BOOK: THE PROFESSOR by Charlotte Brontë

William Crimsworth has become disillusioned with his homeland, namely England, and chances upon the opportunity to go abroad. He is proficient in the French and German languages, and so he settles in Brussels, Belgium, to become and English teacher for boys. His reputation precedes him, and soon he is a teacher for the more highly esteemed girl's school. His reputation extends further, and a young sewing teacher named Frances Henri sits in as a pupil in his class. Her well-spoken English catches the admiration of Crimsworth, and he pays attention to her, but their acquaintance is soon put to a halt under the jealous eye of the school's directress, Mlle Reuter. Etc etc etc.

The story goes on, but first I'd like to pay attention to why I have read this book in the first place. It stems from my personal fascination with the Brontë sisters, mainly Emily, but I have warmed to Ann also. From what I read in their biographies, Charlotte seems to be my least favourite.

That isn't to say Charlotte is not important, and to understand Emily or Ann, you must understand her as well. After reading Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, I thought to read Jane Eyre (I have so far seen two different film adaptations), but came by The Professor in Ann's biography as the primary Charlotte book, the one that she had trouble getting published, and was not until two years after her death. It was after Wuthering Heights/Agnes Grey were published together, that Charlotte went a much darker route and composed her most popular tale, Jane Eyre, arguably the most popular of all the Brontë sister's books combined.

It is hence speculated that Charlotte took inspiration from her sister's more gothic directions, and so it was in my interest to witness that particular development myself, by first reading The Professor then later moving on to Jane Eyre. Then I want to read Ann's Tenant of Wildfell Hall and finally Wuthering Heights a second time.

My general summary of The Professor is that it is a terrible book but well written enough I ended up finishing it anyhow. It is clear that Charlotte Brontë was a talented writer, but was too absorbed in her own indulgence to engage the reader with a proper story. I quote from the first chapter:

My narrative is not exciting, and above all, not marvellous; but it may interest some individuals, who, having toiled in the same vocation as myself, will find in my experience frequent reflections of their own.

In other words, this could be the most thrilling read since The Complete History of Cement Roof Tiles.

While I say it was well written, which I only point out as a precursor to Jane Eyre, it is clear this book is written by Charlotte Brontë. The narrative is in the first person as told by William Crimsworth, but is obviously written from a feminine eye, admiring her school-teacher crush, fantasising about him as a dignified, honest and hard-working man. Particularly in the way she judges every character by their looks and their fashion. There are paragraphs giving elaborate detail describing facial constructions of every character, and their manners and movements and speech patterns. She particularly likes foreheads, as it is a judgement of intelligence. In Charlotte's perfect world, everyone will have giant bulbous foreheads that swell and throb like hot-air balloons. She has contempt for the fashionable and the beautiful, as they are the shallow kind who concern themselves in the superficial and superfluous, and their foreheads are usually of average size.

Charlotte is also clearly writing from her own experiences. She studied languages in Brussels, and there were letters discovered written by her to a certain Professor Hegel who worked there. Passionate letters, you know the kind, which there has not been discovered any replies. Charlotte has inserted herself into the story as Frances Henri, but takes the narrative further by having them get married.

That's not the end, however, as they both decide to run a school of their own, which turns out very successful and profitable. They come to a point where they can even select their students - only the brightest and richest - and their reputation and profit brings them to near-aristocratic status, all through honest hard work and skill. I should point out that Charlotte attempted to start a school herself along with her sisters, which turned out a dismal failure.

So they sell off the school which thrusts them into the upper-class, and they move back to England with a big house and a nice big garden. There is a pathway lined out by daisies, called Daisy Lane, and they raise their son, Victor, in comfort and joy, and are often visited by their good friend and neighbour Husden.

And it keeps going. Husden buys a dog for Victor, and they are inseparable. But the dog gets bitten by another dog with rabies and William has to shoot it dead. Victor, witnessing the event, becomes upset and William has to teach him about life and death and stuff. The story doesn't actually end until Frances literally pulls the pen out of his hand. Which is kind of genius if you think about it.

I suppose a another small issue I had was all the untranslated French dialogue, and how there is no hint whatsoever as to what any of it means. Charlotte must have assumed that anyone with an education enough to be literate - at the time - would know as much French as she did. I understood the general idea of the conversations, it's not entirely necessary to break out the French-English dictionary (I used Wiktionary for some of the words), but once again we have an example of her self-indulgence.

So there you have it. A terrible book, but well written, but go read Jane Eyre instead.

UP NEXT: EMBASSYTOWN by China Mielville.

First impression: It is very confusing at first. It's a kind of science-fiction where you are thrust into the world it is set, with all these new words and terminology you don't understand. I'm reading my housemate's copy and he says it gets easier as it goes along, but being in first-person narrative you're not expected to know what they're talking about at first, as it seems perfectly natural to them. My general take on getting past this is to absorb the mood of the story the first time, and when things are explained later on, read through it all again.

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