The Professor, Charlotte Brontë

In 1846 and 1854 respectively, two women, both aged about 30, one, English, from Yorkshire, and one, Australian, from Scotland, submitted their first novels for publication. The former, an immature work, was rejected and was only published, posthumously, a decade later. The latter was published immediately and was for a long time regarded as the finest work written in Australia. The two novels, both portraits of and by young, educated women, without money or family support, forced to seek positions abroad as teachers, and which I just happen to be reading simultaneously, are The Professor and Catherine Helen Spence’s Clara Morrison.

Charlotte Brontë published Jane Eyre a year after The Professor was rejected and has been famous ever since. Spence was a fine writer, tireless reformer, the mother of Suffragism in Australia, and a champion of women’s rights throughout the Anglosphere, but her writing, being Australian, remains in obscurity.

I implied otherwise above, but Brontë’s protagonist is a young man, William Crimsworth. Though when this novel is later re-written as Villette (1853), the protagonist, a teacher at an academy for young ladies in fictional Villette (Brussels), is once more a woman, Lucy Snowe.

The Professor begins with a letter from Crimsworth to a former Eton schoolmate, never subsequently mentioned, setting the scene for what follows. Basically, Crimsworth is parentless, in the care of two upper class uncles, who offer him, one, a living (that is as a clergyman) and the other, “one of my six cousins, his daughters, all of whom I greatly dislike. I declined both the Church and matrimony.”

Instead he takes a position with his older brother Edward, a wealthy mill-owner, as a clerk, in order to learn about Trade, in the town of X— in —-shire (which is annoying enough to read, but far worse to have repeatedly read to you). The brothers don’t get on; another mill owner, Hunsden takes an interest in William; basically gets him the sack; and recommends that he seek employment in Brussels where he, Hunsden often has business.

The date is nowhere specified except as before railways –

This is Belgium, reader. Look! don’t call the picture a flat or a dull one–it was neither flat nor dull to me when I first beheld it. When I left Ostend on a mild February morning, and found myself on the road to Brussels, nothing could look vapid to me…

I gazed often, and always with delight, from the window of the diligence (these, be it remembered, were not the days of trains and railroads).

Charlotte and Emily Brontë, then aged 26 and 24, went to Brussels as teachers in 1842. Going by what railway history I can discover, Charlotte’s novel must be set in the 1820s. I’m guessing she did this so that she could take her protagonist through a decade or two without ending up in the future.

William Crimsworth, then aged about 20, is recommended to a live-in position in a boys school by a friend of Hunsden’s, and after some months is offered an extra couple of hours teaching per day at the girls school next door. And so, finally, Charlotte can begin to write from her own experience.

..shone on by the full light of the large window, were the occupants of the benches just before me, of whom some were girls of fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, some young women from eighteen (as it appeared to me) up to twenty; the most modest attire, the simplest fashion of wearing the hair, were apparent in all; and good features, ruddy, blooming complexions, large and brilliant eyes, forms full, even to solidity, seemed to abound. I did not bear the first view like a stoic; I was dazzled, my eyes fell, and in a voice somewhat too low I murmured, “Prenez vos cahiers de dictee, mesdemoiselles.”

The principal of the girls school, Mlle Reuter, a good looking woman maybe 10 years older than Crimsworth, begins to pay him a lot of attention and he finds himself falling under her spell, a spell which is broken when he overhears her discussing with the principal of the boys school, M. Pelet, their planned marriage. Until he gets on his high horse with Pelet, and he gets on his high horse with nearly everyone eventually, he really is a very immature boy, Crimsworth is often teased by Pelet about Mlle Reuter and asked to compare her attractions with those of the young women in his classes. In fact the author spends a great deal of time (or ink) on the appearance of the girls, while the boys school is quite forgotten.

Crimsworth doesn’t mix much with the female teachers, but is one day asked by Mlle Reuter to include as a pupil in his English classes a young Swiss woman, Mlle Henri, well educated but who due to poverty is forced to teach lace mending – a situation quite analogous as it happens to that of Clara Morison. From this point Mlle Henri gradually takes over the novel. Crimsworth begins to take an interest in her. The aunt who is her only support dies. She’s fired and it is some months before Crimsworth can locate her again. And so we have made our way over the course of a year to Chapter XXV, the last.

Frances Henri is of course likeable, but more importantly she is independent. Charlotte Brontë was 38 before she consented to marry her father’s curate and within 10 months was dead, of complications arising out of her pregnancy. On her return from Brussels she had attempted to open a school with her sisters, but it failed to attract any pupils.

In this last chapter Mlle Henri and Crimsworth marry. They both continue to teach. He earns rather more than she, through his private pupils, so she determines to open a school. With his support. It is successful. After three years she delivers him a son, but just one. And she continues to teach and run the school! Brontë is upending every stereotype of Victorian-era women. Eventually they sell up and return to England and live happily ever after in a big house in —shire, 30 miles from X— and within walking distance of the estate of their good friend Hunsden.

I have Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, which I will try and read this year, and also I will listen to Jane Eyre again and carry out my plan for a family review – a sort of symposium I guess – which Milly and the kids were keen to do before Covid-19 intervened.

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Charlotte Brontë, The Professor, first pub. 1857. My version: Isis, 2019, read by David Thorpe. 10 hrs 40 min.

14 thoughts on “The Professor, Charlotte Brontë

    • The reader seemed to pause each time for the three spaces indicated. I’m glad this way of indicating locations is well out of fashion. The Professor seems to have been re-published quite often. I guess the Bronte name and not having to pay copyright helps. It’s a couple of years since I read Villette so I can’t compare the two.

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  1. I was surprised to see this because I thought I’d read most of what the Brontës wrote, but then it transpires that Villette was a rewrite of The Professor, so I have (sort of) read it after all.
    I’m more inclined to chase up Clara Morrison than The Professor. Though I love all the Brontës I am now also an admirer of CHS…
    *pause*
    *search online for copy of Clara Morison…make friends with bookseller in Mt Eliza… find half a dozen other books I need as well… hopefully resolve problems with their website*
    *back on track*
    Vernay has nice things to say about Clara Morison (one R, according to him). He reckons it’s a milestone in the history of OzLit and that it’s regarded as her magnum opus.
    Assuming I can in fact get my hands on the copy for $18 (because I can’t afford the first edition for $2000) you can expect a review in due course!!

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    • I just finished reading Clara Morison a few minutes ago, but I am a bit behind in my reviewing which is a problem because I forget what I have read, but unless work comes up too soon let’s say I’ll publish a review next Monday. After that you are welcome to my copy (from Seal) and it’s an excellent read.

      (WP has asked me a couple of times to let you link to Sea Lake, I’ve said yes of course but … [light dawns] you’ve updated an old post haven’t you)

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  2. I didn’t realise Villette was a rewrite of The Professor – I have read the former (and really enjoyed it, much preferred it to Jane Eyre, in fact) and the latter is on my bookshelves waiting for the right time – now I know there’s overlap, I’ll leave it for longer so that Villette is less fresh in my mind. How very un-Brontë to end with an unambiguously happy marriage!

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    • The Jane Eyre I had in my head was the Orson Welles movie and when I listened to it last year I found it much more complex and interesting. Villette, like many books, I hardly remember. With The Professor I was most impressed by how independent Bronte made Frances, even in marriage.

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      • Ahhh, so you too suffer from the dreaded “I know I read it but can’t tell you anything about it” syndrome. It plagues me as well. I think you may have sold me on this book, especially for the way it pushes back on stereotypes of the time. Perhaps it will capture what I was hoping to see in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in a way that I can read and get through.

        I will say that it felt dreadful to read that Bronte held out on marriage until 38 only to have motherhood come quickly and kill her. I’m trying to imagine it; if you’re pregnant at 38 in 2021, you’re considered a risk. To be in that condition in her time period, I wonder what they thought of her.

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      • Melanie, I have real trouble reviewing a book if I don’t start straight away and sometimes when I’m listening to an audiobook certain phrases or situations will make me realise I’ve listened to it before, sometimes just a few months previously. Still, it means I can listen to good books every 2 or 3 years and not remember what’s coming next.

        I’ll know more about Charlotte when I read the Gaskell biog. Of course lots of women had babies at 38 back then, but it was more likely their 10th than their first. I think I’m right in saying poor old Mr Bronte lived to an old age and saw all his children die.

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  3. I have wanted to read both The professor and Villette for a long time, but I’ve read neither. I hadn’t realised there was a connection between the two, so that might change my mind about wanting to read the former.

    I liked your assumption about the period setting being so she didn’t end up in the future! Makes sense to me.

    And, I would love to see a family review or symposium of Jane Eyre. What an interesting thing that could be.

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    • If I can work out which USB I have Villette on I might listen to it again while I still remember The Professor so I can compare the two. I’m a bit embarrassed about reviewing right through to the end now, given you and Lou and no doubt others having it your TBR.

      Milly and Gee had some strong opinions when I told them I’d been listening to Jane Eyre so hopefully when we’re all together on Rotto (with a lot of other people with strong opinions) next month I’ll get the gist of it down on paper.

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  4. I really enjoyed Vilette and the Gaskell biography (even though my copy has the teeniest print evahr). You’re in for a treat, I’d say. Although I remember loving anecdotes and tone, more than I felt like I had the facts about Charlotte down pat.

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