Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor

…she liked to learn, but hated to teach.”–Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor

the professor charlotte bronte penguin 2d75c63740421e9f9973990a553df465 Teachers seldom express a distaste for teaching.

It takes the Brontës to say what you shouldn’t say.

Certainly the Brontë sisters had mixed feelings about teaching.  Anne wrote a hair-raising novel about the experiences of a governess, Agnes Grey.

And Charlotte wrote two novels about teachers, The Professor and Villette, based on her two years spent teaching in Brussels.

Charlotte’s The Professor, her strange little first novel, is not an anti-teaching novel.  In fact, the hero is an inspired teacher.  The autobiographical material in this simple, sketchy book was later reworked and polished in her last novel, Villette.  Charlotte’s characters are very competent teachers.  It is their morbid romances that create the Bronte mystique.

the professor charlotte bronte 64577The romance in The Professor is not, however, morbid.  The plot is wan compared to that of the racy Villette, which is enlivened by ghosts, drugs,, and cross-dressing. In Villette, the narrator, Lucy Snowe, moves to Villette (Brussels) and becomes a stellar teacher, but her students are dull and unimaginative.  She needs relationships outside the repressive Belgian school, and by chance her godmother, Mrs. Bretton, and her son Dr. Graham have moved to Villette. Alas,  Graham, whom she loves, fails to notice her except as “a friend.” Lucy attracts only the least attractive of men.  Her eventual love for  M. Paul Emanuel, a fussy, often unpleasant little man,  seems to be a rebound thing, though  he is supposedly based on her great crush, M. Heger, the owner of the boarding school where she taught.  (I cannot love him.)

The Professor is a  novel about work.   The narrator, William Crimsworth, an orphan (like Lucy Snowe and Jane Eyre), does not know what to do after Oxford.  His father was in trade and his mother was an aristocrat, and his aristocratic relatives wish him to go into the church.  He is not religious, and decides togo into trade.  He works briefly for his vicious mill owner brother as a clerk.  This is a waste of his abilities.  He is stuck translating German and French correspondence.  And his brother hates him.

No man likes to acknowledge that he has made a mistake in the choice of his profession, and every man, worthy of the name, will row long against wind and tide before he allows himself to cry out, ‘I am baffled’ and submits to be floated passively back to land.  from the first week…I felt my occupation irksome.

After a brutal scene in which  his brother whips him, he quits and very happily decides to move to Brussels, where he becomes a professor of English and Latin at a boys’ school;.

He also teaches at the girls’ school next door, where he is attracted to the headmistress .  Her morals, however, are bad:  this is a problem with Belgian women in Charlotte’s books.   What woman does he fall for instead?  Frances, a sewing teacher who is taking his English class .  She is not a good teacher, though she is a great student.

Poor Frances is only 19 and bad at discipline!  She is very unhappy.  William writes that the young are merciless.

…a pupil whose sensations are duller than those of his instructor, while his nerves are tougher and his bodily strength perhaps greater, has an immense advantage over the instructor, and he will generally use it relentlessly, because the very young, very healthy, very thoughtless, know neither how to sympathize nor how to spare.  Frances, I fear, suffered much.

Villette is a masterpiece, so if you have a choice between that and The Professor, please read Villette! But The Professor is interesting for those of us who love the Brontës.

P.S.  What biography of the Brontës do you recommend?  Juliet Barker’s?  (But it’s so long.)

8 thoughts on “Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor

  1. I just ready Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography about Charlotte. I’d read Jane Eyre as a teenager and loved it and read Villette while homebound during hurricane Sandy but after reading Gaskell’s biography I am now a huge fan. I know that book is criticized because she was a friend of Charlotte but it is still a great book from a contemporary writer. Serendipity– I found Barker’s book at a used book store and will break into that bad boy some time before I head to Keighley this summer to see the parsonage. So excited!

    • Lucky you to be going to Haworth! I had forgotten all about Gaskell’s biography. Shorter than Barker’s to be sure. Villette during a hurricane would have been calming (well, I’m sure not, but I’m glad you have it. I suppose I could dip into Barker’s. She must be very thoroguh!

  2. Since I re-read Villette and The Tennent of Wildfell Hall I have been meaning to re-read The Professor and Agnes Grey. Thanks for the nudge. It’s years since I read The Professor but I remember enjoying it.

    • I love the Brontes! The Professor is new to me, though I love the others. It’s so nice to reread these books! (oh, and nice to read The Prof, too.)

  3. The only Bronte biog I’ve read is Mrs. Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte – that was many moons ago, but I do remember enjoying it!

  4. I read the Barker a few years ago and even though it’s a huge door-stop of a book, I found myself racing through it – at least until I got to the bit after Emily and Anne’s deaths, which interested me less (no offence to the Rev Arthur Nicholls!). The one I’d really recommend, if you haven’t read it, is Lucasta Miller’s The Bronte Myth. It’s a great exploration of the ways in which both the family and their texts are repeatedly reimagined.

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