In light of Huffington Post‘s recent “11 Lessons That ‘Jane Eyre’ Can Teach Every 21st Century Woman About How to Live Well,” I decided to delve into my favorite Charlotte Brontë novel–Villette–for a whole new set of lessons.
A note: these life lessons are for everyone. I don’t like gendering and I think Villette is universally applicable.
The reasons are various for why I prefer Villette to Jane Eyre. The problems I have with Jane Eyre emerged when I was writing my thesis (two years ago… now I feel old). While Jane is undoubtedly assertive and independent, and while she does (as the Huffington Post article states) marry for love, ostensibly equally, it can only happen while living outside of the norms of society. Also, the bulk of the plot is tied up with the Rochester and Jane romance, which is fine and dandy, while I like to see a lady who tackles a career head-on.
Thus, Villette, the story of Lucy Snowe, a lady after my own heart, whose life lessons I would most heartily follow.
1. Live outside the conforms of your time.
Writing in 1853, Brontë penned a woman far ahead of her time: Lucy Snowe. Lucy does not act like a ‘typical’ woman of the nineteenth century nor does she aspire to the ‘typical’ roles of daughter-wife-mother.
“A great many women and girls are supposed to pass their lives something in that fashion; why not I with the rest?” (31)
Why not, indeed? Because Lucy dares to defy the ‘typical’ and render herself a unique person. Her preoccupations are hers alone and cannot be forced to conform.
2. Live, learn, absorb.
Constantly and consistently learning is such a fundamental aspect of personhood, and one of the best things about Lucy Snowe is that she delights and perpetually engages in learning. Lucy thrives on “the godlike thirst after discovery” and learns as a student, a teacher, and a person (331).
3. Stick to your guns.
Lucy does not apologize or alter her thoughts for anyone–much less, for a suitor. When she is frustrated and disagrees with Paul (her sort of suitor), she is focused and calm. In place of revising her own thoughts, she channels her energy into a productive occupation.
“Suffering him, then, to think what he chose, and accuse me of what he would, I resumed some work I had dropped, and kept my head bent over it during  the remainder of his stay.” (90-91)
4. Develop your life with a myriad of experiences.
Just as much as learning is essential to character development, so too is is experiential learning (sorry, I’m about to get all liberal arts-y on you). Experience can teach just as much as learning in the typical setting and through learning comes growth and a more liberal mindset. Just as you learn for yourself, you also learn how to consider other people and how to navigate society successfully.
“The longer we live, the more our experience widens; the less prone are we to judge our neighbor’s conduct, to question the world’s wisdom: wherever an accumulation of small defenses is found, whether surrounding the prude’s virtue or the man of the world’s respectability, there, be sure, it is needed.” (291)
5. Be reasonable.
If anything, Lucy is rational. She approaches others with dual reason and kindness, utilizing what she has learned thus far:
“Wise people say it is folly to think anybody perfect; and as to likes and dislikes, we should be friendly to all and worship none.” (29)
Here, Lucy touches on an oh-so-important note. It is a terrible idea to build someone or something up in your mind as ideal or ‘perfect.’ This idea of being “friendly to all and worship none” is one that should be applied to everything: the workplace, relationships, family, friendships…
6. Cultivate friendships.
Speaking of friendships, one of the most beautiful aspects of Villette is the placement of friendship above romantic love. It is apparent throughout the course of the novel that, while Lucy puts little to no focus on relationships, she does participate in, reciprocate, and value friendships–in particular, “true friendship” (382).
On an evening out with John Bretton, who is ever just a friend to Lucy, she reflects on the beauty of friendship with no ulterior motives:
“Not all, perhaps, who had shone brightly arrayed at that concert could say the same; for not all had been satisfied with friendship–with its calm comfort and modest hope.” (213)
“Calm comfort and modest hope”: here, again, Lucy is employing reason in her everyday life.
7. Be selective.
Another one of my favorite lessons a la Lucy Snowe is not to settle but to instead be selective–about people, but really anything else. This may be one of my favorite lines (because there are so many golden ones) in Villette:
“Where is the use of caring for him so very much? He is full of faults.” (29)
Preach, Lucy. For anyone, why care for someone who is riddled with faults? It’s pointless. Instead, follow this life lesson…
8. Seek a life free of emotional dependence.
To put it bluntly, Lucy’s attitude about Paul is frequently that of giving no fucks. In the same vein of her selective attitude to approaching a partner, she wonders about Paul:
“[A]m I going to harass myself with fears of displeasing you or hurting your feelings? No, indeed: you shall be indifferent to me, as the shabbiest bouquet in your pyramid.” (321)
Again, preach, Lucy. Don’t value someone else’s feelings above your own. Live a life free of emotional dependence. One of the problems within Jane Eyre is that so much thought is spent on Rochester. Lucy, on the other hand, knows how to place value on herself, which is a highly valuable lesson.
“I shall share no man’s or woman’s life in this world, as you understand sharing. I think I have one friend of my own, but am not sure; and till I am sure, I live solitary.” (399)
9. Support yourself.
As I mentioned earlier, Brontë penned a woman far ahead of her time. One of the reasons? Lucy supports herself fully, as a teacher, in the nineteenth century. Way cool.
“Rather for the roof of shelter I am thus enabled to keep over my head; and for the comfort of mind it gives me to think that while I can work for myself, I am spared the pain of being a burden to anybody.” (268)
Even better, M. Paul fully understands and supports Lucy’s work as a teacher. When he is about to sail off (for three years, naturally), he leaves a Lucy on the verge of independence:
“[T]he first year’s rent you already have in your savings; afterward Miss Lucy must trust God, and herself.” (457)
10. Prioritize yourself.
While the other teachers and students are focused on finding a husband, Lucy insists, ”Suitor or admirer my very thoughts had not conceived.” (102)
Can we just take a pause and consider how amazing that line is?
Take a look at the previous nine life lessons from Villette. These are the things that Lucy had conceived instead of thinking about a husband: a career, friendships, self-sustainability…
Even at the end, when a marriage with M. Paul is presented as an option, Lucy leaves off simply with a note to the readers:
“Let them picture union and a happy succeeding life.” (464)
The most wonderful part of Villette is that you do not know whether or not Lucy Snowe married and it does not matter. The focus of Lucy Snowe, recounting her life with hair that is “white under a white cap,” is on her career and her life as a teacher (40). She may have married Paul; she may not have. (I am a member of the did not camp–Brontë did strew the sea with seven days of wrecks. No way Paul is coming back from that).
The point is, I would rather live life according to Lucy Snowe. One where work and friendships take precedence over Jane Eyre’s marriage equalized by blindness, sudden fortune, and social isolation.
Brontë, Charlotte. Villette. 1853. New York, NY: Signet, 1987.