Villette tells the story of Lucy Snowe as she leaves England to take her chances in France. She ends up teaching in a school owned by the imperious Madame Beck. She reconnects with old friends and has a tempestuous relationship with fellow teacher, M. Paul Emanuel, which finally becomes the main thrust of the book. Prior to that, we see her infatuation with her godmother's son, Dr Bretton, and his infatuations with their mutual friends, Ginerva Fanshawe and Polly Home.
One of my problems with Villette was how disjointed the first third of the book is. We see a collection of events which seem to have no significance. Although they all conspire to add to the plot later, it is very difficult to feel grounded as we slip from Lucy's time with her godmother to her time as an assistant then join her on the boat to France. Until she joins Madame Beck's establishment, the narrative doesn't really settle. Even then, there are periods where the narrator gets lost in describing one sequence of events and abandons characters for long periods of time. In that respect, it's a difficult novel to read.
I did enjoy the way that Bronte developed M. Paul Emanuel, building his role up gradually until he actually became all I cared about. I had difficulty connecting with Lucy Snowe as a protagonist at first because I didn't really understand her - the later interactions with M. Paul Emanuel, from his fete day onwards, made her a more interesting character for me. Madame Beck, also, is an extraordinary creation who is the compelling presence in any scene she appears in. However, alongside these two fascinating characters you have distinct, and perhaps boring, types of the 'good doctor', the 'flirt' the 'precocious child grown up into a splendid woman'. Half of the novel felt manufactured and the other half felt original.
The descriptions of place were, though, remarkable, particularly when Lucy walks around Villette at night and stumbles upon a party. Equally, the mystery of the ghostly nun adds atmosphere to the centre of the novel. There are some memorable scenes, including the aforementioned fete scene between Lucy and M. Paul Emanuel, but also the moment when Lucy wakes up in a familiar yet unfamiliar setting and finds herself amongst friends.
This novel blends the journey of one individual with the world around her. The religious barrier that erects itself at various times is both integral to the story and frustrating to the reader. I have to say, though, I hated the ambiguous ending. Everybody else got a final send-off but the character I've spent hundreds of pages trying to like is denied finality - it meant I concluded Villette with the same ambivalent feeling I'd read most of the book with.