea and Casaubon, Lydgate and Rosamond, David Copperfield and Dora, the Little Blossom. A few of these unfortunates get a chance at love again, after their unsuitable mates die, but the danger of this second time around, for their authors, is that the early mismatches steal the show, draining the reader’s energy.

Who ever becomes really excited about Will Ladislaw?

The tincture of life most rarely found in art is happiness. And arguably, the greatest happiness is love. We perpetually crave love stories and find that craving rarely satisfied.

One of the most pleasing books is Jane Eyre; the heroine is loveable, admirable, and vulnerable and her chemistry with Mr. Rochester is thrilling. (Their romantic dialogue is as good as the incredibly sexy banter in late James, that underappreciated source of scintillating flirtation.)

This year I read Villette, Brontë’s last novel, published six years after Jane Eyre. Villette is lesser known. It has received only fourteen Amazon reviews to Jane Eyre’s 991, one written by a woman who admits that the book is the subject of her master’s thesis. Here is a reader’s assessment:
The plot is often dark and sad, almost tragic. I agree with one reviewer who called Lucy Snowe the “anti-Austen” character. Most of the time I felt sorry for Lucy, even outraged for her. The book’s untidy ending just continues the exasperation of those readers who are pulling for Lucy’s happiness.

In the end the life of Lucy is not unlike real life for some: a mixture of hope and despair, happiness and sadness, blessing and cursing.
…It is certainly not a modern American story. Anonymous (New Orleans) puts it more succinctly:
This is just a trainwreck of a book, and can’t hold a candle to Jane Eyre.
Consider first of all, the eponymous heroine’s name: Lucy Snowe, with its suggestions of cold clarity

Contrast it with Jane Eyre, which implies plainness and the transparency of air.

Lucy Snowe has terrible early misfortunes, like Jane Eyre, but the scenes are only scantily rendered, the circumstances of her lost family left vague. Much more is made of her life as a working teacher, her involvements with her students and the mistress who runs the school. And instead of one love interest, with a horrible but ultimately forgivable secret, we’re given two men, one a specimen of health and worldly perfection, with no secrets whatsoever, and the other a hypersensitive, neurotic fellow teacher, who has to be “put up with,” according to the author.

Lucy is not blameless. (The original model for Mssr. Paul was Brontë’s married boss who ran the school she taught in, in Belgium.) The book has all of Jane Eyre’s virtues, but is two shades more like life, which is to say bigger, more complex, and far less soothing. George Eliot and Virginia Woolf preferred it to Jane Eyre, while Thackeray couldn’t quite forgive Brontë for besetting her heroine two suitors to contend with, the first of whom does not love her, the second of whom is crabby.

Once we accept the crabby schoolteacher, Brontë drowns him.

At the time Brontë wrote this final novel, she was back home from her teaching stint abroad, the only one of the Brontë siblings still alive to keep her father company in his parsonage overlooking a swampy cemetery on the Moor.

Nonetheless, her father, cranky as he might have been, “insisted” that Brontë consider the requirements of the form and provide a happier ending for Villette. (Dickens had the same  problem with his editor over the original ending of Great Expectations.) As a result both books have two endings, though neither of the four could really be called happy.

Brontë wrote to her editor:
The spirit of romance would have indicated another course, far more flowery and inviting; it would have fashioned a paramount hero, kept faithfully with him, and made him supremely worshipful…but this would have been unlike real life – inconsistent with truth – at variance with probability.
Yet for all this guarded optimism, in under a year after publishing this book, Brontë was married and pregnant.

Six months later, she died with her unborn child.

It seems if you want to write a love story, one of the central decisions you need to contend with is how much reality to allow in the door.

Consider Janet Malcolm’s famous assertion from her book Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession. She proposes the idea that our relationships are actually a:
messy jangle of misapprehensions, at best an uneasy truce between powerful solitary fantasy systems…romantic love is fundamentally solitary, and has at its core a profound impersonality. The concept of transference at once destroys faith in personal relations and explains why they are tragic: we cannot know each other.
Both truths from life — the hopes and the losses — color Brontë’s last novel.

Villette ends with a beautiful schoolroom, given to her by Mssr. Paul. Though we never see our heroine married, the book closes with a woman who has known love getting on with her work.

Why isn’t this ending happy-enough?

More from A Year in Reading 2011

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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