The Professor by Charlotte Bronte: Further Thoughts

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A drawing of the school on the Rue d’Isabelle in Brussels where Charlotte Bronte taught and which she vividly recreated in The Professor and later Villette.

As was mentioned at the close of the last post, Charlotte Bronte created in Frances Henri, heroine of The Professor, another of those utterly distinctive women who can be found only in a Bronte novel. Unlike the pallid women who drift spinelessly through far too many otherwise great Victorian novels (I shall name no names at present), Charlotte Bronte`s female characters are fully realized, independent, and almost alarmingly hard-working, with an intellectual life as well as an emotional one.

One of the most striking things about The Professor is its refusal to dramatize the love story which nevertheless forms a central part of the plot. While most romantic novels (including Bronte`s own Jane Eyre) derive their drama from the romance and conclude with the marriage of the happy couple, or at least the promise of such a marriage, The Professor does not end with a wedding; on the contrary, it closes some years after Crimsworth (the professor) marries and not before giving an account of the school which Frances establishes and runs after her marriage.

But while such an ending is unusual enough, Frances`s industry and ambition is even more unexpected. Indeed, bursts of astonishingly pragmatic common sense alternate with highly dramatic moments in Bronte`s fiction, and we find one of the best examples of this in the scene in which Frances and Crimsworth  become engaged. After they have enjoyed a brief moment of happiness, they begin to discuss their future. Frances expresses a wish to continue teaching after their marriage, a request which Crimsworth at first repudiates. But he acquiesces once Frances gives her reasons:

“I like a contemplative life, but I like an active life better. I must act in some way, and act with you. I have taken notice, monsieur, that people who are only in each other’s company for amusement never really like each other so well, or esteem each other so highly, as those who work together, and perhaps suffer together.”

This is a true Bronte touch, and one which may account for the novel’s lack of popularity among readers who come to it seeking the thrills and drama of her other novels. Yet here as elsewhere we see the true originality of her mind and her genius in delineating consistent–and consistently interesting–characters. Frances’s refusal to call her husband anything other than “monsieur” even after their wedding is another oddity that distinguishes Bronte from all imitators and all successors (and too often these are the same).

Another incident which will cause lament among the devotees of easy sentimentality in novels is the attack of hypochondria or depression which afflicts Crimsworth the night he has achieved his heart’s desire by becoming affianced to Frances:

…[T]hough I saw nothing, yet “a thing was secretly brought unto me, and mine ear received a little thereof. There was silence, and I heard a voice,” saying, “In the midst of life we are in death.”

That sound, and the sensation of chill anguish accompanying it, many would have regarded as supernatural; but I recognized it at once as the effect of reaction. Man is ever clogged with his mortality, and it was my nerves which jarred and gave a false sound, because the soul, of late rushing headlong to an aim, had overstrained the body’s comparative weakness. A horror of great darkness fell upon me. I felt my chamber invaded by one I had known formerly, but had thought for ever departed. I was temporarily a prey to hypochondria.

She had been my acquaintance–nay, my guest, once before in boyhood. I had entertained her at bed and board for a year; for that space of time I had her to myself in secret.

And then Bronte elaborates this image, painting in prose a chilling picture of Crimsworth’s mental agony personified as a woman, a first wife repulsed and returning. It is impossible not to recall both John Keats’ poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and Bertha Mason in Bronte’s own Jane Eyre when reading this passage; indeed, this is one of the many parts of the novel where we can almost see the seeds of that later book, as its ideas were shaping themselves in Bronte’s mind.

Or perhaps we are merely seeing her mind as it is, and discovering what images and themes were so deeply present in it that she could not set pen to paper without conjuring them up once again. The Biblical language, the acceptance of life in all its contradictions and complexities, the sense of isolation and the quest for a home which we see in The Professor are also found in Bronte’s other works; but it is perhaps in this book where such concerns are presented most sharply and clearly. There hangs over the whole novel a sort of dark unease which is sensed in the narrator’s account of himself and colors Frances as well, even when the two bask in their well-earned prosperity. It is a short novel and a quiet one, but certainly not a dull one; nor is it one which any reader can afford to miss. Many certainties are less fascinating and fruitful than the ambiguities and unanswered questions of Charlotte Bronte.

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