La Pléiade: Charlotte Brontë, a romantic and critical pen

Shirley and Villette

by Charlotte Bronte

Translated from English by Dominique Jean, La Pléiade, 1,350 p., €65

Can we still imagine today the phenomenal success that Jane Eyre, published in 1847 by Charlotte Brontë? With this novel of passion and reason, the young woman, then hidden under the “asexual” pseudonym of Currer Bell, finally began to reveal her true identity to her London publisher.

But tragedy falls on the Brontë family: Charlotte sees the death of her brother Branwell and her two sisters, Emily (the author of Stormwind Heights) and then Anne within a few months. ” This dark climate weighed on the writing of Shirley, published in 1849 shortly after Emily’s deathexplains Laurent Bury, prefacer and scientific collaborator of the volume of La Pléiade which completes the edition of the novels of the Brontë family. Moreover, the two main female figures, the charismatic Shirley and the shy Caroline, both evoke her deceased sisters. »

Villetteinspired by her experience as a teacher in a boarding school in Belgium, was published in 1853, the last completed text by a novelist who in turn died prematurely on March 31, 1855, a few days before her 39th birthday and while she was expecting a child.

free women

Of very different inspiration, Shirley and Villette are different from each other Jane Eyreeven if, notes Laurent Bury, “we find there this” proto feminism” already at work previously. See in Shirley: the heroine displays the free character of one who disposes of a comfortable fortune and has no family to govern her. The first name Shirley had been strictly masculine until then. As for Caroline, certainly more retiring, she is nevertheless eager for emancipation and aspires to become an accountant in the textile factory which serves as the setting for the story. »

Combining romanticism and realism, the two novels almost entirely free themselves from the fantastic atmosphere that bathed the previous writings of Charlotte Brontë. Oneirism has replaced Gothic. The social fiber is present in Shirley when the kingdom of Bassecour where takes place Villette gives rise to political considerations. But, even more, the originality and the “modernity” of the two texts are based on the description of whimsical, unstable characters, whose gray areas and turbulence permeate the writing, even the narrative construction.

Villette appears to us to be particularly daringemphasizes Laurent Bury. Unreliable, dissembling, the narrator leaves us in doubt. Is the situation described real or in the realm of a dream constructed by a sick soul? » Until the outcome of the novel, deliberately obscure, giving the reader the task of imagining it. The narrator of Shirley, he speaks directly to us without, however, being able to situate him in the time or space of the story. Strange feeling…

Destabilize the player

Incommensurate with Jane Eyre, become an icon of English letters, object of multiple adaptations for the big and the small screen, Shirley and Villette found favor with the public and remain esteemed on the other side of the Channel. On the other hand, they are often ignored in France whereas they testify to the talent of their author to compose (as one would say of a painter) her intrigues and to give life as a true portrait painter to convincing characters.

Thus of this scatterbrained, frivolous seductress of which the narrator of Villette, accusing him of slavishly conforming to the most primitive of male clichés. Without forgetting a very “British” humor: from the first scene of Shirley, three undistinguished and drunken vicars share a meal where clerical disputes and libations overflow in equal parts. The other side of the coin is a sometimes heavy style, disconcerting breaks in tempo, a few situations of uncertain likelihood. Venial sins with regard to this exciting rediscovery.

La Pléiade: Charlotte Brontë, a romantic and critical pen