Sunday 25 October 2009
Are you anybody, Miss Snowe?
Readings from Villette. From left to right: Valerie Sculfor, Sally Batten, Maureen Peeck, Jennifer Rankin, Sherry Vosburgh, Zigurds Kronberg
The theme of our talk on Saturday 17 October in our usual venue (Facultés Universitaires Saint-Louis) was Charlotte Brontë's novel Villette. People who read or re-read the novel after moving to Brussels agree that reading it here is illuminating both about Villette and Brussels. There are always some readers who find it difficult and unappealing, yet for many it is uniquely atmospheric and fascinating.
Maureen Peeck O'Toole's talk, Are you anybody, Miss Snowe?, by focusing on the narrator Lucy Snowe and her relationship with us, the reader, addressed some of the questions that arise about this novel. Many of these relate to the character of Lucy. Can we like her, or at least understand her and feel sympathetic towards her? What is her attitude to us, the reader? Why does she sometimes seem to deliberately mislead us or at least withhold things from us? The talk was intended to be useful for first-time readers of the novel while suggesting new ways of approaching it to those already acquainted with it. The discussion that followed and comments by people who attended suggest that the audience did indeed find it thought-provoking.
Maureen Peeck has lived in the Netherlands for much of her life and taught for many years at Utrecht University, but she was born Maureen O'Toole and brought up in Bradford close to the Bronte village, Haworth, which she visited as a child. Maureen is a founder member of the Brussels Bronte group and has always been one of its most active members.
Her talk was followed by readings of passages from Villette selected by her to illustrate it. We had five very competent readers, many with acting experience. Four were members of our group while the fifth had volunteered to join them in response to our appeal for a male reader to read M. Paul's part. The formula of talk plus readings worked well and several people said afterwards that the readings highlighted the points touched on by Maureen as well as being enjoyable in their own right.
We prepared for the talk by reading Villette in our reading group. There was so much interest that in addition to our meeting of regular members of the reading group, we organised an extra discussion just before Maureen's talk for all the other people eager to talk about the novel.