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.

Summer’s Day – Mary Bell

Summer’s Day is a school story with a difference. It’s written for an adult audience rather than school age children & follows the teachers, staff & students of St Helens boarding school through one summer term.

At the beginning of term, the staff & students prepare to return to school. Housemaid Alice tidies the Headmistress, Unity Bishop’s, office; Miss Meadows, retired Classics mistress prepares to return to work to help out Miss Bishop who has lost another Classics teacher. Assistant Matron Honor Christow reluctantly prepares to leave her father’s rectory to return to a job she loathes. Students & best friends Jasmine & Sophie prepare for one last fling at a grown up cocktail party before returning to the Upper Fifth. Young Margery clings to her Nannie & prepares for misery, comforted only by her stuffed toy, Augustus.

Other staff begin the term with mixed feelings. The Cook, Mrs Prior, longs to see her sailor son, Jim, & lives for the times he has leave. She’s a comforting presence in the kitchen & keeps an eye on the younger housemaids, Doris, Nora, Maude (known as Noranmaude) & pretty Shirley Briggs, who comes from a large, loving family that she visits on her days off. Mr Walker, the Art teacher, is an unhappy man. Forced to live with his miserable mother, he longs to be able to make a living with his painting but has to teach at St Helens instead. He’s a bad teacher, with no real sympathy for his students & a hopeless passion for beautiful, aloof Jasmine. Albert Munnings, the gardener, lives with his wife & baby in a cottage in the grounds. Albert has been drifting since the War & exploits his Apollo-like beauty to flirt with Honor, Shirley & Poppy, the barmaid at the local pub.

The narrative intertwines all these characters as we follow them through the term. Jasmine & Sophie spend as much time as possible subverting the rules & are more often to be found in Mrs Prior’s kitchen eating cake & listening to stories about Jim’s adventures or in their attic hideaway, than studying. They do each others homework & answer for each other at roll call. They hate sports & do everything possible to avoid it. Both girls are attractive but Jasmine is a beautiful girl, fully aware of the effect she has on Mr Walker, Albert & Sophie’s cousin, Tom, home on leave from his Civil Service job in Africa. There’s a core of steel in Jasmine & she is the despair of the Headmistress who can never accuse her of insolence, just complete indifference to school & all that it involves. Sophie is a gentler girl, spending hours playing with Albert’s little boy, Geoffrey, although she fears she’ll never marry “for already she despaired of finding Mr Knightley’s equal.”

In some ways, this isn’t really a school story at all. We see very little of the classroom & the characters only really live when they’re outside it. There are romances & tragedy & a lot of humour but also much quiet despair when romance goes wrong or the future seems bleak & drab. The least sympathetic characters are those who subscribe to the hearty school ethos that seems more appropriate to a different era. Summer’s Day was published in 1951 & describes life in post-war England. The class structure is still very evident, with the girls addressed as Miss Jasmine & Miss Sophie by the servants, but the efforts of some of the staff to instil the school spirit in the girls are met with complete apathy. One of my favourite characters is Games Mistress Celia Warrinder, who is Honor’s only friend & in her hearty, uncomprehending way tries to cheer Honor up after a romance goes wrong. Celia longs for the days of her youth when sport was taken seriously,

“Believe it or not, but one of the Sixth supposed to be watching the match was half-way round the pavilion and reading a book. And guess what it was?”
From her expression Honor was about to hazard No Orchids for Miss Blandish but Celia said, “Poetry!” and taking a draught of tea she added profoundly, “Shelley” as if that made it worse.

The structure of the book reminded me of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet novels, where we move from character to character, almost hovering above them listening to their thoughts before moving on. Small details tell so much about the people in this novel. The teacher who has a passion for detective fiction & keeps Jasmine waiting outside for her reprimand while she hides her latest mystery under the cushions; Miss Meadows returning to her dusty cottage for half-term & deciding to read in the sun rather than clean; Jasmine’s lovely, cosy Aunt May (who has brought her up after her parents died) conspiring with Jasmine to avoid her boring clergyman husband; Mr Walker becoming known as Fishy after he unfortunately brings a lobster into class as part of a still life composition, “Before the lesson was half over he wished it at the bottom of the sea.” The omniscient narrator does such a beautiful job of setting the scene, showing that the characters are all true to their natures, even in sleep.

When  the school was quiet the moon rose late and flooded the seaward rooms. It swept into the dormitory and turned Jasmine’s yellow hair to silver, exposing with fine impartiality her sleeping features and Charity’s button nose. It dropped on Matron’s countenance, who pulled the sheet over her head. Honor dreamed that Albert was coming towards her over gold and silver flowers. Miss Bishop stepped firmly from her couch and drew down the blind. In Miss Meadows’ room the moving flood lit up an open Theocritus upon a pair of cotton interlock combinations; in Alice’s it received a welcoming grin from a tumbler containing her teeth. It fell upon the reverberating mound that was Doris and caught a gleam from Shirley’s open eyes.

There’s a large cast of characters & it took me a while to work out who everyone was. I even started a list of who was who. Once I had a chance to read more than a few chapters at a time, I became caught up in the spell of the story & I loved it. I haven’t even begun to mention all the characters & the subtle interweaving of their stories. It’s a book that you have to set aside time to concentrate on but I think it’s well worth it. I’m so glad that Scott from Furrowed Middlebrow raved about Summer’s Day so much & made me feel that my life would not be complete until I’d read it!

Anglophilebooks.comThere are copies of Summer’s Day available from Anglophile Books.

Miss Pym Disposes – Josephine Tey

I love Josephine Tey’s books & it’s been ages since I reread one (apart from The Daughter of Time which I reread at least once a year although that has more to do with my Richard III obsession). Her books are all so different. As well as the Inspector Grant novels she also wrote several books, Brat Farrer, The Franchise Affair & Miss Pym Disposes, that aren’t strictly detective novels but all have a mystery or crime at their heart. I bought these lovely US paperback editions a few years ago intending to reread them all but it wasn’t until Saturday afternoon that I sat down to begin reading Miss Pym Disposes & didn’t move until I’d finished it.

Miss Lucy Pym intended to teach French to schoolgirls all her life but a timely legacy & an interest in psychology led her to write a bestseller & become a minor celebrity. She is invited to give a lecture on psychology at the Leys, a physical training college run by her old schoolfriend, Henrietta Hodge, & finds herself drawn into a self-contained world with all the passions & emotions of the outside world.

The senior class is about to take its final exams & give a Demonstration of their gymnastic skills when Lucy Pym arrives. Intending to stay only one night (she’s appalled by the unimaginative food & the horror of a wake-up bell that rings at 5am), Lucy becomes involved in the student’s lives & stays on & on. Pamela “Beau” Nash is Head Girl & devoted to her best friend, clever but aloof Mary Innes. The four Disciples (Mathews, Waymark, Lucas & Littlejohn, who finish each others sentences) Irish O’Donnell, the two Scottish girls, Campbell & Stewart, who keep up a centuries old feud & Rouse, who no one much likes. Rouse always manages to say the obvious thing & enjoys the mistakes of others while toadying to Miss Hodge. Then there’s the Nut Tart, an exotic Brazilian student, Teresa Desterro, who looks on with amused detachment at her fellow students & the staff.

Lucy enjoys watching the students rehearsing their pieces for the gymnastic & dancing demonstrations, is invited to tea & enjoys walking in the grounds & visiting the nearby village. She is even invited to invigilate an exam & foils a student’s planned cheating by destroying her crib notes. Miss Hodge has made the Leys college into a respected institution & she always has several teaching posts at other schools to offer the final year students. This year, there is great excitement as the best girls school in England, Arlinghurst, has asked if there is a Leys student who would be suitable for a post at the school. This is an unheard-of honour for a newly qualified PE teacher & everyone assumes that Mary Innes will be the chosen one. When Miss Hodge offers the post to another student, the scene is set for tragedy.

I remembered the solution of the mystery, even though it must be 20 years since I read it. This time, though, I was able to spot the subtle clues that point to the culprit. Lucy realises that her own actions have helped to create the crisis & has a difficult choice to make once she thinks she knows the truth about the accident that may really have been premeditated murder.

Apart from the mystery, I love the setting & the period of this book. First published in 1947, it nevertheless has a feeling of the 30s. I loved the scene where Lucy & Teresa have tea in the village & meet a couple who turn out to be Mary Innes’s parents. Lucy amuses herself by creating a life for these strangers based on her observations of dress & attitude,

It was not often, moreover, that one saw a middle-aged husband and wife so pleased with each other, Lucy thought, as she watched them come in. They had a holiday air. They came in and looked about them expectantly, questioningly… His suit was very old, she noticed; well-pressed and kept, but with that much-cleaned air that overtakes a garment in its old age. The woman’s suit, a tweed, was frankly shabby, and her stockings were darned – very neatly darned – at the heels.Her hands, too, looked as if they were accustomed to household tasks, and her fine grey hair was washed at home and unwaved. What had she got to look so happy about, this woman who struggled with straitened means? Was it just being on holiday with a husband she loved? Was it that that gave her grey luminous eyes their almost childlike happiness?

This just conjured up so many middleclass Englishwomen I’ve read about in those between the wars novels beloved by Persephone & Virago readers & seen in the movies. Laura in Brief Encounter, Mrs Miniver, the Provincial Lady, Ellen Fenwick (from Lettice Cooper’s Fenny), Catherine in Elizabeth Cambridge’s Hostages to Fortune. Josephine Tey is so good at characterization. I felt I knew the Innes’s even though we only meet them briefly in a couple of scenes.

I also love a good mystery set in a closed society like a school or a convent. Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers is my all-time favourite but there are many more. Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie, Death among the Dons by Janet Neel, Quiet as a Nun by Antonia Fraser, the list goes on. I also have another book on the tbr shelf which I’m tempted to read next. On Your Marks by Gladys Mitchell isn’t a murder mystery even though the blurb mentions a couple of minor mysteries that Dame Gladys couldn’t resist (who drained the swimming pool?). It’s a school story, set in a physical training college like the Leys, one of the many career stories for girls written in the mid twentieth century. It was originally published in 1954 & recently reprinted by Greyladies. Both Mitchell & Tey worked in PE colleges so I’d be interested to see how their pictures differ. But, now that I’ve started rereading Tey, I’d like to read another of her books as well. Maybe The Singing Sands or the first Inspector Grant novel, The Man in the Queue? Decisions, decisions.

Anglophilebooks.comThere’s a copy of Miss Pym Disposes, and other books by Josephine Tey, available at Anglophile Books.

Miss Read

Dora Saint, who wrote as Miss Read, has died at the age of 98. Miss Read is one of my favourite writers of comfort reading. Her books about life in Fairacre & Thrush Green are familiar, full of humour & interest but never sentimental or twee. I’ve reviewed some of her books here & here but fortunately I have many more on the tbr shelves so I’m not going to run out any time soon.

There’s a lovely obituary here. My favourite quote is from H F Ellis, the literary editor of Punch (I didn’t know Miss Read had written for Punch) who called her his favourite contributor. “She had no arrogance at all and didn’t feel her work was sacrosanct, and she never minded revising it. In a way she is like Jane Austen. She writes about what she knows and never goes beyond it.” Dora Saint seems to have had a happy, fulfilled life with a devoted following of readers, mostly library users which seems very appropriate to me. Her books never made her a fortune but provided a steady income that allowed for a few luxuries. I can’t imagine the author of the Fairacre books as a jetsetting glamourous author in the style of Jackie Collins. It seems right that her life was quiet, steady & full of good things, just like her books.