I never saw this series - in fact I wonder if it ever appeared on U.S. television. But VILLETTE seems to have been made into a dramatic version only once, and this is it. Hopefully somebody else will take note of my comment who actually saw this production.
Most modern readers of the Brontes only recognize two of the seven novel titles that are associated with their names. Anne Bronte's two novels, THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL and AGNES GRAY, are still published (by Penguin and Everyman, for instance), but few bother to read them. The public only has time for the seething passions and emotions of Emily Bronte's WUTHERING HEIGHTS, and the more tightly passionate JANE EYRE of oldest sister Charlotte. But Charlotte Bronte wrote four complete novels. The second to be published was SHIRLEY, which was a love story but also involved a look at the problems of midland England in the period (roughly 1820 - 1835) when the countryside was industrializing. SHIRLEY has some interesting moments in it, but is not Charlotte Bronte at her best (Charlotte's close friend and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell wrote better "problem of England" novels like MARY BARTON and NORTH AND SOUTH).
SHIRLEY appeared in 1849. Charlotte did not publish another novel until 1853, when VILLETTE appeared. She regained her footing, telling a story of a young woman who finds romance with an older man in Belgium. The story was based on Charlotte's own experiences in working in a lady's school in Belgium in the 1830s. In fact it was the basis for a rather good sequence in the biographical movie DEVOTION, where Charlotte falls for the head teacher in the school she is teaching English in in Brussels. The sequence takes up about five minutes of DEVOTION, but Olivia de Haviland plays Charlotte well as she is first ecstatic about her romance with Victor Francken, only to be disillusioned when he returns to his regular wife. Francken gave a wonderful performance as the cynical teacher/lover.
This disillusionment does not quite appear the same way in the novel VILLETTE. Lucy Snowe first is shown as a teenage girl, in love with Graham Bretton. He seems to reciprocate, but he leaves her to follow his career. Lucy grows up, and takes a job as an English instructor in a girl's finishing school in Brussels, run by the rather sinister Madame Beck. The real heart of the school is Paul Emmanuel, a man in his late 40s. Unlike Edward Rochester, in JANE EYRE, who was rich and handsome, Paul is bald and plain, but he has a wonderfully strong character. Lucy finds herself falling for Paul, and he seems interested in her - but keeps stopping his natural inclinations due to some mysterious power over him from Madame Beck. In the meantime, Lucy meets a doctor in Brussels whom she refers to as "Doctor John". This turns out to be Graham Bretton, now a practicing physician. This odd double triangle of Lucy - Paul - Graham - Madame Beck is further complicated by a wealthy woman, Ginevra Fanshawe, who is in love with Graham too.
The plot has the same weakness of coincidences that plague most Victorian fiction, but it's strength is in the relationships of Lucy with Paul and Graham, and in the odd conclusion. In the end the affection of Paul for Lucy triumphs, but the end of the novel has one of the oddest twists that Charlotte Bronte ever put into her fiction: Paul, we learn, did not live many years after he married Lucy. It is the only real downer among Charlotte Bronte's novels.
Charlotte died two years after VILLETTE was published. Posthumously an earlier version of VILLETTE, THE PROFESSOR (written in 1836 - 37), which is unique because instead of a female narrator as in the other three novel, THE PROFESSOR is narrated by it's central hero, a man.
It is generally conceded that VILLETTE was Charlotte Bronte's best novel, due to her characterization of a Victorian May - October romance, her careful delineation of characters (especially Paul's), and by the downbeat ending. While one feels a sense of chagrin that Charlotte only wrote four novels, at least her abilities as a novelist were definitely getting better. What her fifth novel (a fragment with the title "Emma", like the Jane Austin novel and heroine) would have been like is difficult to imagine, but one hopes it would have been a success like VILLETTE was.
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