At school, my English class was asked to write an extended essay on any work of literature we chose. I decided on Charlotte Bronte's last novel, Villette. It proved to be a rather unpopular choice.
Villette, I was told with a degree of scorn by the - all-male - English department, was too strongly autobiographical to merit close criticism. Like Matthew Arnold, who wrote at the time of the book's first publication in 1853 that "the writer's mind contains nothing but hunger, rebellion, and rage", they considered Villette to be "disagreeable". Some of them had been at Cambridge during FR Leavis's ascendancy, and had absorbed at first hand his famous assertion in The Great Tradition that there was "only one Bronte". For him, Wuthering Heights assured the primacy of Emily Bronte over her sisters and, in a slighting put-down of admirers of Charlotte's genius, he allowed only that she had merely done something "interesting" with her personal experience, especially in Villette.
Critical fashions change, and in the two decades since my schooldays Charlotte Bronte's reputation as a writer has risen to new heights, helped in part by the emergence of feminist literary theory. There has been a sharp move away from the purely biographical interest that has always bedevilled serious consideration of her work, towards critical studies that emphasise the rich symbolism and poetic imagery of her novels, as well as their psychological complexity. On a more popular level, there has also been a continuous stream of stage, television and film adaptations of Jane Eyre, the novel that made Charlotte famous and has remained hugely popular ever since. Villette, in contrast, has never received such widespread recognition, though few critics today would deny that it stands as Charlotte Bronte's most profound achievement. Lucasta Miller, who is completing a study of the Bronte myth, considers Villette to be "a distinctly uncomfortable read and definitely an acquired taste, but for those who persevere, it is undoubtedly Charlotte Bronte's masterpiece". It remains true, however, that the novel's unsympathetic heroine, its relative lack of dramatic incident and its enigmatic ending which denies the story a romantic resolution, has made Villette difficult to popularise. This makes Radio 4's three-part adaptation of the novel, beginning on Easter Sunday, a daring choice for their classic serial slot - and a particularly welcome one. In Villette, Charlotte Bronte forsakes the "unpruned fancies" of Jane Eyre in favour of a new sobriety; a sad, strong stoicism, based on her own chastened experience of love. She drew closely on her experience of the two years she had spent as a teacher in Brussels at the Pensionnat Heger. There she had formed a passionate, but painfully unrequited, attachment to Constantin Heger, the Pensionnat's brilliant literature teacher and husband of the directrice, and the first person to recognise her extraordinary creative genius. …