Book review: The Professor by Charlotte Brontë (Wordsworth Classics, 1994 )
Written two years before Jane Eyre, The Professor was Charlotte Brontë’s first novel and was based on her experiences in Brussels, although it was not published until after her death.
The story is one of love and doubt, as the hero, William Crimsworth, seeks his fortune as a teacher in Brussels and finds his love for the good Anglo-Swiss girl, Frances Henri, severely tested by the sensously beguiling and manipulative headmistress, Zoroaïde Reuter.
The novel challenged many of the deeply held expectations of the time and is essential reading for all those seeking an understanding of the author and her work.
The biggest problem with The Professor is the lack of a plot. Things happen, certainly, but there’s no conflict to drive the story forward, nothing to really keep you interested in it. In a way, it reminds me of the NaNoWriMo-novel I wrote in 2007. It was about 52k words long, but it didn’t have a plot. It had a beginning, a middle and an end and things happened, people interacted a bit, dialogue was exchanged, but it wasn’t really about anything, and neither is this.
This was perhaps not her first book as such, but one that was written before she was made famous, and not published until after her death, as it says in the bit above. In the author’s preface, Charlotte Brontë says “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.” Yeah, right. I was in Oxfam the other day and browsed a book about Victorian novels, and saw that bit quoted, with some comments along the same lines as my own thoughts (ornamented and redundant prose are thy middle names, CB, along with “I love my Plot Device”), and it pointed out that about a fifth of the whole book is about how the main character, William Crimsworth, manages to end up in Brussels, which is what the book is actually supposed to be about.
According to the back cover, the plot is that he meets Frances Henri but headmistress Reuter is trying to get in the way. That could have been the plot and made for a pretty good conflict, and maybe that would have made things a bit more interesting. Instead, we don’t hear a word about Mlle Henri until she makes her first appearance, a few pages short of the middle of the book … and then nothing much happens. He’s impressed with her English skills, but nothing really happens, then she leaves, he tries to find her (the semblance of a plot, finally!) and then he does find her and then nothing really happens.
And then he switches jobs and nothing really happens and then he asks her to marry him, and then nothing really happens, and then it takes twenty pages for them to live happily ever after, in the same sort of drawn-out – not to mention very convenient – ending that you feel is about to finish a number of times, like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, except it doesn’t, it goes on. And on. And on. And doesn’t really get to the point. The very ending itself is also a bit bland and left me with a “meh” kind of feeling.
One of the things that kept bugging me was how much French there was. Common language back in the day, and we know Charlotte studied in Brussels, but does she have to show off her French skills on every other page? A word or short phrase here and there, fine. Actual bits of dialogue longer than a sentence which she gives no translation or even some allusion to what’s being said so that we who do not know French by heart? No! I did French in school 1996-1998, and I didn’t do very well. I have no wish to start taking French lessons again just to be able to understand bits of a book that’s written in English by an English author! I wouldn’t have been particularly pleased had she written those bits in German instead, even though I technically have a better grasp of that language, because I still find it rude and obnoxious to the readers who aren’t “in” with the author.
Frances Henri we never really get a very clear image of, aside from what Crimsworth is telling us (the novel being written in first-person singular narrative), but that’s never quite enough to entice me into properly cheering him on. Possibly because Crimsworth himself comes across as rather self-absorbed and superior, so I really have problems liking him – he’s just not particularly likeable as a character! One might argue that hey, what of Mr Rochester, surely he’s self-absorbed and superior too, no? (And Rochester I absolutely adore.) Yes, okay, there is that, but Rochester is different, so there! Crimsworth is just stiff and dull and is always superbly in control of his features so that none might interpret him correctly, and he likes it that way. He’s about as cuddly as a fridge freezer.
Then there’s the issue of attitude. Maria at FLY HIGH! wrote a great review of The Professor a while back and picked up on the negativity expressed against Catholics. I wholeheartedly agree! Not just Catholics, but people of different nationalities in general (it just so happened that a lot of them were from Catholic countries). I’d call it xenophobic, because she’s stereotyping people a lot, and a lot of it is negative. Here’s one:
He was a man of about forty years of age, of middle size, and rather emaciated figure; his face was pale, his cheeks were sunk, and his eyes hollow; his features were pleasing and regular. They had a French turn (for M. Pelet was no Fleming, but a Frenchman both by birth and parentage), yet the degree of harshness inseparable from Gallic lineaments was in his case softened by a mild blue eye and a melancholy, almost suffering, expression of countenance /…/
Perhaps not that bad, but I think it has a tone of “bloody foreigners!” about it. Or, how about this one?
Pelet’s house was kept and his kitchen managed by his mother, a real old Frenchwoman. She had been handsome – at least she told me so, and I strove to believe her; she was now ugly, as only Continental old women can be.
We know the English and the French don’t have much love for one another, but that’s just plain rude. Seriously! I’m kind of offended and I’m neither Continental, nor old! (Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.)
Inspired by her stay in Brussels, and her crush on Monsieur Héger, I can’t help but feel The Professor is nothing but Charlotte’s romantic fantasy about herself together with him, living happily ever after in a sort of perfect dream world. In real life, she couldn’t get him (she sent him letters, but he didn’t reciprocate), but in her book, with a few changes to names and circumstances, they can be together.
The book feels naive, somehow. Immature, perhaps. From what I’ve gathered, Villette is related to this book, but the nature of this relationship I am yet to discover. I hope it’s a complete re-write with likeable characters, less of the French, and with an actual plot with proper conflict, so that something interesting actually happens.
Oh well, at least The Professor is relatively short: 199 pages, and yes, I do think I understand Charlotte Brontë a little bit more now. Possibly.
2 out of 5 missing conflicts.