02/01/2010

THE PROFESSOR BY CHARLOTTE BRONTE

“The Professor” was Charlotte Bronte’s first novel and it is the first of my tasks in the ALL ABOUT THE BRONTES challenge. It was only published after her death by her husband in 1857 . Charlotte herself wouldn’t agree with my saying that this was her first work. Read what she wrote in her preface to the novel:



"This little book was written before either "Jane Eyre" or "Shirley,"and yet no indulgence can be solicited for it on the plea of a first attempt. A first attempt it certainly was not, as the pen which wrote it had been previously worn a good deal in a practice of some years. I had not indeed published anything before I commenced "The Professor," but in many a crude effort, destroyed almost as soon as composed, I had got over any such taste as I might once have had for ornamented and redundant composition, and come to prefer what was plain and homely. At the same time I had adopted a set of principles on the subject of incident, &c., such as would be generally approved in theory, but the result of which, when carried out into practice, often procures for an author more surprise than pleasure".  Go on reading it HERE

A partly autobiographical novel?

Charlotte Brontë's years at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels studying French under the guidance of monsieur Heger were two of the most important of her life.

On her return to Haworth, obsessed by the memory of her Belgian teacher, she wrote him a series of increasingly desperate letters, four of which are now preserved in the British Museum. It is nothing short of a miracle that the letters have survived at all. They were torn into small pieces, repaired with needle and thread and then left forgotten in a drawer until 1913.


What was the exact nature of Charlotte's feelings for Heger? What were Mme Heger's precise motives in repairing the letters?
What we are certain of is that those years in Brussels inspired Charlotte when writing her novels “The Professor” and “Villette”.

The plot

The Professor tells the story of the orphan William Crimsworth, who seeks his future in Brussels after attempting to make a living as a clerk for his older brother, a mill owner in the north of England. Crimsworth begins the novel as a dependant, the ward of an aristocratic family. He rejects this life and the expectation that he become a clergyman in order to enter voluntary servitude to his prosperous brother. Unable to endure his brother's tyrannical nature, Crimsworth departs for Brussels to pursue a career in education. Hired to teach English at a girls’ school, Crimsworth falls in love with Frances Henri, a pupil-teacher at the school. Crimsworth resists the manipulations of the deceitful Catholic headmistress, Zoraïde Reuter, who later marries the headmaster of a nearby boys’ school. After resigning his position at the school, Crimsworth finds a new post, enabling him to marry Frances. His bride refuses to give up her own career as a seamstress, and together the two earn a respectable income and return to England.

Strong prejudices against Catholics


I can hardly bear generalizations and prejudices and to find both in one of my favourite writer's books, even though in one of her firt attempts, has been rather shocking. There are several repeated attacks against Catholics and their moral integrity in the novel, they are fastidious and absolutely useless in the dynamics of the plot . What wicked  Catholics did Charlotte ever meet in Belgium to be so prejudiced against them in general?

Some examples of her dislike from the pages of “The Professor”

1. (Crimsworth describing the girls he taught)

“Most of them could lie with audacity when it appeared advantageous to do so. All understood the art of speaking fair when a point was to be gained, and could with consummate skill and at a moment's notice turn the cold shoulder the instant civility ceased to be profitable. Very little open quarrelling ever took place amongst them; but backbiting and talebearing were universal. Close friendships were forbidden by the rules of the school, and no one girl seemed to cultivate more regard for another than was just necessary to secure a companion when solitude would have been irksome. They were each and all supposed to have been reared in utter unconsciousness of vice. The precautions used to keep them ignorant, if not innocent, were innumerable. How was it, then, that scarcely one of those girls having attained the age of fourteen could look a man in the face with modesty and propriety? An air of bold, impudent flirtation, or a loose, silly leer, was sure to answer the most ordinary glance from a masculine eye.




I know nothing of the arcana of the Roman Catholic religion, and I am not a bigot in matters of theology, but I suspect the root of this precocious impurity, so obvious, so general in Popish countries, is to be found in the discipline, if not the doctrines of the Church of Rome. I record what I have seen: these girls belonged to what are called the respectable ranks of society; they had all been carefully brought up, yet was the mass of them mentally depraved. So much for the general view: now for one or two selected specimens”. (chapter XII, p. 71)

2. ( Crimsworth thinking of Zoraide Reuter, the Catholic headmistress of the school he teaches in)

"Now, Zoraide Reuter," thought I, "has tact, CARACTERE, judgment,discretion; has she heart? What a good, simple little smile played about her lips when she gave me the branch of lilacs! I have thought her crafty, dissembling, interested sometimes, it is true; but may not much that looks like cunning and dissimulation in her conduct be only the efforts made by a bland temper to traverse quietly perplexing difficulties? And as to interest, she wishes to make her way in the world, no doubt, and who can blame her? Even if she be truly deficient in sound principle, is it not rather her misfortune than her fault? Shehas been brought up a Catholic: had she been born an Englishwoman, and reared a Protestant, might she not have added straight integrity to all her other excellences? Supposing she were to marry an English and Protestant husband, would she not, rational, sensible as she is, quickly acknowledge the superiority of right over expediency, honesty over policy? It would be worth a man's while to try the experiment; to-morrow I will renew my observations”. (chapter XII, p. 79)

3. (Frances Henri, talking with Crimsworth about her dreaming to leave Belgium for England)

"Besides, monsieur, I long to live once more among Protestants; they are more honest than Catholics; a Romish school is a building with porous walls, a hollow floor, a false ceiling; every room in this house, monsieur, has eyeholes and ear-holes, and what the house is, the inhabitants are, very treacherous; they all think it lawful to tell lies; they all call it politeness to profess friendship where they feel hatred."

"All?" said I; "you mean the pupils--the mere children--inexperienced,giddy things, who have not learnt to distinguish the difference between right and wrong?"

"On the contrary, monsieur--the children are the most sincere; they have not yet had time to become accomplished in duplicity; they will tell lies, but they do it inartificially, and you know they are lying; but the grown-up people are very false; they deceive strangers, they deceive each other--"(chapter XVII, pp. 106-107)

The protagonist, William Crimsworth


If he was really inspired to Monsieur Heger, what did Charlotte find in him? It is  natural to be fascinated by Charlotte’s Mr Rochester as it is definitely impossible to sympathize with this unnatural, cold, presumptuous, unappealing male charater here. This has been attributed to Charlotte Bronte’s immaturity as a writer at the time (1845-46). I just wonder, Jane Austen wrote Lady Susan at 17, why is it so easy to find her wicked leading character absolutely convincing in that work? I know I’m being terrible with such a great writer as Charlotte Bronte but this novel has really disappointed me, starting just from its protagonist.

Conclusions

Apart from its protagonist, I have other points to make to support my disappointment. I find all the characters result lacking humanity and real intensity. Moreover the plot suffers from the presence of boring and useless digressions and additions (see my quotations above, for instance); the narrating voice is always so detached from what happens, so little involving, and it is in the first person; the moralizing tone is often annoying. But it seems I’m not alone in my disliking it. Read for example this quotation from a critical essay:

“Eager for more from Charlotte Brontë's pen, readers were nevertheless unenthusiastic about The Professor, and it received numerous unfavorable reviews upon publication. Written from the point of view of a male narrator, the novel has been criticized as an immature effort and a failed attempt to write from the male perspective. Modern critics are primarily interested in the gender issues posed by the work and in analyzing the work's early reception, while others focus on the influence The Professor had on Brontë's later novels. However, Brontë's first attempt as a professional writer has consistently met with reservations from readers and critics alike”.

Now I’ve got “Villette” in my reading list for this challenge and I really hope to write a completely different review next time. Have you read “The Professor”? What do you think of it?


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10 comments:

Elvira said...

No, I haven't read it, and will not do it in the future either, after reading what you have written.

However, I find this description very real, unfortunately: "All understood the art of speaking fair when a point was to be gained, and could with consummate skill and at a moment's notice turn the cold shoulder the instant civility ceased to be profitable." I have known a few people who are like that.

Thank you for this interesting post, Maria Grazia! Besos

Chris said...

I haven't read The Professor but when I read Gaskell's biography there was a lot of references to her feelings on Catholics in Belgium. She seems to have been miserable there and I felt that if she had been more tolerate of the people, she would have gotten along better. It was one of the things that bothered me about her.

Lula O said...

This is probably her least popular work, probably why she never published it either. She knew it wasn't very good. I understand her prejudice because of the time period. A lot of people had strong opinions regarding religion back then. I hardly hold it against her. Thanks for the honest review!

Katherine said...

Her Catholic prejudices are also touched on in Villette.

I've yet to read the Professor, I'm not sure that I will anytime soon. Shirley is on my list though. ;)

I think Anne is my favorite of the Bronte's, I like her style of writing. I've only read Jane Eyre, Vilette, and Agnes Grey (so perhaps as I read more of their works this may change or be more confirmed)

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@Elvira, Chris, Lula, Katherine
Thanks for your contributions, ladies. Well, I know I tend to be honest and direct though I risk being unpopular but this is the second time I read a work by Charlotte Bronte and I'm a bit disappointed. Maybe after Jane Eyre I expected something more similar to her masterpiece but none of her other works are at the same llevel so far. Only her Villette is missing. Soon in my TBR list and one of my tasks for this challenge.
By the way Katherine, Anne is also my favourite among the sisters. I discovered her talent only last summer reading both of her novels. My reviews are on Fly High!

Laura's Reviews said...

I love Anne Bronte too. I feel sad that she is so often overlooked. No offense to Emily, but I much prefer The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to Wuthering Heights.

Great review. Truthfully, I read The Professor over ten years ago and I don't remember anything about it. I much prefered Villette, but truthfully I feel that Jane Eyre was Charlotte Bronte's masterpiece. Unlike Jane Austen, an author who wrote six masterpieces, Charlotte Bronte had one masterpiece, and three other fair books. What do others think about this? Am I being too harsh? Jane Eyre is quite the masterpiece to have!

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@Laura's Reviews
I just agree with you, Laura. I love all Austen's six, while, so far I just love Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. I still have to read Villette, though. Let's see if I can add one more to Charlotte's best achievements. Anyhow, I love both Anne's novels but also Emily's WH! Thanks for giving us this great occasion for discussing such great classics, Laura!

Judy said...

I agree with you there is a lot of prejudice against Catholics in 'The Professor' - as Katherine said, this is also there in 'Villette', but I think that is a much greater novel, on a level with 'Jane Eyre', so I think/hope you will love it anyway. Charlotte is far and away my favourite out of the Brontes, but I don't think 'The Professor' is anywhere near as good as her other books.

Connoisseur said...

I read Villette before I read this, so when i read the Professor I could immediately make the links. The Protagonist is a mild version of the foreign man in Villette (I read both these books a while ago, I can't remember the names!). Although I think they don't have the same eccentric personalities, they are both outsiders. And the unobtrusive, not particularly special girl William Crimsworth likes reminds me of lucy Snowe, whom no one else appreciated. Of course, their characters are once again completely different, but they have remarkably similar circumstances. I did not find it as bad as everyone else seems to. I really read it as a precursor to great novels, a little practice run and so I found it very tolerable.

DarcyReturned said...

This is probably a bit late but I am in the middle of reading 'The Professor' as part of a reading challenge of my own. I have read (and studied at Uni) Jane Eyre which was brilliant. But I find this one interesting as she has contrived to write something from a male first person perspective.

I don't agree with some of the posters on here because I think they are tending to look at it from a 21st Century perspective.

I thought, as usual, that this is typical Brontean experimentation. While it is true that this is not as passionate as Jane Eyre, I see that as a positive as this is more in keeping with her narrator. Please cut her some slack