Sunday, February 24, 2013

In Villette

Currently Reading: Early Irish Myths and Sagas by Jeffrey Gantz, Under Wildwood by Colin Meloy, and Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

A Sunday morning. Calm, quiet, peaceful. Quite different from our Friday night, in which more bad news shook us to our cores and caused us to reevaluate our present and our future. It is terrifying to stand at the cliff edge and look down, unable to see what is below. But as we always do, we shook ourselves free of the immediate fear and started to make the first fumbling steps in this new darkness. And this morning, we breathe and we close our eyes and we breathe some more. We find solace in the simple comforts, which for me is usually between the pages of a book. On my way out the door to work yesterday, I impetuously grabbed the copy of Louisa May Alcott's journals sitting on my bedside table and flipped it open, praying for some guidance, for some advice, for some perspective to ease the churning in my stomach. My eyes fell on an entry from February 28th, 1868. Louisa had just spent several months in Boston, feverishly writing, and was preparing to go back home to Concord. In looking back on what she accomplished during those months, she wrote, "Not a bad two months' work. I can imagine an easier life, but with love, health, and work I can be happy; for these three help one to do, to be, and to endure all things." Yes. Yes. Sigh of relief. Once again, I felt that connection we share, she and I. And I went off to work feeling determined, with my chin up.
I have been hoping to write about Villette since I finished it almost two weeks ago. It was my second read for the Classics Club, and my second Charlotte Bronte, so I think that makes it pretty significant. My first impression was the familiarity of the writing- if I had no inclination of the author or book title, but merely "read it blind," I think I would still know it was Charlotte Bronte. Even though I had never read it before, the style was so familiar because it was so apparently Charlotte.

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Because I had read Lyndall Gordon's amazing biography on Charlotte beforehand, I felt prepared for Villette. I read it with an eye for what it said about Charlotte- her life, her experiences, her opinions- and I think this colored my experience of it. Ultimately, it is a book in which the plot is only secondary. Character reigns supreme over the novel- that of the narrator, Lucy Snowe, as well as those around her. The focus of the book lies primarily with the development of Lucy's character. Lucy Snowe is a woman of storm and shadow- the first she denies and stifles within herself, the other she uses to hide and protect herself from what she does not want to face. The metaphors of storms and shadows occur over and over throughout the narrative, reflecting Lucy's inner world as it describes the outer setting. The stormy nights are the ones in which new discoveries are made, new secrets come to light, and when she must internally struggle with herself and her life's path.

And the shadows? When I think of what exactly a shadow is, I see how well it fits with Lucy. A shadow is not distinct or clear, it can be altered, it is not a true representation of the real object, and (perhaps most importantly here), it can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. Figuratively, Lucy hides herself in the shadows, content to stay hidden and keep her true, inner self from others and even partly from herself. She does not even truly open herself to us, her readers. Unlike Jane Eyre, she is more cautious and reserved, less open about details. She does not reveal everything to us, leaving parts of the story unexplained and hidden from view. In the story itself Lucy is often invisible, her friends and acquaintances taking center stage while she quietly observes and narrates from the sidelines. She tends to disappear beneath the lives of those around her, unobserved and content to be so. In fact, whole chapters often go by where she hardly makes an entrance. She also hides in plain sight from each of her friends and acquaintances. Each one sees her differently, interpreting her by a different light, for they see her as she wishes to be seen by them. Therefore, she is never truly seen because she is not seen as she is. She becomes insubstantial, a mere image of herself, as a shadow is only a representation of reality. I did wonder how much of this is true of us? Don't we change our demeanor and personalities based on those we are interacting with; aren't we different around different people? If that is the case, then when are we truly ourselves? Is it with those we are only the closest to or are our true selves an amalgamation of the various parts we present to others?

Lyndall Gordon stated that Charlotte's novels all represent Charlotte's struggle to balance Reason and Passion, while not becoming overcome by either. After reading that, I saw how true it was in Jane Eyre and I watched for it in Villette. Sure enough, it was there. Lucy Snowe's story is affected and altered by the fact that she fights against her nature and her passionate inclinations. This too ties into her desire to stay hidden in shadow. Desperately she tries to stifle the part of herself that yearns for more, focusing on the necessity of "knocking on the head" her longings and desires. When she starts to feel a passion for Dr. John, she figuratively buries those feelings and their potential by literally burying his letters beneath the earth. Lucy is content to stay in the shadows because she feels safer there- not safe from the threat of others, but safe from herself. She fears the deeper parts within herself, which I think is one of the most tragic aspects of the book, for it alters her life and the person she becomes. In Lucy, I think Charlotte is trying to demonstrate to herself, as well as to her readers, the danger of letting logic and reason possess you fully; perhaps this was also Charlotte's way of reminding herself that it is necessary to let passion and desire in, despite the fears.

I think readers today can still identify with this struggle- of trying to understand ourselves, of wrestling with our natures, of trying to be something we are not. I know that I often fight against who I am, both the negative and the positive, and struggle with the desire to be someone else, that elusive "other" I think I should be. Villette, as well as Jane Eyre, resonate with me because I am still defining myself and finding my place in the world, just as Charlotte was and just as her heroines strive to do. As Villette (and Jane Eyre) demonstrate, the process does not require one to have all of the answers or the perfect life plan. Instead, it involves using each experience- with all of its uncertainty and risk- to discover and lay bare what is hidden within me. To not hide from who I am, but to allow it into the light. To be open to the potential of new discoveries, and embracing- not hiding from- the fear and trepidation that accompanies each revelation. To be strong enough to recognize and embrace who I am, without denying what I am and what I feel. Jane Eyre demonstrates this by doing it, by being true to herself, by following her inclinations and listening to her inner self. Lucy Snowe demonstrates this by not doing so, by hiding from any expression of her inner self, by denying her passions and desires, by choosing a safe but unfulfilling life over the promise of something more.

With Villette, Charlotte's works continue to exert a powerful force of brilliant insight, demonstrating just how timeless her works really are. Jane Eyre will always remain my favorite, but I am more pleased than I expected with the experience I had in Villette, and am more of a Bronte fan than ever before.

Thursday, February 14, 2013


Currently Reading: Villette by Charlotte Bronte and Early Irish Myths & Sagas by Jeffrey Gantz
(Finished The World of Downton Abbey in one day though... but I don't regret that 1 a.m. bedtime)

Every year, for Valentine's Day, Nate and I watch Jane Eyre (the phenomenal 2006 version from the BBC with Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens). It debuted on PBS in February of 2007- the first Valentine's Day we celebrated together. Since then, it has become our Valentine's tradition- no fancy dinners, no bouquets of flowers... just the two of us (with Hobbes), burrowed in blankets on the couch,enjoying one of our favorite love stories.

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Today, a list of things I love and am grateful for- because what better day to celebrate it all?

- At the top of my list: Nathan. While I won't get all sappy here, he really is my best friend, the sharer of all my adventures, my "sweetheart of the hawthorn hedges." I wouldn't be the same without him.

- My family and my friends. My life is so full with love from so many wonderful souls- my parents, who support me at every turn; my sister, who is my other half; my grandparents, those here and not here; my extended family, who are really just members of my immediate family because we're so close; my friends, with whom I share a million memories, and with whom I am closer than ever, despite the distances. I know God has blessed me when I think on all of the people He has put into my life.

And other little things:
- Watching birds with Hobbes as they gather the bird seed on our balcony, swooping and diving and chattering to each other in the cold winter breeze.

- The lovely purple shawl my Oma crocheted for me several Christmases ago that I hardly part with during the winter. Whether I'm cleaning, cooking, doing homework, or reading, it's there on my shoulders, keeping me snug and warm.

- Hot mugs of tea, steam curling from the surface invitingly.

- Inspiration. I have a harder time finding it during the winter months, but I'm starting to feel it take hold of me, like the first buds of spring returning. Inspiration to write, to desire, to explore. My blood quickens when it comes and the potential of the life ahead of me takes hold in all of its strength and its wonder.

- Writing this blog. I am so lucky that I have the chance to write about what inspires me, to share my thoughts and impressions with friends and family, as well as readers who have become friends and family. Writing has always been an outlet for me, but this blog has allowed me to challenge myself more and discover just how much I need writing.

- Stacks of books on my bedside table, waiting to be read and experienced.

- Mumford & Sons, every song resounding in my ears like a beautiful prayer.

- Creating in the kitchen.

- Our Ireland pictures.

- Serving communion at church.

- Dreaming of summer- farmer's markets, hikes in the State Park, starting another balcony garden, and driving with the windows down.

- Sunshine.

- Adding books to my Goodreads list.

- Wearing cardigans.

- Doing research at work.

- Accomplishing projects.

- Eating homemade yogurt.

- Shopping at Goodwill.

- Finding antiques.

- The color green.

-  Talking about kids' names with Nate, even though that's several years off.

- Adding quotes to my quote book.

- Listening to Opa's stories on my tape recorder.

- Planning for the future.

- Silence. I love stopping, making an effort to take in silence and calm for a few minutes of the day. Centering myself, saying a few words to God, recognizing the blessings I have. It doesn't happen every day, but when it does, I feel refreshed and in tune with who I am and who I want to be.

Love yourself, love the ones around you. "The greatest of these is love."

Happy Valentine's Day!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

A Piece of Myself

Currently Reading: Villette by Charlotte Bronte and Wildwood by Colin Meloy

Winter is slowly dragging on, never quite making up its mind whether or not it wants to be over. Tantalizing whiffs of spring hang in the air on the warmer days, only to be masked by gusts of snow blowing over the farm fields and reminding us that winter is still here to stay. Nevertheless, Nate and I dubbed today our "cleaning day," finally putting away the Christmas decorations (I know, we're pathetic!) and brightening the interior with anticipation of brighter days to come. I always have a difficult time in the winter- the lack of sun and chances to go outdoors makes me moody and sullen. By February, my cheerful/optimistic side goes on vacation, while my grumpy/morose side takes the field. Poor Nathan. He's a trooper though, especially since I tend to fight the negative feelings with everything I have.

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I moved my pot of ivy to the coffee table and that alone makes spring seem closer than ever. So this morning, I am back to cheerful, enjoying little things like a clean bathroom, a mug of hot cocoa, almost-finished homework, and an afternoon of writing and Villette. Tomorrow I am meeting a good friend that I haven't seen in far too long, and I look forward to that too.

Last week, Nate and I finished Little Women, my first for Classics Club. This was my third re-read, but Nathan's first introduction to it. We did it right- Nate stretched out on the couch or on the bed as I read out loud, enacting each scene and character, complete with voices. I'm sure Jo would have been proud of me.

I have always loved Little Women. There is no need for me to explain what it is about the writing and the characters that are so powerful and endearing, for I know that many, many readers have experienced that too. We laugh at Jo's antics, and feel Teddy's heartbreak, and weep when Beth takes her last breath. But this time, the book tugged at me a little bit more, pulled me in a little bit deeper, and spoke to me in a way it never had before. I can't put my finger on why that is. Perhaps it is because Nate and I read it out loud together. It is amazing how much difference it makes to read with your voice, for it turns words from flat, two-dimensional blotches of ink into a conversation, a dream, an inward sigh. (Reading out loud has always been far superior to me than reading quietly... probably to the detriment of my family, but they never seemed to mind). The book took on a new life when I read it out loud, more real than before, more concrete, more alive. And sharing the reading experience together turned every evening into a literary date night. Now, I will always have the memories of sharing Little Women (and all of the discussions and laughs and tears that accompanied it) with my husband.

Maybe the book meant more to me this time around because I identify even more with Jo now that I've gotten older. How could I not see myself in her when I was a child- dramatic, feisty-tempered, bookish, and imaginative as we were? As a girl, I realized it was OK to be who I was, because Jo was too. But now, as a young woman working on discovering who I am and what my role is in life, Jo comes back, feisty as ever, to show me that we can still be ourselves, even with new responsibilities and expectations. We can still have moody February days, and be dramatic, and wonder whether we will ever achieve what we desire, yet still be good sisters and wives and daughters and mothers. Neither Jo nor I really changed when we grew up, and that gives me so much comfort.

And maybe the book means more to me now because I have recently been learning so much about its author, Louisa May Alcott, who is also a kindred spirit to me. Knowing the context of Louisa's life, as well as her relationship with the book, really helped me understand it in a new light. Nate and I often stopped to discuss the description of Mr. March, or Jo's relationship with her mother or with Beth, in light of how that reflected Louisa's own thoughts and realities. I believe it was Eve LaPlante's Marmee & Louisa which stated that Jo March is Louisa's alter ego, but she is also just as much Louisa as she wished she were, rather than Louisa as she was. Whereas Jo is loved and humored, despite her scrapes and mishaps, Louisa had a much harder time of it, very often misunderstood by her own family. Instead of living poor but comfortably in a stable home, the Alcott's moved all over Boston and Concord, from one temporary house or boarding house to another, and were often separated as the girls grew older and worked to support the family. In Little Women, Louisa wrote of herself and her sisters' childhoods, but she also imagined a new childhood for all of them, a childhood she wished she could have had. That knowledge and understanding illuminated Little Women for me in a new way and made the re-read both rewarding and unforgettable.

I know that Little Women will always be a book I come back to for comfort, guidance, and enjoyment. It will be a book I will read to my children. It will be a book that will still teach me, even as I age. And I hope I will never cease to find a piece of myself within it.

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