Tag Archives: victorian fiction

63. Villette, Charlotte Bronte (1853)

For a long time, I thought Villette was the greatest novel in the English language. I loved the narrative style, the European setting, the oddball romance at the heart of the story and above all the spinster heroine, Lucy Snow. I used to get particularly excited about the ending, which (spoiler alert) completely undermines the reader’s expectations by killing off the romantic lead and dooming the heroine to loneliness. And then, oh dear, I re-read it in middle age, after 20 years in which I’d knocked about a bit – and I was horribly disillusioned. Now I find Lucy’s self-denial nauseating, and her prim disapproval of anyone whose life isn’t as tidy as hers really depressing. The love story with M. Paul seems implausible, and I find myself liking all the characters we’re supposed to condemn. I still think it’s a great literary achievement, far more interesting and complex than Jane Eyre, but I’ve completely changed my ideas about what fiction should do. And life, for that matter. There’s quite enough misery and loneliness in real life without revelling in it. I almost left it off the list altogether, but obviously Villette is still a masterpiece – even though I personally don’t much like it any more.

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68. The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler (1903)

Another of those books that forms the ‘alternative canon’ of Eng Lit. For some reason Butler’s masterpiece was barely mentioned when I was a student except as an influence on Joyce, and to this day remains slightly obscure – never even been done for telly. It doesn’t fit in with ‘modernism’, because it’s a good old-fashioned Bildungsroman with a straightforward narrative style, but the content is absolute dynamite. The Way of All Flesh traces the young life of Ernest Pontifex, a late Victorian who struggles to break free from his oppressive family through religion, sex, marriage and crime, and eventually finds liberation and independence as he reaches adulthood. Each phase of his life is brilliantly, vividly depicted, and Butler’s rage against the strictures of society is so intense that he dared not publish the book during his lifetime. Generally speaking, I don’t like ‘importing’ biographical details into my reading of novels, but it’s fascinating to know that Butler himself was homosexual (in theory, if not in practice) and that Ernest’s journey to liberation can be decoded in that light.

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