“Happiness is not a potato.” Charlotte Brontë, in Villette, cultivates a more realistic and complicated kind of love

Photo by Liz Lauren

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Our heroine is a young, intelligent 19th Century woman with no wealth or prospects. However, she has enough agency to seek a better life: she takes a job as a governess with an overbearing employer and moves into a room there…but discovers that there is something mysterious and frightening in the attic.

If Jane Eyre came to mind, congratulations! You’re wrong, but congratulations anyway because you have the right author, Charlotte Brontë. And if you were not aware that she even wrote any other books, well, you’re forgiven for that. I’m a former English teacher, and I didn’t know of her other three (!) novels either. As with her sisters Emily (Wuthering Heights) and Anne (Agnes Grey), Charlotte was a prolific writer who is known today for a single novel. (That Emily only published one book probably has more to do with the fact that she died young than anything else.) But in Villette, she had a follow-up that, at least to her contemporaries, seemed even better than its formidable predecessor.

That Villette has instead become more or less a footnote in the Brontë story is probably not due to the superficial similarities with Jane Eyre that I mentioned above. (Hey, Jane Austen’s single base plotline powered half a dozen well-remembered books and an entire industry!) Who knows what causes the vicissitudes of literary Fate? Still, like Lookingglass Theatre’s Sara Gmitter, Villette does have many admirers, attracted to the novel by its more mature understanding of the effect that past trauma can have on our lives. Gmitter, who worked for years to adapt the novel into a play, condensing its many characters down to half a dozen and totally eliminating some side plots, finally has opened her much-delayed love child with a talented cast under the crisp direction of Tracy Walsh.

Mi Kang plays Lucy Snowe, the aforementioned young woman whose wry wit and cynicism contrast nicely with Jane Eyre’s quiet, dreaming introspection. Brontë switched to a first-person narration for Villette, and Gmitter preserves it here, allowing Kang to tell Lucy’s story—such as it is: she’s an unreliable narrator to begin with and we’re missing huge chunks of the story in this adaptation)—with all of the clever complexity of her language intact. The quote I have used as a title, for example: while it seems like a bizarre non sequitur (and indeed gets a laugh in the show), the full Brontë quote is sensitive and lovely: “No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure. Happiness is a glory shining far down upon us out of Heaven.” This is Lucy in a nutshell: brilliant, thoughtful, and not afraid to speak her mind even to people she likes.

Kang’s Lucy is opinionated, to be sure, but it is often justified. In her conversations with Mo Shipley’s Ginevra Fanshawe (an incandescent portrayal of a self-centered, overprivileged teenage girl), it is amazing that Lucy’s candor doesn’t simply shut the child down. But Ginevra belongs to that subset of humanity that is insult-proof, and Lucy is not a hurtful person: she’ll speak the truth but she won’t force the girl to believe it. The same proves true for the young doctor (Ronald Román-Meléndez) to whom Lucy fancies an attachment. His doting on the teenaged Ginevra is ridiculous, a fact made all the more clear by the girl herself, who brags to Lucy about how she enjoys leading him on. Lucy tells him the truth but does not force him to accept it.

Interestingly, the one character to whom Lucy does not speak so bluntly is the proprietor of the school in which she is living and teaching, having been upgraded to teacher following a successful substitute gig. Madame Beck (Helen Joo Lee) is a mysterious figure who holds her opinions close to the vest and is not averse to sneaking into Lucy’s room and going through her things. Though Lucy knows this, she says nothing, most likely due to self-preservation: she can’t risk being tossed out on the street.

Lucy knows that “cultivating happiness” does not work, but that does not mean she won’t try. She has a wonderful relationship with the doctor’s generous and gregarious mother, Mrs. Bretton (Renée Lockett), and she also builds a strong relationship with an initially-offputting teacher named Paul Emmanuel (Debo Balogun), who turns out to have much more depth to him that we originally think…not dissimilar to Mr. Rochester in that other Brontë novel. In this novel, though, well, happiness is not a potato.

Yu Shibagaki’s set, consisting of overlapping wall panels the actors have to move, mostly gets in the way. However, a similar wall upstage opens up to reveal an entrancing garden full of glass lanterns that utterly transport both Lucy and the story. They also provide a nice setting for the ghost that Lucy first sees in the attic: a nun who, according to legend, died in the school when the place was a convent…and in the blunt juxtaposition between the realistic school and the dreamlike garden, they reveal a duality within Lucy. She’s a strong young woman, not easily captured by girlish fantasies (as evidenced both by her solo trip from England to Belgium to start a new life—after some unnamed disaster left her bereft of home and family—and by her reaction to the flighty Ginevra, whom she meets on the boat). Still, those dreams exist within her. They can be snuffed out by intrusive reality, and she knows it, but she does, despite herself, wish she could cultivate a few potatoes.

Villette is a Lookingglass Theatre production and is playing through April 23.

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