The Professor: Charlotte Bronte’s Neglected Novel

Charlotte_Brontë

A portrait of Charlotte Bronte, tellingly portrayed book in hand. Bronte’s continual emphasis in her fiction on the intelligence and intellectual potential of women is often overlooked in favor of the romantic and melodramatic elements in her novels.

 

The literary world has many wonders, but few writers have obtained such lasting fame as that possessed by Charlotte Bronte, the English novelist who lived from 1816 to 1855.  This Victorian lady wrote with a passion, a vigor, and an intelligence which gained her great fame in her short lifetime and laid the foundation of that popularity which has continued unabated to this day. Many readers and scholars, with more enthusiasm than accuracy, have attempted to claim Bronte as their own by establishing her as the patron saint of their pet interest. Yet, oddly enough, Bronte’s unbroken and ever devoted chain of readers have partially contributed to a gradual obscuring of her great talent. The unfortunate emphasis placed by readers and marketers alike on the “romantic” aspects of Jane Eyre, her single most famous work, have led to a perception of Bronte as a novelist concerned primarily (if not exclusively) with love stories of a florid and fantastic nature.

Yet such an understanding of Bronte’s work is unfaithful not only to her most widely-read novel but also to her writings as a whole. Her three other novels, when read together with Jane Eyre, help paint the picture of a well-read, deeply religious, keenly perceptive woman who wrote in a voice utterly unique in the history of literature.

Bronte wrote only four novels before her untimely death, much to the grief of those who discover in how short an interval those works can be read. Villette and Shirley do have a certain amount of prestige; yet Bronte’s first completed novel, entitled The Professor and posthumously published, is frequently dismissed as a minor work or an immature experiment even by otherwise devoted readers of her fiction.

It is not altogether surprising that such is the case; readers often begin with Jane Eyre, which fairly bristles with romance and sensational events. Having associated the name of Bronte with Gothic delights, one might not unsurprisingly become discontented with the more tranquil pleasures offered in the quiet tale of a hardworking, rather stubborn, and often disagreeable English professor attempting to support himself by teaching in Belgium. For such is the tale which Bronte sets out to tell in The Professor, and even this unlikely hero’s romance with a half-English, half-Swiss girl named Frances is told with a remarkable lack of melodramatic flourish.

Yet there are oddities in the novel which foreshadow Bronte’s later and more famous works, while the novel`s main concerns are fully in line with those found in her other novels. Furthermore, the lack of dramatic incident allows Bronte to craft a more thoughtful tale, one which is remarkably faithful to the texture of daily life and through it to the essentials of the professor`s character. It is true that the novel never quite reaches the emotional heights of Jane Eyre or Villette; yet it has a power and tone which no other author can even begin to imitate. Virginia Woolf once wrote on the strong personality of Charlotte Bronte, remarking that reading one of her books was almost like talking to her, so strong is the impression gained of the author`s mind and thoughts; and it is a testament to the power of Bronte`s literary power that even a quiet little book like The Professor has a quality found in no other writer`s works.

There are a number of things in the novel which are worth examining. First of all, the Belgian school setting and the teaching profession form a large part of the book`s focus. Bronte would revisit these concerns in Jane Eyre and Villette; she herself was a governess and English teacher in French-speaking Belgium, and it is fascinating to see how she reworked her experiences in her fiction. Like a poet whose favorite images recur in poem after poem, so too Charlotte Bronte`s experiences reappear in book after book, although her skill as a novelist permits her to shape each experience so that it becomes the texture of the characters` lives rather than stock scenery borrowed from her own.

The book`s heroine may also appear strangely familiar to Bronte`s readers. Frances Evans Henri could be a preliminary sketch for Jane Eyre, while William Crimsworth`s domineering ways appear to prefigure Rochester`s. Indeed, the strange dynamic of Crimsworth`s and Frances`s relationship–which begins as that of teacher and pupil and retains even in marriage something of that tone–is presented with such lack of romantic trapping that it is small wonder readers fail to respond to it, despite their raptures over the similar “romance“ in Bronte`s most famous novel.

Additionally, Frances may be one of the most radical yet unheralded heroines of Victorian fiction, for upon her engagement to Crimsworth, she refuses to accept the traditional roles which society and even Crimsworth himself wish her to take on…

Please stay tuned to learn more about Frances and Bronte`s least-famous novel in the next post.

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One Response to The Professor: Charlotte Bronte’s Neglected Novel

  1. Pingback: The Professor by Charlotte Bronte: Further Thoughts | Lost Eras

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