Please be aware this review contains spoilers; read at your own risk.
Dissertation research is finally upon me, and as I’m writing mine on Charlotte Brontë, I’m spending my summer reading everything by or about her (I’m omitting Jane Eyre though, I know it like the back of my hand). I wanted to start at the very beginning, reading her novels in order to get a feel for her literary progression, so I started with The Professor – her first written novel, and the only one she didn’t get to see published in her lifetime (although she tried her hardest).
It tells the tale of William Crimsworth, a parentless man who has the opportunity for wealth, but turns himself away from it. He leaves England behind in order to forge a new life in Brussels as a teacher. Running alongside this narrative, we see William’s attraction to not one but two women: the school’s directress, Mademoiselle Reutter, and Frances Henri, a pupil of nineteen whose naivety entices him. For those of you who are familiar with Charlotte’s life, you’d know she was attracted to, and to a certain degree obsessed with, her professor, Monsieur Heger. As The Professor was written shortly after Charlotte’s return from Brussels, it’s clear she uses the story as a medium to discuss her feelings about Heger. The sombre writing reflects how rejected she felt by him; I can’t help but think she used this narrative in order to fantasise how the relationship should have ended (according to her) – the union of Crimsworth and Henri only emphasises this.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I’m not sure if it’s because of my long-standing love for Charlotte, or if the narrative just sat right with me, but I did really like it. However, I am not oblivious to the fact it’s an extremely flawed novel. I think of The Professor as more of an experiment than anything else – this was the first time she wrote a full length novel. When writing The Professor, Charlotte was at a low point in life. From reading many sources, she was supposedly depressed due to the unfair dismissal and cold-shoulder she received from Heger (she sent him many letters when she returned home, all which he ignored). I believe this hindered her writing. Her mind was elsewhere, and thus she was withdrawn from the writing process. This is also illuminated through Charlotte continuous refusal to stretch the novel into three volumes (this was how novels were published in the 19th century), and it was because of this Smith, Elder & co. denied publishing it. I think if she had re-drafted it, added more depth to characters and more passion between the love interests, then it would have received a much better response.
I often chuckled when reading the teacher/student relationship. Charlotte was truly a writer ahead of her time; she was writing crappy 21st century contemporary stories way back in the 1800s (though she was rather respectable about the whole situation). Normally I hate these kind of narratives, but the way Charlotte executed this was different from others I’ve read. I think it’s because it was raw and emotional, and she obviously put her own experiences and feelings into it. Although I wasn’t convinced of their love, I was always routing for Crimsworth and Henri to end up together. Because of this, I’m rather looking forward to finally reading Villette. Many see that novel as a more mature version of The Professor. Charlotte takes the teacher/student relationship, as well as other things she minutely explored in this novel, and develops them into a more sophisticated narrative. This was the main reason I wanted to read The Professor first.
Other than that, there’s not much more I can say. It’s a small story, yet a very good first novel. You can’t get Jane Eyre without first having written something as flawed as The Professor. The descriptions of the landscapes in Brussels were beautifully orchestrated – all the Brontës have this knack for writing such enchantingly whimsical descriptions of places, especially those shrouded by nature. Most of the characters were likeable, my favourite being Frances Henri – she was smart, outspoken when Hunsden challenged her, and she wasn’t willing to lose her independence because she was to be married. Other than that, the plot was short and sweet, making it simplistic and a good place to start with Charlotte. I’d definitely recommend.
Just be aware: Charlotte has a thing for speaking French in her novels (unnecessarily may I add). A lot of the conversations in this book, especially between Crimsworth and Henri, were in French. I was oblivious to what they were saying – my edition had no translations and I was too lazy to look them up, so I’d suggest finding an edition with added notes. You pretty much find this with every novel written by Charlotte. I think she just likes to show off her French, but don’t let that put you off because her writing is phenomenal!
Taking into consideration all that I’ve said, I rated this 4 stars. Room for improvement, but it was a brilliant start.
Thanks for reading, Lauren Xx
4 thoughts on “Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor:”
A fine critique of CB’s first novel, I think: I found it dragged a bit in places and felt it a bit unfocused in others but was pleased to have read it first.
That thing about including French verbatim: I think a lot of middleclass readers had some familiarity with French in the 19th-century and were fond of including French expressions in their everyday speech (think of phrases like ‘de rigueur’ or ‘en route’ which are still current) and of course young English ladies were expected to have lessons in drawing, music and French as a matter of course. It does help that I have some fluency with French but it is an irritation if modern readers might not.
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