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 The fact that aspects of this novel — unpublished in her own lifetime — were recycled in Villette (published in 1853) suggests that she knew that those experiences were worth recording, even in fictional form.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.
In 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