Saturday, April 19, 2008

Charlotte Brontë – ‘The Professor’

S. read this recently and was surprised to find how much she disliked it. The problem was the narrator, William Crimsworth, whom she found self-absorbed and xenophobic (not good qualities in a teacher abroad). Charlotte being one of my utter utter heroes, I wanted to set her straight about this, but it seems she has a point. Here is Crimsworth on ‘the youth of Brabant’ (in Belgium):

Their intellectual faculties were generally weak, their animal propensities strong; thus there was at once an impotence and a kind of inert force in their natures; they were dull, but they were also singularly stubborn, heavy as lead and, like lead, most difficult to move. (p. 97)

Or again:

both had the true Flamand physiognomy, where intellectual inferiority is marked in lines none can mistake (p. 99)

This kind of attitude is apparent whenever Crimsworth has occasion to describe his pupils: he despairs of nearly all of them, attributing their shortcomings to their non-Englishness. Unless he’s attributing them to the shapes of their skulls, as in this assessment:

I wonder that anyone, looking at the girl’s head and countenance, would have received her under their roof. She had precisely the same shape of skull as Pope Alexander the Sixth; her organs of benevolence, veneration, conscientiousness, adhesiveness, were singularly small, those of self-esteem, firmness, destructiveness, combativeness, preposterously large… (p. 129)

Phrenology talk, of course. What in the world is an organ of adhesiveness?

In his brief preface, Brontë’s widower Arthur Nicholls justifies publishing The Professor on the grounds that it ‘is in most respects unlike’ (p. 38) the other novel based on her experience of teaching in Brussels, Villette. This is true, to some extent. Both novels feature a protagonist who becomes financially unstuck in England, who travels to Brussels in search of an alternative career, who quickly finds work teaching, and who falls in love. The big difference is the gender of the protagonist: in Villette, Lucy Snowe follows Charlotte’s own course of working in a girls’ school, and falling for an authoritarian colleague (in real life, Constantin Heger). In The Professor, the roles are reversed, and the reader is in the company of the cranky authoritarian from the outset: Crimsworth, an uneasy mixture of Heger and Brontë, travels to Brussels and gets a job teaching in a boys’ school, which is then expanded to include teaching afternoons at the girls’ school next door, in order that he can meet, teach and fall in love with Mdlle Henri, who teaches embroidery there but is also paying for English lessons. The gender / character reversal thus requires a more complicated and less plausible plot, whilst abandoning the reader’s sympathy. It’s an odd choice.

It is worth bearing in mind, though, that sympathy itself is nearly always Brontë’s theme: it is invariably achieved gradually, against the odds, and is the highest prize life can offer. In making Crimsworth basically unlikable, she is lengthening those odds too far, but it is done in order to pull him back again, to redeem him with the love of a good woman. And it is not just the fact of this love, but the nature of it, inseparable from the build up, inseparable from the shortcomings of the lovers, which makes it touching. When he goes around to propose, he finds on Mdlle Henri’s desk a poem she’s been writing, which the notes tell us that Charlotte wrote ‘while at school in Brussels in 1843’ (p. 310). It is ‘not exactly the writer’s own experience, but a composition by portions of that experience suggested.’ (p. 243) explains Crimsworth; so perhaps it is Charlotte’s experience, even if it is not Mdlle Henri’s? Or just another version of her fantasy? It depicts a familiar situation, in any case: the overbearing and exacting teacher inspiring love in the submissive pupil. The details do differ from the story The Professor has just told: the pupil falls ill, the teacher agonises, desperate for her recovery; she returns to his classroom too soon and he sends her away again, but when she is strong enough he is as before, more demanding of her than of any other pupil. This intellectual kinship is an important part of the sympathy Brontë builds. In The Professor itself Crimsworth’s blatant preference makes him seem a bad teacher. Finally the speaker in the poem is forced by circumstances to leave the school, and the teacher passionately expresses his longing for her return. In context this re-imagining of the story is refreshing, but is again flawed by the assumption that the reader will understand the pupil’s love for a harsh teacher: it appears, as it probably was, one sided. Heger would have to wait until his portrayal in Villette (one wonders if he read it?) as M. Paul Emmanuel before Charlotte would succeed in portraying him as someone who deserved love.


Caroline Helstone said...

Thoroughly enjoyed your posts on Charlotte Bronte. I think The Professor, despite its obvious flaws, really expresses honestly Charlotte's thoughts, and if you compare it to Villette, you can understand some of the more puzzling bits of Villette better. One thing I liked and I wished she'd expanded on was the aristocrat-industrialist-educator theme.

Chris said...

Thanks Caroline, interesting to see your recent thoughts on the subject too. I've never found 'Villette' all that puzzling though - as an exercise in wish fulfillment, it's incredibly vivid, far more fully realised than Charlotte's other novels, but it makes sense for it to pull away at the end, I think. A bit like Charles Lamb's 'Dream Children' essay. You're right, though, 'The Professor' mis-fires in interesting ways.

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