Don’t Patronize Me, Bro: The Professor by Charlotte Bronte

Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Professor by Charlotte Brontë.

If I hadn’t specifically stated so on this blog already, my goal before the end of the year is to read every novel by the Brontë sisters. As of December 1, I had three new novels to complete and I’d really like to re-read Shirley as well, since it’s the only novel I’d read before and I wanted to read it in light of the others.

Well it’s December 13 and I just finished my first one. And it’s the shortest one. And I have a lot going on. Whoops…But I’m still going to make a go of it and I think I can do it.

The Professor was Brontë’s first novel, and not published until after her death in 1857. In the interest of time, I skipped the introduction so I haven’t learned very much about it. From what I’ve gathered, though, most scholars consider it the seed of her later works, and I believe Villette (my next venture) is a re-telling of it in some way.

At first I thought about leaving The Professor till last because it was published last (and I didn’t own it yet). I’m glad I didn’t. I’ll admit, I found it pretty disappointing.

Brontë’s project with The Professor was to write a novel about ordinary, working people—a far cry from her most famous work, Jane Eyre. In pop culture, the Brontës—well, Charlotte and Emily—are known for their Gothic romances, the wild moors, the brooding Byronic heroes. All are absent from The Professor. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing necessarily. After all, when I read Shirley before I liked it, and I loved The Tenant of Wildfell Hall—both of which are known for their more realist modes.

The Professor was very obviously an early work, and not in a way I found charming the way I did Northanger Abbey earlier this year. The structure is pretty weird, there’s not much plot to speak of. The language was frequently passionate, but it seemed so reserved compared to Shirley Keeldar, Jane Eyre, Catherine Earnshaw, even Helen Huntingdon.

I found the main character, William Crimsworth, the titular professor, to be kind of an ass-hat. Because I love British novels, I am well aware of nineteenth century England’s fear and hatred of Catholics and its xenophobia against the rest of Europe. And I’ve noticed a common thread through all the sisters’ works is this fascination with phrenology. In The Professor, all these elements are taken to extremes and it’s just weird. Crimsworth is an Englishman, who leaves a job at his brother’s mill to teach English in Belgium. He begins working at a school to teach English and all he does is deride nearly all of them. Everyone’s physical appearance is described in great detail. Anyone familiar with the nineteenth century knows a major hallmark of the literature of the era is to have characters whose outer appearances show their inner qualities. But in this novel, all are described to an obnoxious degree, and their shortcomings are not just individual, but metonymic of each girl’s country of origin and Catholicism. To a twenty-first century reader, it’s alienating and is so excessive as to become dull.

The female characters are interesting, but they’re not what I’m used to. The Directress of the girls’ school, Mdlle. Reuter, is whip-smart, but kind of a femme fatale. The love interest, Frances Henri, has pretty lofty career goals and is independent, but she only becomes interesting after ages of the kind of meek female goodness that I don’t find characteristic of Charlotte. The Brontë heroines I’ve loved so dearly weren’t present enough in this novel for me, perhaps because William was the focalizing character.

So, I’m sorry, fellow Brontë fans, but The Professor wasn’t my cup of tea. I’ve heard excellent things about Villette, though, and I’m excited to see how Brontë re-worked this early work into that.

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