Feeling is the leitmotif

Regency young man (2)
http://www.sellingantiques.co.uk/243352/fine-regency-oil-portrait-of-a-young-man/

Charlotte Brontë The Professor Wordsworth Classics 1994 (1857)

Despite the fact that this is, by modern standards anyway, a very uneven novel and that the protagonist is a bit of a prig, there remains much to enjoy over its twenty-five chapters. The story of William Crimsworth’s struggles to find his métier and eventual happiness echoes parts of Charlotte Brontë’s own experiences but also points up her own unfulfilled hopes for combining a loving marriage with a successful career as an independent woman. The fact that aspects of this novel — unpublished in her own lifetime — were recycled in Villette (published in 1853) suggests that she knew that those experiences were worth recording, even in fictional form.

A bald outline of the plot reads almost like a fairytale.

Orphan William, whose mother married beneath her class, is allowed an Eton education by his titled uncles but he rejects their plans for him as a Church of England cleric in favour of ‘trade’, a calling which they despise. As a lowly Northern clerk in the employ of his older mill-owning brother he is treated shabbily, recalling the underdogs in the novels of Dickens, Brontë’s contemporary; but thanks to a letter of introduction from a colourful local character, Hunsden Yorke Hunsden, he is offered a place in a boys school in Brussels as a professeur d’anglais.

He takes to this so well he is also offered a similar post in the neighbouring girls school. Here he comes across a shy and sensitive mature student called Frances Henri in whom he recognises both studiousness and a spark of real spirit, and respect inevitably turns from fondness to something more. As in all good fairytales, however, the path to true love is never smooth, and nearly half of the novel concerns the tortuous terrain he has to navigate.

In this first-person narration William’s self regard and prejudices often stand as obstacles to the modern reader’s enjoyment, as also do the slow pace and lengthy descriptions. Typically — as for many 19th-century novelists — physiognomy looms large as a notional predictor of national character, but very occasionally Brontë comes up with striking images and concepts. Here is William describing student Juanna’s face: “Narrow as was her brow it presented space enough for the legible graving of two words, Mutiny and Hate.” He finds himself impervious to any of the surface charms of his young female charges: “to the tutor [they] are like tapestry hangings of which the wrong side is continually turned towards him; […] he so well knows what knots, long stitches, and jagged ends are behind […] the seemly forms and bright colours exposed to general view.”

Mlle Reuter, the jealous and scheming directrice of the girls school, betrays her true feelings about her students in a chilling summary: “Ambition, literary ambition, especially, is not a feeling to be cherished in the mind of a woman,” she tells William, declaring that Frances Henri would be “much safer and happier if taught to believe that in the quiet discharge of social duties consists her real vocation, than if stimulated to aspire after applause and publicity.” This, I imagine, must be the kind of admonishment that Charlotte, when herself at a pensionat in Brussels in 1842, must have heard and hated with a passion — after all this was the kind of attitude she and her sisters Emily and Anne tried, as aspiring authors themselves, to fight against.

Charlotte BronteIn The Professor Charlotte manages to have her cake and eat it when Frances [spoiler alert!] not only manages the fairytale goal of marrying the narrator-hero but also insists that she maintains a teaching career: “people who are only in each other’s company for amusement,” she notices, “never really like each other so well, or esteem each other so highly, as those who work together, and perhaps suffer together.” Unlike the fairytale happy-ever-after ending where we are never treated to what happens after wedding bells are sounded, this novel spends a considerable time describing William and Frances’ married life, working career in Brussels, joy at the birth of a son, wise financial investment and subsequent retirement to an idyllic rural North of England setting.

To say I liked this novel would be to overstate the case, but I did admire it, particularly for challenging contemporary conventions and perceptions about womanhood. As a male I wasn’t always convinced by the character of the main protagonist — he seemed much too po-faced and moralising to ring true when we know most human beings are flawed — but I did enjoy the dialogues conducted in French and the recreation of teaching as it often used to be before the bureaucrats took over. Charlotte’s own experience of being both a governess in England and an English teacher in Brussels did mean that her insights into student psychology were well grounded:

Human beings — human children especially — seldom deny themselves the pleasure of exercising a power which they are conscious of possessing, even though that power consist only in a capacity to make others wretched.

Bullying — like poverty — is unfortunately always going to be with us.

I’m glad that the publishers have made this rarely read classic available in a cheap edition, but even with the several typos that occasionally litter the pages the central message comes through loud and clear: as Frances in the middle of a spirited discussion with Yorke Hudsden declares, “better to be without logic than without feeling.” Feeling it is that serves as a leitmotif throughout this novel.

Alphabetical author: B

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14 thoughts on “Feeling is the leitmotif

    1. Glad you liked it, Alastair. I’ve yet to read Jane Eyre, let alone Villette or any of Charlotte’s sisters’ prose but if Villette gets a thumbs-up from you then that’s good enough for me to search it out — in due course!

  1. A definite yes from me, as well, regarding Villette. My edition refers to The Professor as an early version of V, but I don’t remember reading it. I’ve read Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey — not so impressive. And of course Emily’s WH and Charlotte’s JE — lots of sturm und drang, but excellent all the same. Lucky you, to still have these to discover!

    Sidenote: Charlotte didn’t admire Austen’s books. Not enough passion — too dry and unfeeling. As they say, that’s what makes horse racing. We’re lucky to have and enjoy authors’ works.

    1. This book as an early version of Villette: what little I know of the plot of Villette suggests that not only does this early effort provide a happier version of the master-student plot but that in narrating from the student’s viewpoint instead of the male teacher’s Villette allows much greater psychological depth and insight into the female protagonist’s emotions.

      The Professor seems at times to pull its punches and, in depicting William as a cold fish, potentially loses the reader’s rapport; Lucy Snowe doesn’t sound to be anything like him or, for that matter, Frances Henri, the equivalent figure in Charlotte’s first novel.

      As you say, Lizzie, we’re lucky to have both authors — we can choose which one according to our current moods!

  2. I’ve never even heard of this novel, Chris, so it’s interesting to read your review. Can’t imagine how frustrating it was to be an intelligent woman in Victorian times – how stymied you were by convention and law. I loved Jane Eyre when I read it as a teen, I must admit – loved the Bronte’s obssession with Byronic males! But I also love Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’s prequel explaining how the ‘mad’ first Mrs Rochester came to be that way. It made me rethink Jane Eyre, I must say.

    BTW this made me think of the latest episodes of War and Peace, where Natasha has almost ruined herself by having a near miss with Kuragin – how times have changed …

    1. I thought Kuragin was so creepily played I wonder if people will shun the actor who played him in the same way that some members of the public verbally abuse soap actors who portray nasty characters — I’d be tempted!

      I sometimes read that a few Victorian women managed to circumvent conventions and manage legal niceties without losing their influence, perhaps a little like the handful of their fictional counterparts. And of course some might have seen a kind of role model in their queen, despite Victoria’s own levels of popularity ebbing and flowing.

      On the matter of Jane Eyre herself, Lynn, would you recommend I read Wide Sargasso Sea before or after Bronte’s novel?

      1. He really was creepy, wasn’t he? Though husband and I were yelliing at the screen – ‘how is it possible for her to fall for him so hard and so fast when five minutes ago she adored Andrei!’ But then, timescales feel condensed onscreen.
        There certainly were instances of women going their own way and being independent, but generally, the law and society were against them, weren’t they.
        And your last question is a tough one. I read Jane Eyre first and loved it. Not sure I would have loved it as much if I’d read Sargasso Sea first – which I also loved. Sargasso Sea is written from a very different, 20th century viewpoint and questions some of the gender issues that Bronte accepts as normal. I’d be tempted to say to read them as I did – JE first, then with Sargasso Sea as a haunting companion to the original.

        1. OK, I’ll stick to the published sequence rather than the chronological one! Thanks. 🙂

          Kuragin looked so much like the creepy brother of a former son-in-law (now divorced from our daughter, thank goodness) that we instinctively disliked him. Good casting, though hard to see why any female would throw over James Norton — unless she’d instinctively go for bad boys!

          1. We felt the same. Why, oh why, oh why! How naive must the girl have been to fall for that line of old rubbish he fed her? At least she wasn’t entirely ruined. It was a close thing, though.
            Funny, I had a customer a while ago who reminded me of my (dislikeable) ex-brother in law and had the same instinctive reaction!

  3. You have read Jane Eyre? You have a mighty treat coming then. And I agree with Lynn Love about Wide Sargasso Sea too. Another great read is Claire Harman’s recent biography of Charlotte Bronte.

    1. Jane Eyre‘s on my loosely organised classics reading list for this year, you may like to know! Thanks for the Harman recommendation; my wife has also recommended the lightly fictionalised Becoming Jane from the local library.

  4. Seconding (thirding?) those who advise the reading of ‘Villette’, though you may have done so by now, of course. From memory (I’ve only read ‘The Professor’ once, and that years back), though both books draw on Bronte’s memories of Brussels and unrequited love, ‘Villette’ is by far the deeper, written by a novelist no longer an apprentice but at the height of her powers. Far less wish fulfilment, far more realism. It’s much more controlled than ‘Jane Eyre’ and more even than ‘Shirley’; though the fire is there, it is damped and smoulders out of sight. That said, though I admire ‘Villette’ hugely and, if I’m being objective, would assess it as the best constructed and most accomplished of Bronte’s novels, subjectively, it is nowhere near ‘Jane Eyre’ in my affections. It’s a chilly tale, all that Snowe.

    There’s a letter published somewhere in which Bronte responds, rather crisply, to a reader’s question about its ending.

    1. I’ve just acquired Shirley to read for Charlotte’s bicentenary year, Harriet, but I will certainly look out for Villette — though since The Professor is still fresh in my memory it mayn’t be for a while yet; after all, being a Bronte newcomer I’ve still those other better-known titles to enjoy!

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