Sunday 10 June 2018

The Professor, Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte’s much-rejected first novel follows our protagonist and narrator William Crimsworth from a difficult life in northern England to Brussels where he gains a teaching post in a boys’ school. He is full of optimism and innocence as he embarks on his new life, deriding the natives at every turn. In addition to his work at Monsieur Pelet’s school he also teaches lessons at a nearby girls’ school run by Mademoiselle Reuter. He is attracted to the young directress and a flirtatious power struggle ensues. Her deceitful nature is revealed to him and his affection moves toward Frances Henri, an unassuming seamstress who takes English classes with him.

Of all of Brontë’s novels this seems to be the one critics find the hardest to separate from biography. Written on her return from Brussels in the throes of painful unrequited love she seems to choose a male narrator to give more freedom, and also perhaps to rewrite reality into a fantasy with an ending she so longed for.

The distaste for the Belgians is a reflection of sentiments expressed in a letter from Brontë to her friend Ellen Nussey on first arriving in Brussels. This may have been enhanced by their Catholicism, a not uncommon target for derision at the time but felt keenly by Brontë, presumably in part because of her Anglican upbringing. The fact Mademoiselle Reuter, dishonest and seductive, is Catholic and Frances Henri, loyal and diligent, is Protestant is likely no coincidence.

Frances is also intriguing for her sense of nationalism. Born to Anglo-Swiss parents she has a deep love for England, although she has never been. Comparatively, Hunsden, a friend of Crimsworth’s from England has no sense of national loyalty and sees himself as a ‘citizen of the world’. These themes feel very relevant in today’s Brexit obsessed atmosphere.

Regardless of its reputation as Brontë’s weakest novel, I thoroughly enjoyed The Professor. Crimsworth is not always a particularly likable character but that is no flaw in creation. His prejudicial feelings and odd behaviour towards those who impress him make him believable as a young man trying to find his way in the world. We see him mature and achieve what Brontë set out in her preface as an aim – to have the characters make their wealth from hard work, not by a lucky chance. As in other of her works, she sets out to write about ordinary people living unextraordinary lives, which is not to say boring. The ending was a little neat for my tastes, but I am now a great advocate of recovering this novel from its critics.

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