Goodreads: The Professor
Cutting ties with his aristocratic relatives, William Crimsworth sets forth to work his own way through the world. He starts as a humble clerk, abused by his master, but perseveres to gain a place teaching at a school in Brussels as well as a chance at love.
I read the Penguin edition of The Professor with an introduction by Heather Glen and what she writes promised either a terrible or a remarkable book. For Charlotte Brontë actually wrote The Professor before her more well-known novels, but publishers would not accept it, not even after she won fame for Jane Eyre. Only after Brontë’s death did her husband release it–and then with careful excisions. This story, it seems, was considered rather scandalous for the times. But even the hint of scandal could not redeem the work and critics today often regard it as a less mature version of Villette, Brontë’s story of a young woman who works as a governess in a fictional Brussels. Glen thinks differently, arguing that The Professor probes Victorian society and mores and, through the author’s only male protagonist, offers a disquieting look at masculinity. While I did not uncover all Glen’s hidden meanings while reading, I did have to agree that the book is disquieting and that even our society may find it a bit scandalous, if for different reasons than the Victorians.
Though the narrator, William Crimsworth, depicts himself as an earnest, hardworking, and self-made man, I often wondered during the course of the story just how much faith readers ought to put in his assessments of himself and, indeed, how much we are even meant to sympathize with him. Though the traits William wishes to embody are generally considered noble, too often he uses them as armor or weapons, alternately deploying them to shield himself from the judgments of others (or himself) or to hold himself up as superior to those around him. Combined with his habit of studying individuals (and his subsequent reveling when he finds out their weaknesses), these tactics cause him to come across at times as hard, prideful, and desirous of gaining power over others to boost his own ego. William thinks highly of himself, but I was doubtful I would ever like to meet him.
William also possesses a troubling sensuality, one he does not always acknowledge to himself. I say “troubling” not only because evidently the Victorians found it so, but because I think even some modern readers may feel uncomfortable with the way that sensuality manifests itself. William is young, yet one still would hope he would not enter his new possession as a teacher at a young ladies’ school by scouting out the physical and mental assets of all the women in his care. Later on he gives what he calls psychological portraits of a few. He runs over the young ladies in questions as if they were mere animals there to be examined and judged at his pleasure. And he certainly has a good memory of all their, ahem, proportions.
Eventually William finds and falls in love with a young woman whom readers may identify as a “feminist” in the sense that she possesses a good knowledge of herself and her abilities and wishes to use them. To live an idle life being supported by another is not for her–she craves exertion and challenge, and wants to be the intellectual equal of her husband. I admired her. And yet I felt a bit sorry for her, living with William. He does not stand in her way, that is true, but he also speaks of her in terms of uncomfortable possessiveness, noting the way that he can play her to react in different ways–it gives him pleasure to think that he is the only one who can elicit these emotions at will.
If modern readers find William’s treatment of women disturbing, they will probably also find his treatment of other groups problematic. Through her narrator, Brontë lectures against the evilness of the Catholic Church, stating that the religion creates liars, hypocrites, brainwashed zombies afraid to have an opinion not fed to them by a priest, and other immoral creatures. William clearly hates his school and all his pupils, and he blames Rome for making them so detestable. He also repeatedly notes what he calls the intellectual inferiority of the people from various countries. You can say he was a man of his times, but that does not make his views congenial.
But how, you may ask, is the story? Is The Professor really just a less impressive Villette? I think not. Though the plot bears strong resemblances to that of the later work, the presence of a male narrator as well as the decision not to include any romantic elements to help William succeed create an entirely different work. The focus here is not on a woman’s struggle to carve out a place in society nor do Gothic elements intrude to tease the reader with thoughts of the supernatural. All here is practical work ethic, the story of a man trying to make something of himself and keep his pride–though the thought of women is never far from his mind. I, for one, found it an interesting little portrait and was so engrossed that I read the book in a day.