Our Shrinking World

Villette Cover Thumbnail (258x400) As a Jane Eyre fan, I’m not sure what took me so long to read Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853). Beth at Too Fond encouraged me to finally crack it open (or rather, download it/turn it on) by hosting a Villette read-along this month, and Jaclyn at Covered in Flour and others have joined in the fun. It’s a transnational book club — a group of readers from various countries reading the same book at the same time — all from the comfort of our own homes.

It’s a small world, isn’t it?

In Villette, which I’m only 15% of the way through, Brontë hints at the shrinking world even in Lucy Snowe’s (the main character’s) lifetime: “Fifty miles were then a day’s journey (for I speak of a time gone by…).” (Chapter V). I can only assume Snowe/Brontë is referring to trains. Steam locomotives revolutionized travel, but for destinations away from the line, fifty miles probably remained a day’s journey, unless it was “good road,” which according to Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy, made fifty miles “little more than half a day’s journey… a very easy distance.”

Can you imagine what Snowe/Brontë (or Darcy/Jane Austen) would have thought about cars and airplanes? Or the Internet? Would it have changed Brontë’s or Austen’s novels if these authors had lived in a time when sweethearts could text each other “hey miss u” the moment they felt lonely, rather than spending weeks agonizing over the lack of news?

Brontë’s Snowe is a provincial young woman who visits London and likes its “spirit,” causing her to wonder, “Who but a coward would pass his whole life in hamlets, and forever abandon his faculties to the eating rust of obscurity?” (Chapter VI).

These days, with modern transportation and the World Wide Web, there isn’t much of a risk of “forever abandon[ing] [our] faculties to the eating rust of obscurity” by choosing to stay in smaller towns — not that my hometown, Philly, is a hamlet, except by London, New York, or Beijing standards. With virtual offices, blogs, and even transnational book clubs, we have the flexibility to live wherever we want yet stay even more connected than any prior generation.


  1. Neat post! I’m only two chapters into Villette myself, and it looks like it’s going to get more interesting as it goes on.

    It’s interesting to read narratives that celebrate cities – so often cities are vilified, portrayed as ugly and dirty places where people are miserable and lonely (thanks for the optimistic worldview, Dickens [sarcasm]), yet the opposite is typically true. I think I’ll like this book! 🙂

    1. Lucy doesn’t spend long in London, but she definitely falls in love with it. Chapter 6 (London) is my favorite chapter so far (I’m only 20% of the way through, but I’m hoping to make progress tonight). So far, I’m enjoying it. I hope you’ll like it, too!

  2. Ah, remember waiting each morning for the postman and sighing when he walked by? And at work you’d receive a letter, glance at it and stick it in a tray to answer it sometime. Now if you haven’t answered an email in 15 minutes the sender gets cross.
    I’d give it all up tomorrow for a return to Thomas Hardy’s Wessex or Jane Eyre’s England. ‘Eating rust of obscurity’ – great line.

    1. Yeah, I remember those days. Now, the only items I receive from the mailman are junk. I try to take breaks from my email, particularly during the day when I have meetings, but people definitely expect a quick reply. That’s one of the drawbacks of technology these days. Still, I wouldn’t give it up for Jane Eyre’s England. Life wasn’t so great for women and ethnic minorities back then!

  3. You’re in for a treat with Villette – it’s my favourite of her novels and I find Lucy more sympathetic than Jane. Enjoy…

    1. That’s certainly a drawback of modern technology, but it depends on the person. I’m not the type of person to strike up a conversation with the guy sitting next to me on the train, and so I like it when everyone is typing away on their smart phones. It’s different at the dinner table or out with friends. That’s when I want everyone to put their gadgets away.

  4. I think sometimes the “big city” can still feel like a foreign world to those of us who grew up on less metropolitan areas. I’d visited big cities as a kid, but never lived in one. When I lived in Japan for several months, that was a big eye-opener. Buildings and crowds and noise that never stopped. Yet there’s a kind of city rhythm you come to appreciate. In the end it made me glad for places both big and small. The contrast makes them both beautiful. There’s something magical about New York City, and something equally magical about Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Great thought-provoking post.

    I do wonder what our ancestors would think of our modern age. They’d probably wonder why we were so obsessed with the little magic boxes we carry everywhere and also wonder how we weren’t thrilled looking at the modern miracles surrounding us. I always think of this video and try to appreciate the age I live in, lol.

    1. That is such a funny clip! We do live in an amazing time, but there is something to be said for the slower pace of life when technology couldn’t keep us connected 100% of the time. A year and a half ago, we lost power for a week thanks to Hurricane Irene, and as annoying as it was, it was kind of nice to take a step back from everything because we just couldn’t respond to email (I was going a bit nuts, though).

      I also love visiting large cities, but I’m always glad to return to my more manageably-sized one (which may sound like a strange way to describe Philly, the fifth or sixth largest city in the US, but it’s a neighborhood-oriented place with a walkable downtown that feels much smaller than it is; it’s tiny compared to NYC). I also love more rural areas, and I could see myself wanting to spend more time in less densely populated places in the future (as long as I have good Internet access!).

      1. I think when I hit retirement age I’m going to go more countryside. I suppose if I hit it really big as an author someday in the future, I could do it then too. There’s just something freeing about open spaces and nature—and like you as long as I have good internet access I’m happy. 🙂

  5. I loved reading Lucy’s reaction to her first time in London. It’s easy to forget that most people before the industrial revolution had never been to a big city and it must have felt like a completely different world to someone who had always lived in a rural area. Instead of being frightened of it, though, she reacts with such excitement and openness, which I think shows a lot about her character.

    1. Chapter Six (London) is my favorite chapter so far. Even though Bronte is writing of London from long ago, I can relate to some of her descriptions of it (“The next day was the first of March, and when I awoke, rose, and opened my curtain, I saw the risen sun struggling through the fog”). It took me a little while to get used to Bronte’s writing style again, but now I’m really enjoying it.

  6. The book group sounds a fun and interesting way to connect and read.
    And what interesting thoughts you have – it’s years since I read Villette, and for the life of me I can’t remember the story!! Shame on me eh?!

    1. This is my first experience with a read-along, and I’m enjoying it! Beth chose a great book, too. I’m only 20% of the way through Villette, but I can see why it would be hard to remember the story. The descriptive writing is wonderful (once I got used to Bronte’s style again) and so are the character sketches, but I’m not sure there is a particularly memorable plot.

  7. I wonder what it really would be like to not have the technology? To live in a simpler time, really connecting with those around us. One, I would not have ‘met’ great folks like you. But is does make one wonder what we miss in the world tied to commuters and cell phones, even though they virtually bring us the world. What they don’t bring is the experience. That is what seems to make novels ‘better’ in a way. They incite imagination and feelings, like one is a part of the experience. Other forms of technology seem to make the individual outside the happenings.

    1. Yeah, there are drawbacks to modern technology. Whether we would better connect with people around us without technology depends on the person, though. I still make time to connect with my family and close friends (putting away the laptops, tablets, and phones), but I’m a shy person and it’s much easier for me to connect with people online than in person. I am very grateful to have met people like you!

  8. When technology works for us, rather than against, it’s a wonderful and beneficial thing. It has allowed me to stay in touch with friends who live at a distance in a way that wasn’t possible before, thanks to Skype, internet, web cams, and phones. It’s given me means to earn money (through my editing) and made it easier than ever to self-publish my books.

    Although I could do with less traffic, noise, and the “hurry hurry hurry” mindset that are hallmarks of our current time, I would not want to return to horse and buggy days. Our worlds were much smaller then, and not nearly as interesting.

    1. I wouldn’t want to return to the horse and buggy days either! I do not romanticize the past. There are certainly drawbacks to modern technology, but the benefits outweigh it. It would be much harder for me to work full time and balance my family life if it weren’t for the flexibility technology offers (not that it’s always a good thing that I’m able to take work home with me and participate in meetings from my living room if necessary!).

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