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.