(with many a mention to Villette, also by Charlotte Brontë)
Last month I went to see the National Theatre’s stage adaptation of Jane Eyre. It was engaging, different, wacky and wonderful – and reminded me, as all good adaptations should, of how much I adore the original book. It occurred to me, shortly after that, that although Jane Eyre and Villette are two of my favourite books of all time, I hadn’t actually read Charlotte Brontë’s other two novels. So I decided to read The Professor. Oh Charlotte Brontë, how I have missed you.
The Professor is the first novel Charlotte Brontë wrote. It was written before to Jane Eyre, Villette and Shirley, but wasn’t published until 1857, two years after her death. It tells the story of William Crimsworth, a young Englishman who, after failing in his ambitions of working in trade, moves to Belgium. There he becomes an English teacher in a boy’s school. He also ends up teaching classes in the girl’s school next door, where he encounters the sweet yet formidable headmistress, Mademoiselle Zoraïde Reuter and the intriguing and obscure sewing teacher Frances Evans Henri.
I thoroughly enjoyed the writing style. I love Charlotte Brontë’s writing, and her dialogue is as always superb (even if some of it does have a slightly irritating habit of being in French). She has an amazing way of capturing characters that feel both real and strange, that have unusual and fascinating eccentricities that you slowly begin to notice. William Crimsworth himself is our narrator, telling his own story in the first person, and for a while you almost accept him as a beckon of normality in comparison to his cruel brother and eccentric friend Hunsden – until you realise that Crimsworth too is eccentric, capricious, spontaneous and at times lets his temper govern him. I like him because he is subtly complex, and sure enough Brontë surrounds him with a cast of characters who, if not always likable, are always interesting.
As a novel in its own right, The Professor is not as polished or as developed as Jane Eyre or Villette. The writing and the characterisation is, I would argue, just as sophisticated as her later novels, but the plot and pacing is probably not. The middle section of the book is the most interesting and feels like the most dominant in terms of the plot. The beginning and end sections feel like they are taking up more space in the book than they ought to. It is quite a short novel and at times feels almost underdeveloped. The plot and ideas themselves feel like they require more space than they have in this book.
And indeed, Brontë did indeed develop The Professor later on in her writing career. Villette (my favourite Charlotte Brontë novel, and one of my favourite novels of all time) takes a great deal from The Professor in terms of plot, setting and even characterisation. The Professor tells the story of a young Englishman who, finding himself with no prospects in his own country, travels to Belgium to become an English teacher in a school. Villette tells the story of a young English woman who, finding herself with no prospects in her own country, travels to Belgium to become first a nursery maid and then an English teacher in a school. Frances Evans Henri in The Professor reminds me of Villette’s Lucy Snowe. Mademoiselle Zoraïde in The Professor is a somewhat similar character to Madame Beck in Villette. And The Professor’s narrator William is in many ways very similar to M. Paul, my favourite character in Villette. This was perhaps one of the things I most enjoyed about reading The Professor – it was like reading Villette from M. Paul’s perspective. Villette is I think the better, more complete and developed novel. The narrator is more psychology complex, and it deals with more complicated and darker issues. The plotting is I think cleverer and less predictable (although perhaps I found some aspects of The Professor predictable simply because I’ve read Villette). Yet reading The Professor is a very interesting insight into Charlotte Brontë’s first thoughts on this subject, and as Villette is one of my favourite novels of all time, it was fascinating and lovely to see where the ideas came from.
The two novels deal with many of the same themes: those of class, of solitude and loneliness, of teaching and hard work, of Protestantism versus Catholicism, of what it is like to be a foreigner in a new place. One of the things I truly loved about The Professor was its treatment of the theme of work. I love Victorian literature, and a recurring theme throughout a vast number of Victorian novels is that of good solid hard work: the idea of hard work as a moral and improving force. What I liked about The Professor is that it puts forward this idea not just for men for but women as well, and not just for unmarried women, but also for wives. I love that it features a young woman who insists on still being a teacher after her marriage, and even though her husband at first objects, she soon brings him round to her way of thinking, and goes on teaching. This made me very happy.
When considered alongside Villette, The Professor is an accomplished first draft of what went on to become what is in my mind one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century. Yet on its own, The Professor is still a tender and interesting story about hard work, new places, and love. It was joy to read, and I’m really looking forward to reading Shirley very soon.
Greatest strength: The writing and the characterisation. Charlotte Brontë is just brilliant.
Greatest weakness: For me The Professor at times feels underdeveloped. Nonetheless, because I have read, loved and studied Villette and because they are so similar in themes and plot, I find it very hard to consider The Professor separately from it. It’s possible that if you read it before Villette, the impression would be quite different.
Let’s finish on a quote: ‘Novelists should never allow themselves to weary of the study of real life.’
Next week: A Snow Garden and Other Stories, by Rachel Joyce