The Reader’s Gazetteer: V

Red-bound hardback copy of 'Villette' by Charlotte Bronte in two volumes, on an inlaid table

This isn’t quite the oldest work I’ve referred to in this series: The Annals of the Parish has thirty-two years on it. Villette the book was published in 1853; Villette the city has the sense of a long history. ‘The great capital of the great kingdom of Labassecour,’ it’s famously based on Brussels, and Charlotte Brontë’s experiences as a teacher there. At the time of publication, this was only twenty-three years on from the revolution that established Belgium as a nation. This seems to have happened, if rather longer ago, and not in quite the same way, in Villette too:

In past days there had been, said history, an awful crisis in the fate of Labassecour, involving I know not what peril to the rights and liberties of her gallant citizens. Rumours of wars there had been, if not wars themselves; a kind of struggling in the streets – a bustle – a running to and fro, some rearing of barricades, some burgher-rioting, some calling out of troops, much interchange of brickbats, and even a little of shot. Tradition held that patriots had fallen: in the old Basse-Ville was shown an enclosure, solemnly built and set apart, holding, it was said, the sacred bones of martyrs.

Labassecour seems to have been existing uneventfully – dare one say, dully? – for rather longer than Belgium had. All the same, there’s plenty going on beyond the walls of the school where Brontë’s heroine Lucy Snowe teaches. For example:

a concert… a grand affair to be held in the large sall, or hall, of the principal musical society. The most advanced of the pupils of the Conservatoire were to perform: it was to be followed by a lottery “au benefice des pauvre;” and to crown all, the King, Queen and Prince of Labassecour were to be present.

And the place itself seems impressive enough. On her arrival, Lucy passes:

a magnificent street and square, with the grandest houses round, and amidst them the huge outline of more than one over-bearing pile; which might be palace or church…

Unlike Brussels, it seems to be entirely French-speaking: Lucy Snowe has only one new language to learn, and never encounters the ‘should I in fact be attempting Dutch?’ uncertainty that I usually feel in the historically Dutch-speaking, more recently French-speaking, officially bilingual, capital.

There’s a lot of French in Villette, so much so that even this copy, printed in 1900, includes an apologetic appendix with all the translations. It’s effective, though: we never, ever, forget that we’re in a foreign country. Making it a language that we might be expected to know, or at least to be able to learn if we chose, makes it a country that we could plausibly visit. (Although even a little French reveals Villette to be ‘a little town’, and a little more makes Labassecour ‘the farmyard’. Which undermines things rather.)

And religion, my goodness. We are left in no danger of forgetting that Labassecour is a Roman Catholic country, and differences in religion are a major driver of the action in the second half of the book. Nor are we in danger of forgetting that this is something foreign to Lucy Snowe. I often found it uncomfortable reading, and I’m not even Catholic.

Which is all very well, but how do you get there? On impulse, from London. Lucy learns from a waiter that she can take a ship to the Continent landing at Boue-Marine, and boards one a few hours later. Landing in ‘the foreign seaport town’, she spends the rest of the night at a hotel, and then travels forty miles by road to Villette:

Somewhat bare, flat and treeless was the route along which our journey lay; and slimy canals crept, like half-torpid green snakes, beside the road; and formal pollard willows edged level fields, tilled like kitchen-garden beds.

Making allowances for Lucy’s pessimistic worldview, that’s a landscape I can recognise – from the Low Countries through which I was travelling last weekend, as much as from the Fens outside my back door.

And then she arrives in the dark, loses her trunk, and gets very lost: very easy to do in a new town, even if, pre-railways, she doesn’t share my propensity for exiting the wrong side of a station. Which has been one of the interesting things about reading this particular book. But I shouldn’t be surprised if the Eurostar stops in Villette these days.

Books mentioned in this post

Villette, Charlotte Brontë

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SOLD BY NOBODY: an unintentional affirmation from a tiny book

Two tiny books: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy and Church Seasons in Verse by Christina Rossetti, with a penny for scale

In my lunch hour today I went to the British Library and looked at an exhibition of tiny books. (These are not from there; the British Library frowns on people taking photographs in their galleries of precious books. These are the tiniest books that I have in the house.)

Two of the tiny books were by the Brontë children. There was an issue of the Blackwoods Young Men’s Magazine by Charlotte and Branwell. And there was The Search After Happiness by Charlotte, with the following magnificent title page:

THE SEARCH AFTER HAPINESS

A TALE BY CHARLOTTE BRONTE

PRINTED BY HERSELF

AND SOLD BY

NOBODY

Now, that is an attitude I aspire to. Never mind fretting about taking one’s books off Amazon; this is SOLD BY NOBODY and proud of it.

Charlotte Brontë was thirteen when she wrote this. Jane Eyre was several years in the future. Even if she could have foreseen the millions of cheap paperback copies of that, I don’t think she could have dreamt that after a couple of centuries the stories of Angria and Gondal and Gaaldine would have prompted scads of scholarship, books, fanfic, and a small moral panic. And going by this, I’m not sure she’d have cared.

Thank you, tiny book, for a new perspective.