Living in the Book: Villette


Charlotte Brontë, you are my favorite.  My favorite Brontë, at any rate.

You tart, you.

After a few very long days with Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I wanted a Brontë break from the page-long, overdetermined character descriptions from phrenology (ok, Anne, we get it:  dark features, disagreeable character) and the embedded polemics on female virtue that rival some of Richardson’s longer passages for tiresome.  And Villette is incredible.  While it is perhaps not so narratively artful and precise as Jane Eyre, Villette gives us so much more to grapple with — romance plot after twisted romance plot, complicated by deceitful and jealous school girls, servants, and overly officious aunts; measured insinuations of Gothic danger emerging from French Catholic discipline; and intelligent but relenting discourses on the education of women, protestantism and Catholicism, and French and British culture.

I hesitate to go on in these generalities, but suffice it all to say that the novel is gorgeous and sad–not the irritatingly maudlin tragic-female sort of stuff, Lucy Snowe is continually heartbroken.  Written after the deaths of her siblings in the late 1840s, Villette‘s undercurrent of acknowledged but unspecified tragedy endows this heroine with a rare sort of bravery wrought from necessity, uncultivated intelligence, and resignation to a perpetually hapless life.  And yet, she’s entirely without self-pity or unwarranted ambition.  Villette, I suspect, will never be an Oprah Book.  Thank God.

And it’s full beautiful things, ranging from modest to ostentatious.  So this book’s getting two posts.  Here’s one of two.

Friendly Competition Top from Anthropolgie, $68

When I say child I use an inappropriate and undescriptive term–a term suggesting any picture rather than that of the demure little person in a mourning frock and white chemisette, that might just have fitted a good-sized doll[.]

Lourdes Dress by Calypso St. Barth, $69

The other lady-passenger, with the gentleman-companion, was quite a girl, pretty and fair; her simple print dress, untrimmed straw-bonnet, and large shawl, gracefully worn, formed a costume plain to quakerism:  yet, for her, becoming enough.

Hardshell Vintage Suitcase, AM Radio on Etsy, $42

My first business was to get my trunk:  a small matter enough, but important to me.  […]  One by one, I saw these removed, lowered, and seized on.  I was sure mine ought to be by this time visible:  it was not.  I had tied on the direction card with a piece of green ribbon, that I might know it at a glance:  not a fringe or fragment of green was perceptible.  Every package was removed; every tin case and brown paper parcel; the oil-cloth cover was lifted; I saw with distinct vision that not an umbrella, cloak, cane, hat-box or band-box remained.

Avignon Eau de Toilette by Comme des Garcons Series 3: Insence on Lucky Scent, $80 for 50ml, 0.7ml sample for $3

Through a series of the queerest little dormitories–which, I heard afterwards, had once been nuns’ cells:  for the premises were in part of ancient date–and through the oratory–a long, low, gloomy room, where a crucifix hung, pale, against the wall, and two tapers kept dim vigils–she conducted me to an apartment where three children were asleep in three tiny beds.  A heated stove made the air of this room oppressive; and, to mend matters, it was scented with an odour rather strong than delicate:  a perfume, indeed, altogether surprising and unexpected under the circumstances, being like the combination of smoke with some spirituous essence–a smell, in short, of whiskey.

Red Pashmina with Herringbone Wool Scarf, Produced by Allison on Etsy, $45

By some means or other she had acquired, and now held in possession, a wardrobe of rather suspicious splendor–gowns of stiff and costly silk, fitting her indifferently and apparently made for other proportions than those they now adorned; caps with real lace borders, and–the chief item in the inventory, the spell by which she struck a certain awe through the household, quelling the otherwise scornfully disposed teachers and servants, and, so long as her broad shoulders wore the folds of that majestic drapery, even influencing madame herself–a real Indian shawl–“un véritable Cachemire,” as Madame Beck said, with mixed reverence and amaze.

Silk Tricotine Dress in Navy, J. Crew, $160

Her complexion was fresh and sanguine, not too rubicund; her eye, blue and serene; her dark silk dress fitted her as a French sempstress alone can make a dress fit; she looked well, though a little bourgeoise:  as bourgeoise, indeed, she was.

Nude Lace Gloves from ASOS, $6.76

After a while I heard no more of Mrs. Cholmondeley’s presents; but still, visiting went on, and the absolutely necessary dresses continued to be supplied:  also many little expensive etcetera–gloves, bouquets, even trinkets.  These things, contrary to her custom, and even nature–for she was not secretive–was most sedulously kept out of sight for a time; but one evening, when she was going to a large party, for which particular care and elegance of costume were demanded, she could not resist coming to my chamber to shower herself in all her splendor.

Gingham Tiered Dress by Oasis, $66

Will you go? I want to shut the door…. Ginevra, people may tell you you are very handsome in that ball-attire; but, in my eyes, you will never look so pretty as you did in the gingham gown and plain straw bonnet you wore when I first saw you.”

Ruffle Lace Dress by Rare on Topshop, $100

Beautiful she looked:  so young, so fresh, and with a delicacy of skin and flexibility of shape altogether English, and not found in the list of continental female charms.  Her dress was new, costly, and perfect.  I saw at a glance that it lacked none of those finishing details which cost so much, and give to the general effect such an air of tasteful completeness.

Vintage Celluloid Jewlery Box from Cara Lilia on Etsy, $10

Easy was it to see then that the missile was a box, a small box of white and coloured ivory[.]

The Milano Dress by Isabella Oliver 365, $63.60

[I]ts loose lid opened in my hand; violets smothering a closely-folded bit of pink paper, a note, superscribed, “Pour la robe grise.” I wore indeed a dress of French gray.

Patent Pending Pump on Modcloth, $29.99

Moreover, she paid, about this time, marked attention to dress:  the morning deshabille, the night-cap and shawl, were discarded; Dr. John’s early visits always found her with auburn braids all nicely arranged, silk dress trimly fitted on, neat laced brodequins in lieu of slippers:  in short the whole toilette complete as a model, and fresh as a flower.

Large Straw Stripe Sun Hat, E4Hats on Amazon, $30

“How tremblingly I approached the window and glanced into your Eden–an Eden for me, though a desert for you!–how I feared to behold vacancy, or the dragon aforesaid!  How my heart palpitated with delight when, through apertures in the envious boughs, I at once caught the gleam of your graceful straw-hat, and the waving of your gray dress–dress that I should recognize amongst a thousand.”

Regency Chemisette/Tucker with Dorset Buttons in Lawn by Historika on Etsy, $47

My few dresses were folded as I had left them; a certain little bunch of white violets that had once been silently presented to me by a stranger (a stranger to me, for we had never exchanged words), and which I had dried and kept for its sweet perfume between the folds of my best dress, lay there unstirred; my black silk scarf, my lace chemisettes and collars were unrumpled.

Tallulah Sunrise Chambray "Alex" Jean Tunic from Bluefly, $70

I had learnt something from the above scene besides what concerned the ivory box:  viz., that not on the robe de jaconas, pink or gray, nor yet on the frilled and pocketted apron, lay the blame of breaking Dr. John’s heart:  these items of array were obviously guiltless as Georgette’s little blue tunic.

Vintage White Linen Wedding Handkerchief, Dishy Vintage on Etsy, $8

Just as he took his hat, my eyes, fixed on the tall houses bounding the garden, saw the one lattice, already commemorated, cautiously open; forth from the aperture projected a hand and a white handkerchief; both waved.

Meadow Peplum Tunic from Topshop, $80

The operation seemed close, intricate, prolonged:  the result simple.  A clear white muslin dress, a blue sash (the Virgin’s colours), a pair of white, or straw-colour kid gloves–such was the gala uniform, to the assumption whereof that houseful of teachers and pupils devoted three mortal hours.  But though simple, it must be allowed the array was perfect–perfect in fashion, fit, and freshness[.]

Sweet Angelic Shimmer Dress from Ruche, $55

In beholding this diaphanous and snowy mass, I well remember feeling myself to be a mere shadowy spot on a field of light; the courage was not in me to put on a transparent white dress:  something thin I must wear–the weather and rooms being too hot to give substantial fabrics sufferance, so I had sought through a dozen shops till I lit upon a crape-like material of purple-gray–the coulour, in short, of dun mist, lying on a moor in bloom.


One Response to “Living in the Book: Villette”

  1. 1 melissa

    such an amazing approach to your blog, i love your perspective. thanks so much for making my suitcase part of the entry!

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