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The One Hundred Novels You Must Read before You Write Your Own: Villette

By Shelly Lowenkopf

Villette (1853) By Charlotte Bronte

After I read the first page of Villette, I began to fear for its lead character, Lucy Snowe. Someone with her attitude could not hope to avoid oppressive consequences and bitter frustration.

Then I feared for me, Lucy’s reader. Why do I read, if not to encounter such characters, in situations where expectations and outcomes collide? Why do I read, if not to marvel at the writer’s ability to make me forget the artifice of fiction?

The farther in I went, the more Lucy’s problems grew. Mine began after I’d finished reading through her adventures, then resolved to use them and her as assigned reading for a lit class.

Lucy’s fictional problems grew out of her author’s experiences in the cramped confines of her Yorkshire home. She ached to get away at a time when only the most affluent women could consider such a move. Even then, there were consequences to consider. A woman’s chances anywhere approached a level with an unguarded sandwich left amid a squadron of marauding crows.

When I began this nonfiction project as a tribute to characters like Lucy and readers who wish to write novels of their own, I’d already published novels. Bronte’s earlier Jane Eyre ranked as one of the hundred novels in which I found tools to help me see projects of my own all the way through first concepts to finished work. If I include Villette, one of the other ninety-nine titles gets bounced to the also-ran appendix.

So be it.

Adios to a novel I first read as an undergraduate, told in a remarkable series of letters from a variety of characters, each of whom had secrets to hide, dreams to nourish, and bad habits to overcome. A painful wrench, to take The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker by Tobias Smollet (1770) out of the primary hundred, shove him in with the also-rans. What I learned from Lucy eased the pang of betrayal.

Lucy Snowe has within her the temperament, spine, and intelligence of her creator. Remember, Charlotte Bronte stood slightly below five feet tall. Packed into that frame were the qualities necessary to observe, understand, then portray imagined event as plausible drama.

Lucy went to a country where the spoken language differed from the language she heard as a child, growing up, and in her dreams. In that regard alone, she advocates as role model for each character I bring forth. Her purpose to teach another language comes through as a determination to encourage her students to function as active individuals rather than passive, accepting-of-their-social-status drones.

Each successive scene, incident, and relationship increases the pressure on Lucy to take a deep breath, heave a congratulatory sigh of doing her best, then accept her fate, the fate of all others at her social and gender levels, and the fate of all other classes reckoned below hers. The negotiated settlement with Reality achieved Lucy can do what so many have done in real time; she can accept a passive role in a system she once thought to challenge. She can dine out on having tried in her younger years, move on to affect the cynicism of her understanding how the house always wins, whether the house is a casino, a large organization, or a social stratum.

I came to Villette and Lucy Snowe after an editor who’d accepted a novel from me suggested I remove the politics, all the better to focus on entertaining the reader. Yet another thing I learned from Villette that I might not have recognized had I read it earlier: Much better to publish a work you’ve completed than get the go-ahead to write from an approved outline.

A distinguished writing teacher and author, as well as the journal's poetry editor, Shelly is presenting the novels that intrigued and mesmerized him into wishing to join the ranks of published writers.

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