Reading, Writing, Watching: Villette, Ferrante, Downton Abbey

villette-charlotte-bronte-paperback-cover-artYou wouldn’t know it from the lull here at Novel Readings, but it has been a busy few days. (Actually, you should know it from the lull, which is always a sign that things are busy elsewhere!) I haven’t made much progress yet with the book I chose to follow A Morbid Taste for Bones, which is Rose Tremain’s Music and Silence, but I hope to get back to it soon, as I was very impressed by Restoration when I read it last summer. I have been reading, though: yesterday I finished Villette, which I’m teaching in the fall for the first time in many years. It is a splendid novel in many ways: dark and twisty and, especially in its narration, full of tricks and surprises. Is it a better novel than Jane Eyre? I often stumble on evaluative questions like this, which (at least when both books involved are strong of their kind) demand so much further specification before they make any real sense. Better at what? On this read-through, Villette struck me as more prolix than Jane Eyre, particularly the religious arguments and disquisitions. The language is also more florid, though this can often be attributed to Lucy’s character, which is more morbidly introspective than Jane’s, but also, paradoxically, more theatrical. The novel as a whole is also more elaborately metaphorical, and the story it tells is more psycho-drama than Bildungsroman. There’s a wonderful fierce energy to Jane’s progress through her life. Lucy shares Jane’s determined independence, but not her flair for action or confrontation. Lucy’s yearning for love, and her attempt to (sometimes literally) bury her feelings, is very poignant. I expect we will talk a lot in class about her various doubles or foils in the novel and how (or whether) she herself ends up embodying anything like an ideal, as well as whether her final affair de coeur — or any of the marriages in the novel — is a model. I’ve always had my doubts about that tiny house with its “small round table,” its “little couch,” its “little chiffonniere”: it’s a bit too much like a doll’s house for me. We did a group read of Villette at The Valve a few years ago that was a lot of fun; I’ll have to mine those discussions for ideas.

I’ve also been writing my piece for the September issue of Open Letters Monthly. I’ve only just submitted it for editing by my colleagues, so I’m not sure how close I am to being done with it. I won’t say much about it here so it will still be fresh when it comes out, but the basic idea is that we do a semi-regular feature at OLM called “Peer Review,” in which we review the reviewers, and as I got quite interested in how people were talking about Elena Ferrante, I decided to try my hand at one of these focusing on her reception. Those of you who hang out with me on Twitter will have seen some of the choicer morsels there. I’m doing the usual editing for the new issue too, including on a couple of pieces for which I’m the “commissioning editor” (which means overseeing and collating all the input and working out revisions with the authors): I enjoy this work a lot, though it sometimes surprises me how challenging it is.

DowntonAbbeyFinally, my husband and I have been catching up on Downton Abbey. I watched the first season not long after it came out and opted not to continue, as it sort of bored me: I felt that, having seen much of Upstairs, Downstairs in the olden days and then watched Gosford Park and The Remains of the Day in the meantime, Downton didn’t offer me anything particularly new. I still think that’s true as far as the type of show it is, but once we started working our way through it we did get caught up in the personal dramas, and especially following the UK House of Cards the production and the acting in Downton are so luxuriously splendid. By the end of Season 4, we were laughing ruefully at the plot twists, which start to seem quite random, as well as rather tortuous (must Thomas always be so conniving? did we really need such an elaborate scheme to work out whether Bates would or would not be accused of murder … again?). It’s not actually a good choice for binge-watching, I think: it doesn’t give you the satisfaction of feeling you’ve watched something significant build up, the way The Wire or Deadwood does. It’s very good for doing crochet to, though! (If you want smarter commentary on Downton Abbey, you should read Joana Scutts’s two essays on it in Open Letters Monthly.)

I wish someone would take the energy and talent that goes into Downton Abbey and make a show about Somerville College before, during, and after the war! Imagine a series that looked, not at aristocrats and their servants in their country houses, but at the circles people like Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby moved in: the writers and activists and reformers who were deliberately shaping the new England the Granthams are mostly just reacting passively to. You could have Bloomsbury subplots, since Woolf would be a good marketing tool, and tell stories based on people like Rebecca West and Dorothy L. Sayers, who were the real deal compared to Lady Edith and her magazine column and hidden shame. (Does anyone else think that Tom’s new friend Sarah Bunting is based on Sarah Burton from South Riding, by the way? An outspoken red-headed school teacher with progressive ideas, initials SB?)

9 thoughts on “Reading, Writing, Watching: Villette, Ferrante, Downton Abbey

  1. Amateur Reader (Tom) August 21, 2014 / 2:06 am

    I am really looking forward to the Ferrante essay. The Twitter fragments have already been eye-opening, if not yet instructive. Meaning, I have not yet identified which cliches I constantly fall back on for certain kinds of authors. I shudder to think about it.

    And, of course, Villette, I love reading about Villette. I think you’re right to have doubts about that doll house.


    • Rohan Maitzen August 22, 2014 / 5:07 pm

      I read through the posts and comment at The Valve, which helped stir me up in preparation for teaching it.


  2. Ana @ things mean a lot August 21, 2014 / 6:27 pm

    I’m not a big fan of Downton (I quit after season two), but now I desperately want the series you describe in your last paragraph!


    • Rohan Maitzen August 22, 2014 / 5:09 pm

      Yeah, I remain a bit “meh” about Downton, even though there’s no denying how beautifully it is made. There’s an ad hoc quality to the plots that, especially when they are seen in bulk, is too revealing, I think: there is no design beyond “things are changing,” which really is not a very deep insight.


  3. Teresa August 21, 2014 / 6:35 pm

    I really ought to reread Villette one of these days. It’s been close to 20 years. It’s hard to imagine it ever supplanting Jane Eyre in my heart, though. However, from your description of the differences I wonder if I love Jane because she’s the kind of woman I want to be while Lucy is closer to who I actually am. I do remember relating to Lucy quite a lot when I read it the first time.

    I sort of gave up on Downton after Season 3, which I mostly hate-watched. I do love to look at it, though, and have waffled over whether to try Season 4. My current favorite BBC show is Call the Midwife, which I can’t say enough nice things about. And I’d definitely watch the show you describe.


    • Rohan Maitzen August 22, 2014 / 5:11 pm

      I think I share your take on Lucy vs. Jane, which of course is anxiety-inducing in a way, since Lucy is hardly a likable character!

      I have watched most of Call the Midwife and admire it a lot, though it gets just a bit maudlin for me sometimes. I thought this post by a historian about how she came round to appreciating the show was really interesting:


  4. Amateur Reader (Tom) August 22, 2014 / 12:36 am

    Villette will never replace Jane Eyre in my heart, but it has replaced Jane Eyre in my spleen.


    • Rohan Maitzen August 22, 2014 / 5:11 pm

      Ha! Well put.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.