Thursday, January 6, 2011


Books That Beat Their Iconic Sister-Books: Jane Eyre vs. Villette


The best book is Villette.

I promise I'm not some kind of modernist monster trying to make you read something with no pelisses or heaths in it. First, this new best book is still by Charlotte Brontë.

Second, to establish my cred here, you cannot imagine a Jane Eyre reader more fervent than I. Ever since I was 12 and my mom suggested that, hey, how about I take a break from cutting all my jeans into short-shorts and read something, it's been a favorite. At different turns in my life, it's been a balm, stimulant, puzzle, solution. I can pass entire evenings with my girlfriends talking like (spoiler alert I guess, but really, come on):

"Remember how nice that teacher with the cake was when that kind of annoying girl died?"

"That lady was nice! Definitely the nicest lady aside from those nice cousins."

"The nice cousins, right! OK, but I mean, do you ever kind of wish she went to India after all?"

"WHAT?! Do I need to lock your crazy ass in an attic? LIGHTNING TREE."

"Ohhh, lightning tree. Sooo good."

"Soooo gooooood."

I love these ecstatic female conversations about fictional people. They're one of my top five life pleasures. Which is why I'm really trying so hard to make the ACTUAL best book, Villette, happen. I want to live in a world where I can say, "hey, Hairpin how cute is Dr. John?" and you be like, "SO CUTE." And then you say, "Pink dress?" and I say, "but only pale pink, and with a black lace collar... buuuut do you think whattsit is dead?" and we both get really sad for a while, and then you say, "I hope she got to keep that nice china, also remember the time she did acid and went to that party and the Sphinx was there?" (IT HAPPENED.) And the whole time, we're actually secretly talking about our most dearly held hopes and trying to figure ourselves out and also just being like, hail, fellow lady, well met.

Here is a chart to explain why if you liked Jane Eyre, and you did, you should read Villette so we can talk about it:

IF YOU LIKED: How Jane was like, fuck your fun party, I'm going to wear a fugly gray sack and stand in the corner, but also somehow talk an awwwwwfullll lot about exactly the shade of grey and the material and my accessories ...

YOU WILL LOVE: How Lucy actually goes ahead and goes nuts! And allows herself to be coaxed into a pink dress one time (normally she sticks with, surprise, gray, and when she is going nuts, purple-y gray) and kind of likes it/kind of hates it and one of the love interests totally calls her out on it and is like, you are going around wearing SCARLET, and then a bit later she breaks his glasses totally by accident, not on purpose at all. Lucy's as plain as Jane and as conflicted about the possibility of being noticed, but also more honest about her conflict, if less honest about absolutely everything else.

IF YOU LIKED: Jane trying to figure out whether to go with a surly, one-armed but somehow hottt jerk and live in a cold castle forever or a boring cute jerk and live in India and probably die of malaria because she's so pale and fragile ...

YOU WILL LOVE: The actual real tension between Lucy's feelings for Dr. John and M. Emmanuel (as opposed to Rochester and St. John, who we knew never really had a chance). Kind of spoilery, but because Lucy IS plain and weird, there's no chance that the cute one will actually ever like her that much, and so she spends about 90% of her time trying to convince herself how boring he is. Finally she resolves it like this:

"I believe in that goodly mansion, his heart, he kept one little place under the skylights where Lucy might have entertainment, if she chose to call. It was not so handsome as the chambers where he lodged his male friends; it was not like the hall where he accommodated his philanthropy, or the library where he treasured his science, still less did it resemble the pavilion where his marriage feast was splendidly spread; yet, gradually, by long and equal kindness, he proved to me that he kept one little closet, over the door of which was written " Lucy's Room." I kept a place for him, too—a place of which I never took the measure, either by rule or compass: I think it was like the tent of Peri-Banou. All my life long I carried it folded in the hollow of my hand—yet, released from that hold and constriction, I know not but its innate capacity for expanse might have magnified it into a tabernacle for a host."

AGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHsdfkljasfopqejlisar. I MEAN. Can you even? How much is that exactly how you think about that onnnneee guy who maybe, almost... but no, you could never be, because you are 10 and he is the lead in Strictly Ballroom.

IF YOU LIKED: Jane flipping her shit in the Red Room because of ghosts ...

YOU WILL LOVE: What is probably the most wrenchingly accurate description of depression as fomented by/reflected in physical environment imaginable, when Lucy is left alone (well, with a "cretin," which is not something we say now) in the school she teaches at over the vacation. The silence and the rows of empty beds multiply in her mind and drive her out in to the streets, pale and both needing and afraid of company.

IF YOU LIKED: That Jane was pretty independent and scrappy and had a job, but it wasn't a hell-job like in Dreiser or Zola, just sometimes you gotta go to work ...

YOU WILL LOVE: ... the fuck out of Lucy, just trust me, oh my god does she have a job. Her job's a really big deal!

IF YOU LIKED: That time Mr. Rochester dressed up like a gypsy and tricked everyone and kind of told Jane he liked her ...

YOU WILL LOVE: Lucy dressing up like a dude, and that somehow being the first time one love interest really notices her, also the fact that she is always lying to you — the reader — about who everyone is. (Maybe Lucy is more Mr. R than Jane in some ways? Someone in English 201 C: Victorian Lit, there is your paper topic.) Also, and this has been noted by fancier pants than my own, but this book is just queered the fuck up in the most excellent way. Everybody's ladies! Everybody's dudes! All the time!

IF YOU LIKED: Those bitches Georgina Reed and the other one and how excellently horrible they were ...

YOU WILL LOVE: Ginevra Farnshawe. The name says it all of course, but here's the best part: Lucy kind of likes her. Their whole friendship is basically G being like, wow doesn't my hair look cute, and Lucy being like, I HOPE YOU DIE, but also same time tomorrow?


YOU WILL LOVE: OK, lightning tree wins this one.

IF YOU LIKED: Weird attic noises. Who could it be?!

YOU WILL LOVE: The N U N, spelled like that.

Hairpin, you guys. I wrote my friend Adrienne, who just finished this book. Subject line: "Villette"; message content: "SO GOOD?" And she wrote back "most depressing, real, awful, cruel and brilliant book ever? I'm confused why no one ever told me to read it." So here I am, telling you. And then you tell a friend and your friend tells a friend and before you know it we won't ever have to actually name our feelings anymore, we can just quote Villette at each other, and we will all save so much on therapy and then go spend it all on purple-y gray dresses.

Carrie Hill Wilner loves to read.

64 Comments / Post A Comment


Reading this! Can you write Dame Darcy a letter and tell her to illustrate this too? Because the illustrated Jane Eyre makes me 30x happier than the regular one did.

Caitlin Podiak

Oh, man, I tried to read Villette like four or five times back when I was going through a lonely romance phase and Jane Eyre seemed to help. I don't know why I never made it past the first third of the book. I liked it, but I kept getting distracted by something or other and by the time I came back to it, I had to start over because I'd forgotten everything.

I went home for two weeks this Christmas, and Villette stared at me reproachfully from the bookshelf in my childhood bedroom the whole time.

Carrie Hill Wilner

Do it do it do it do it. If you are going to not like any 3rd of Villette it is the first third. But once she gets to fake France/Belgium, the awesomeness just snowballs. I am going to obsessively respond to comments on this thread because if anyone is on the fence I want to push them over it so hard. Ouch, Carrie, that hurt! No, you'll thank me. Also better than unpacking/studying for looming professional licensing exam?


Aaaahh just read Jane Eyre again while I was sick and it was so excellent, particularly in that state like "uuuugh I am going to die I am so pale and fragile lol". Just Project Gutenbergzed the hell out of Villette thanks!

Carrie Hill Wilner

You are going to LOVE IT. The OTHER best part is how she'll be like, so there was this person, let's say Sarah (not a real character), la la, a million chapters, no Sarah, stuff happens she is talking about some other character, I dunno, Millicent, and then she was like, "oh I did I not mention Millicent and Sarah were the same person? Yeah, her name was Millicent Sarah Ann Susan McGee. I totally forgot to mention that."


And if you like any of the above, you will loathe the abomination that is "The Magicians and Mrs. Quent." I got the ebook version and after reading 80% of the book I wish I'd bought a paper copy so I could burn it.


this site is seriously inside my brain.


Super enjoyed this, even though I can't quite agree. It's been a long time since I read (and loved) Villette but Jane Eyre has been an ongoing influence for more years than I care to count. I suspect it's because Jane Eyre is such a beautifully anarchic, freedom-loving character, so on fire with the refusal to be less, to take less.

"Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! -- I have as much soul as you, -- and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh; -- it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal, -- as we are!"

Carrie Hill Wilner

You know, I felt maybe a little bad throwing Jane under the polemic bus, because like you say, she's been there, all up in my life in so many ways over so many (I mean, not THAT many) years, and I might have just come to Lucy at the right time; somewhat older, everything is more complicated and twisted but also I love more other humans in more different ways? That said, I'd push back against the suggestion that Jane's anarchic and Lucy is less so? I'd suggest - and this is reflected in respective the settings of the novels, that Jane's waging epic 1066 style warfare within herself and Lucy's struggle is an urban insurgency. Also, I am of two minds about how solidly J.E. resolves itself around a romantic union. The one mind is like OVER IT but the other mind is all, that said, pretty weird romantic union, guess I can roll with this. Miniseries etc. always fuck this up by casting way too handsome dudes as Mr. R.

Carrie Hill Wilner

Ok, really it's actually been a pretty decent number of years. Just not like, 100.


TOO true about the too-handsome dudes.

Also, this is a really funny thing--I really don't think of Jane Eyre as "resolving itself around a romantic union" so much as like, this kid was NOT taking no for an answer about anything she wanted for her own life.


Oh shit! I was at the bookstore tonight.. not two hours ago! And I picked up this book and read it in the corner just cuz I didn't want to buy it yet. Amazing that I came home and saw this.. now I'm def buying it. Like a post above me said, it's like ur in our brains, this site.


Since this book is public domain, it's available free online in both e-book and audiobook formats.
Who doesn't want to have Charlotte Brontë on their mp3 player?


Agreed, times a lot!!!!!!!!! Also Carrie were you going to mention the end???? Which is like a very quiet ghost coming up and punching you in the boob!!

N.B. I read and disliked Jane Eyre.

Carrie Hill Wilner

True story: I was reading the end of Villette in bed bc couldn't sleep and thought, oh I'll finish and feel accomplished and relaxed and have nice cozy dreams bc everything will be resolved ok bc it was in Jane Eyre (not really, but sort of, enough that you could go to sleep on it) and then I actually finished and was like oh I see, actually, I'm never going to be able to sleep again, that's cool too.


Hooray, Villette is available for free in ebook form on Amazon. I'll be reading it as soon as I finish Pride and Prejudice.


Wow, I had no idea the pro-Austen, anti-Eyre lobby was so diverse these days.

Jolie Kerr

Oh my God the lavender heather girls! Your last line summed up exactly why I never got into the Bronte- Austen-type books - I could never quite get my finger on it. But now! Now I know it's because I'm not one of those tragic, mooning, pale things.

I want to write one of these on Hawthorne, aimed at the girls who have at one point or another owned corsetry and can recite Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived on command.

(Which is all to say that I LOVED this. Love the lavender heather girls with their mooning and wanness! Just not one of them!)

Jolie Kerr

Also: alskhflsakhflkfdh YOUR BYLINE. Oh my God, I love this site so much I want to lesbian marry it.


AHHH! YES, the lead in Strictly Ballroom? YES. Also, maybe, bolero jackets.


I have yet to find someone who can commiserate with me on WHY Rochester, WHY would you dress up as a woman?? Did you REALLY think no one would be able to tell it was you?? You have many SO many poor decisions in your life, did you really have to add that to the list??? Rochester!!!

Carrie Hill Wilner

See he knew it would be ok (in his brain, which was totally a real brain and not an imaginary one) bc he was drawing on such a rich literary tradition of people disguising themselves as opposite sex and it somehow working, really improbably.

I am genuinely having trouble thinking of a book WITHOUT this happening in it. Way to go, human history.


Ugggh that scene is SO awkward and SO good. It's basically "IDK, do you ever like, think about me while you're sitting in the corner where I make you sit and watch me flirt with hos every night? You're such a strange creature!"

What I wonder is did he ever give her back that shilling he charged for her "fortune"?


OoooohmyGAWD, That's so true.

I bought this Bronte collection, and Jane Eyre was, of course, the most famoust story there, so after I finished it I thought the other ones wouldn't be as good. Boy, was I surprised. I keep telling my friends to read Villette, and they always give me funny looks that say "Oh, you're just saying it's better than Jane Eyre to be 'different'" and there are no words to decribe how happy I am to see that I'm not the only one who thinks so!


Wow wee wow wow! I picked up Villette at 18 and it instantly trumped Jane Eyre in my mind, and I LOVE Jane Eyre. SO glad someone had the balls (so to speak) to point it out!
Can I just say, that since I first read Jane Eyre at the age of 12–about (gasp)27 years ago now–this is the first and only time that I have heard anyone discuss it in a way that made sense to me. Thank you for existing and writing this post! Now please work on forcing all those many idiots creating horrible, girly films based on it to consult you first…

Carrie Hill Wilner

that would be my dream job, give me it.


I picked up Villette about a year ago and couldn't finish it -- too much French dialogue. It was such a bother that I gave up. Really, how do other Hairpinners deal with this issue? Did you all take French in high school?


@Limaceous I skim it, get frustrated, flip through the MILLION pages (ok, like, ten, but it seems like a lot if you can't read a damn word), and hope to everything that it's not critically important to the plot.

Of course, it always is.


I created a log-in and password just to share my Jane Eyre story in the hopes that one of you early 00's ladies will back me up: When I was 14 I stayed up all night finishing Jane Eyre while listening to my brand-new copy of No Doubt's Return of Saturn (don't know if it's cool or not but that album's underrated) and they match up PERFECTLY. I thought this was so profound at the time. It's like pairing up Oz/Dark Side of the Moon only instead of causing a hallucinogenic mindfuck I'm pretty sure it just causes menarche.

Edited to add: Eve Sedgwick is the tops.


@KatieWK Haven't tried that but maybe I should. When I read Jane Eyre I was listening to The Decline of British Sea Power over and over and over. I thought that was a pretty perfect match and now I can't see or hear one without thinking of the other.


Can we talk about the new Jane Eyre with Mia Wachowski (sp?) as Jane and Michael Fassbender as Rochester? I have a lot of feelings about this.


Ordering my copy from Book Depository RIGHT NOW!


I am so glad there's a general women's / culture site talking about "Villette"! (Next stop, a general site, full stop.) Thanks for this breakdown; it seriously has me reconsidering "Villette." And craving "Strictly Ballroom"... paso doble.

Lucy Snow

Yes, Villette is the greatest, truest, saddest, wisest novel. I learned 70% of what I know about "true" love from it. Someone once said that Villette is Jane Eyre for grown-ups. Not that Jane Eyre isn't for grown-ups, too, but it's also for 13-year-olds. Whereas no one under 22 unless they are exceptionally literary and unlucky in love should attempt Villette.
The first 100 pages are a slog and I too almost put it aside then, but once at the school, it becomes tremendous.
Men should also be required to read it.
Rebecca Fraser's biography of Bronte is riveting, by the way.


Have you ever noticed that whenever Bronte wants to represent emotional trauma, she puts her character in a RED room? Happens in both Jane Eyre and Villette.

I also wanted to say that if you like Villette, try Mrs Gaskell.

Amy Gentry

I LOVE Villette. I stole it from a house I was staying in during the loneliest vacation ever by myself in France and read it at a seedy hostel. Her dark night of the soul is wrenching. And I love how Catholicism is this horrible seductive force for evil that must be resisted at all costs, and even though she's in love with an ugly Catholic guy who loves her back, his mother is an ancient Catholic demon-lady and she can't let herself slip into that corruption.

Bridget Sipek

I just finished Villette and...I died. I'm shaking right now.

I almost wish I didn't read it because it was so deeply upsetting. I wonder what happened to Charlotte in the six years between JE and Villette that made her so jaded.

Carrie Hill Wilner

Bubbeleh! I know, it's such a shock. It's... something, to know that both CB's sisters died in those 6 years? So at least we can imagine tragedy darkened her outlook, instead of just _being_ darkening it. Which is better, I guess? Or more sense-ier at least.

Bridget Sipek

Well that would certainly explain it.

Also I keep coming back to this thread because I'm so stressed that nobody else wants to talk to me about this book. I told my mom and one of my pals to read it, but my mom isn't a huge fan so far because she was confused as to how old Polly was supposed to be until she is stated outright to be 6, and my pal is a busy college student (although so am I and I made time, damnit!).

Also I feel like Villette would make an excellent film if Alfred Hitchcock were around to make it.

Carrie Hill Wilner

Omg you are so so right about the Hitchcock. My mind is being blown right now.

Lauren Hayden

Oh god, I just finished Villette, like just now just this very second and my heart feels like it was dipped in really horrendous cheap vodka and then wrung out and then set on fire for a little bit and then extinguished in Hitler's ashes and dog shit. SO F*ING DISTRAUGHT right now!

paper bag princess

@Lauren Hayden I know this thread is from AGES ago but I also finished Villette just this second and I am having some FEELINGS about it! I cannot handle the ending.


@Lauren Hayden me too!! This is still happening to people. I am filled with passion and also heartbreak and I can't sleep.


OK...so I had finished Jane Eyre for the qua-hundredth time and was looking for something similar and Viola! (lol...sorry, I couldn't resist)..I found your post. Upon your recommendation, and your awesome chart, I read Villette and I couldn't agree with you more. Don't get me wrong I still love Jane Eyre, but Villette takes everything to that next level with a certain dysfunctional madness to it that makes you think..."what the hell and ooohhh...that's perfect"!! Anyway, thank you greatly for the post...


Thanks for this post — you made me laugh AND now I'm going to read Villette! Jane Eyre was the most romantic book I'd ever read at age 14. It literally punched me in the stomach when I got to the end of it. I started reading it again straight away from page 1 the moment I finished. Then I re-read JE in grad school and it taught me all different things than I'd picked up from it at 14, but I still loved it. Villette, on the other hand, I'd tried to read maybe at 16 and I just couldn't get into it (same with The Professor, by the way — what do you think of that one, Carrie or anyone else?). Now I'm going to try Villette again — so excited! I was just wondering what to read next

Beauty School Drop Out

I come too late to the party, I fear. But I have to thank you for the forceful suggestion to read Villette, a book I would have otherwise neglected but instead spent the last couple of days devouring. I am ready to exchange Villette-isms with any who dare to approach, and wish to sternly remind all that Happiness is not a potato.


I had hoped someone else would catch that potato line! I thought that was hilarious.


I just finished Villette a few minutes ago. WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT TO ME I DON'T EVEN KNOW YOU CARRIE.

Ok, so the ending... happened. I can't even talk about it.

It was not remotely the only part of the book to fuck me up, though. When Lucy has had her breakdown & is being taken care of, and begs God not to let her love her friends too much because she's not entitled to more than a tiny bit of reciprocity -- that made me cry. And then when they sort of forget about her for 2 months, and she's completely miserable, and then one of them writes her and is all, "Oh, has it been two months? Well, I'm sure you've been as busy and happy as we've been!" -- that also made me cry.

I can't really think of another book that has captured loneliness and the unknowing cruelty of kind people for me in such a poignant way. Just devastating.


Okay, so I made it to the obscene age of 26 without reading any books by any Bronte. Now I've read Jane Eyre, and I'm almost done with Villette. I feel fast approaching the day when I need never speak of my emotions again! Hurray!

Sean Moss@facebook

villete is seriously awesome.


Honestly? This has to be the best plug EVER! I have owned Villette for years, but have oddly felt disloyal to JE, so have never even cracked the binding! However, your article is so hilarious and I can tell your affection for her is true, that I am inspired to finally read it. I SO wish I had friends with whom to discuss Jane's wearing the "fugly grey sack" and her big f-U to the party! I will have to come back here often, so thank you! I'm headed to bed and to start... Villette!

Jeanne Vest@facebook

OMG. My dear friend, Marianna, sent me the link to this blog post. Reading it and all of the rabid Charlotte-loving comments has made me feel like the bumblebee girl at the end of the Blind Melon video. At times in my life, I have said out loud, "Jane Eyre changed my life," and I have yet to get a sincere word-up from any recipient of that comment. And now here you all are. Bumblebee girl. Thanks.

Fierce, Bad Rabbit@twitter

I'll never understand the place of Jane Eyre in the English literary canon. If I had to give an award to the most contrived, nasty, and achingly dull bit of overrated pablum to predate Twilight... Well, actually, more than one Bronte sister was writing, come to think, so that award would have more than one nominee.

...That's unfair. Anne Bronte actually wrote pretty well. And didn't have ideas about gender and romance that were fucked up beyond belief even for her time and place. Wonder how she managed it?

Hot Doom

AHHHHHHHH I just finished Villette! It literally took me from the week before this article was written to now, June 2012. Jesus Fucking Catholic-Protestant-romance Christ.
The last paragraph I read like, 3 times, just because I needed to make sure, make absolutely sure what happened. I just could not get into the first half of the book, and was sort of having a 'meh Lucy Snowe can kind of be a dick too' reaction to it, but then CB totally caught my attention by having M. Paul go apeshit that Lucy was looking at a naked lady painting. And then I kept reading and reading and loving every time the N U N showed up, and then by the last quarter, my heart ached for Lucy. I kind of want to read it again with the new appreciation, but I can't really deal with the ending.

Katie Scarlett

Thank you so much for recommending this. Really. I just finished reading it and was so incredibly moved. Even as I was reading I kept thinking, "Is this my new favorite book?! I think it is!" I cried so many times! I've never wanted to know a main character or author so much as after reading Villette! Oh Lucy Snowe/Charlotte Bronte, would that we could be friends and take strolls in alleyways where we walk arm and arm! Or just sit quietly in the same room together and read to ourselves!

This book!
And all the Popery?!
The way that M. Emmanuel always appears as this dark, shadowy blob every time he enters a scene?!
The ending?!
The NUN?!
It is all of it perfection!

Bridget Sipek

over two years ago, this article convinced me to read this book. i have now convinced five, maybe six, of my friends to read it. i can't get enough.

Dimsie Smith@facebook

I've just found this discussion and want to say how much I agree that Villette is a better book than Jane Eyre. In fact, for me it's a better book than any other, I've never read another book that topped it. Yes, the first few chapters are pretty hard going, but then it gathers pace and is a wonderful read, the type of book that really draws you in and makes you feel you know exactly how the author is feeling. The part where she's left alone apart from the 'cretin' (what an ugly word) is truly heart-wrenching. Genius writing really. As for the end ... what is there to say? I guarantee once you've read Villette you'll never forget the ending, no matter what else you might forget. It'll haunt you for ever!


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