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