The Professor – Charlotte Brontë

Novelists should never allow themselves to weary of the study of real Life – if they observed this duty conscientiously, they would give us fewer pictures checquered with vivid contrasts of light and shade; they would seldom elevate their heros and heroines to the heights of rapture – still seldomer sink them to the depths of despair; for if we rarely taste the fulness of joy in this life, we yet more rarely savour the acrid bitterness of hopeless anguish…

This is the beginning of Chapter XIX of Charlotte Brontë’s first novel, The Professor. As she wrote in a later novel, Shirley, she was determined to give her readers a plain story, “Something real, cool, and solid, lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning“. Maybe the very plainness & lack of excitement in The Professor is the reason that it was never published in her lifetime. It was edited by her widower, Arthur Bell Nicholls, & first published in 1857, two years after her death. It does have a special place in the story of the Brontës though. Charlotte sent the manuscript of The Professor to Smith, Elder (after it was rejected by six other publishers) & it was the kind letter she received in return from William Smith Williams that encouraged her to send them the manuscript of Jane Eyre. It’s also fascinating to see Charlotte trying out in The Professor many of the elements that make Jane Eyre & Villette such remarkable novels.

The Professor is the story of William Crimsworth. William has been brought up by his mother’s aristocratic family to go into the Church. When he rejects his uncle’s offer of a comfortable living & one of his cousins as a wife, William decides to visit his brother, Edward, a mill owner in the North of England. The two brothers barely know each other & Edward is suspicious of William with his rich relations & Southern education & accomplishments. He grudgingly agrees to give William a job as a clerk in his mill but declines to have anything else to do with him. William soon tires of this dismal existence. His employment is uncongenial & he dislikes his brother, who goes out of his way to humiliate him in the office & ignores him socially. William’s one friend is Yorke Hunsden, a mill owner like Edward but a man with more liberal principles.

Hunsden gives William a letter of introduction to a friend of his in Brussels & suggests that William might find work as an English teacher there. William has burned his boats with his brother after resigning in a fit of temper & decides to try his luck in Brussels. When he arrives there, he finds a position as tutor in a boys school run by M Pelet. He is permitted to take on additional teaching in his spare time & begins to teach next door at the girls school run by Mdlle Zoraïde Reuter.

William becomes infatuated with Mdlle Reuter who is a few years older than himself but pretty, accomplished & runs her school in a very respectable manner. He also meets Frances Henri, a young Swiss-English woman who teaches needlework in Mdlle Reuter’s school. Frances attends William’s English lessons so as to improve her English, which she learnt from her English mother. Frances is not pretty but is very neat, modest & an excellent pupil. She lives with her aunt in very reduced circumstances. William’s infatuation with Zoraïde comes to an abrupt end when he discovers that she is secretly meeting M Pelet & plans to marry him. He also hears them laughing about his own infatuation with Zoraïde & his presumption in thinking he could marry her. William’s attitude to Zoraïde becomes cold & distant & perversely, she now pursues him. When Zoraïde realises that William has become fond of Frances, she dismisses her. William resigns from both his teaching posts &, with the help of the father of a grateful pupil, he finds another job & begins to save. He searches Brussels for Frances, determined to begin a new life with her if she can accept him.

In The Professor Charlotte Brontë tries out her theories of what a novel should be. She was not a novice as she had been writing tales & stories herself & with her brother, Branwell, for many years. These stories of an imaginary land called Angria, were full of sensation, romance & excitement. Charlotte decided that she must calm down her writing to be taken seriously & so she wrote this very quiet, unromantic story. She used Brussels as a location because she had recently returned from teaching there. Her employer, Mde Heger, had grown cool towards Charlotte when she realised that Charlotte had fallen in love with her husband & Charlotte left Brussels hating Madame Heger. Mde Heger is the model for Zoraïde Reuter. A much more well-developed & nuanced portrait of Brussels & Mde Heger appears in Villette.

Frances Henri is an early version of Jane Eyre, even down to the way her clothes are described – plain, quiet, clean & respectable. Frances herself is Jane observed from the outside, with none of the passion & fire within. There’s just an echo of the passionate letters Charlotte wrote to M Heger in the letter Frances writes to William when she fears that she will never see him again, “… I am oppressed when I see and feel to what a reverse fate has condemned me; you were kind to me Monsieur, – very kind – I am afflicted – I am heart-broken to be quite separated from you – soon I shall have no friend on earth – but it is useless troubling you with my distresses.

Yorke Hunsdon was based on Mr Taylor, the father of Charlotte’s great friend, Mary. The Taylor family appear as the Yorkes in Shirley. William himself is an odd hero. Charlotte never seems comfortable writing from a male perspective & William never convinces. He is proud, always standing on his dignity, yet curiously boastful & overly emotional. All Charlotte’s prejudices are on show here – about foreigners but especially about the Catholic Church. She is scathing about Rome & its iniquities. Once William’s infatuation with Zoraïde is over, she becomes, for him, everything that is duplicitous & wicked about foreign women.

Even though The Professor is too quiet & sober to be a completely successful novel, I enjoyed reading it again because there’s so much of Charlotte’s own voice there. It was fascinating to pick out the ideas, even sometimes the very phrases, that Charlotte used in her later, more accomplished novels.

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