Hunger, Rebellion and Rage: Adapting Villette

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Charlotte Brontë’s final novel, Villette (1853) was regarded by early reviewers as thinlydisguised autobiography, a claim which was then used to license ad feminam attacks on its author, ‘Currer Bell’. In recent decades, however, the novel has been comprehensively critically reappraised, and continues to attract much discussion and analysis (e.g. Amy Milbank [2009]; Gretchen Braun [2011]; Elisha Cohn [2012]; Daniel Wong [2013]). Nevertheless, this newfound respect as not translated into a surge of adaptations of Villette for stage and screen (there was only one television adaptation, by the BBC in 1970). It seems unlikely that the novel will ever achieve the status of ‘culture text’ ascribed to Jane Eyre - and to other mid-century works such as Wuthering Heights or Oliver Twist – endlessly adapted, remade, referenced and alluded to; Villette seems destined to remain one of the English Department’s best-kept secrets.

This chapter begins by considering possible reasons behind this absence, in a culture in which the idea of Charlotte Brontë as a great novelist is celebrated, and in which the entire output of Jane Austen has seen at least one adaptation. Is Villette considered too much to ask of audiences, its famous, open ending, and frequently claustrophobic, continental European setting too threatening to the generic and ideological certainties of the multiplex? Is it a measure of the shortcomings of feminism’s accommodation with capitalism that each of the Brontë sisters is seemingly allowed to be identified with only one work, and is the lionisation of the three sisters and their ‘story’ through biodrama thus, perversely, implicated in the reduction of Charlotte Brontë’s talent and professionalism?

In the second part of the chapter, the BBC Radio 4 adaptations (1989; 1999) and BBC television production will be investigated, alongside four strikingly different stage adaptations since the 1980s, by Judith Adams, Julia Pascal, Patsy Rodenberg and Lisa Evans. I will argue that Villette’s relative obscurity, while making it less ‘bankable’ than Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights or Brontë biodrama, has allowed for a broader range of interpretation when adapting the text. This allows us to engage with the work, its theatrical preoccupations and its modern resonances, more directly, instead of with 'Charlotte Brontë’, the brand.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCharlotte Brontė
Subtitle of host publicationLegacies and Afterlives
EditorsAmber Regis, Deborah Wynne
Place of PublicationManchester
PublisherManchester University Press
Number of pages15
ISBN (Print)9781784992460
Publication statusPublished - 24 Jul 2017

Publication series

NameRethinking the Nineteenth Century
PublisherManchester University Press

Bibliographical note

© 2017 Manchester University Press

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