Book Review of The Professor, by Charlotte Bronte (Author of Jane Eyre)

Updated on April 10, 2010

Though readers all over the world have enjoyed Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, many have not had the privilege of being exposed to her lesser-known novel, The Professor, which is deeply revealing in its depths of moral cause and effect, strife and reward.

The Professor was written before Bronte's Jane Eyre, but was rejected by publishers until after her death. It tells the story of William Crimsworth, a young man seeking to make his way in the world and establish his family.

Charlotte Bronte, author of Jane Eyre and The Professor
Charlotte Bronte, author of Jane Eyre and The Professor

Though Jane Eyre is deeply emotional, dramatic, and at times gloomy, The Professor was a bright contrast in comparison. It is almost as if Miss Bronte was striving for an accurate depiction of the harsh realities of life in both her novels, but had not mastered the writing techniques of anticipation and foreshadow until her second novel. However, I found The Professor refreshing and confident. I enjoyed the Biblical comparisons of the main character's life with the life of Joseph in Genesis 37-41. I relished the strong moral dichotomy portrayed. I delighted in the pleasant surprises and complex characters.

William Crimsworth is an interesting character study. William described himself as sensitive, emotional, and a deep thinker with appreciation for the abstract and the poetic. However, I found him to be sensible, self-controlled, morally driven, studious, and practical. He was faced with several decisions upon coming out of college, and he in turn faced those decisions with righteous resolve and decisiveness. He severed connection with wealthy uncles when they spoke disdainfully of his deceased father, then went to a town he had never been to before to seek a brother he had never seen, and apply for work. In all this he claimed to be distressed, but his actions showed him to be trusting and confident that a loving Providence will provide.

He met his brother with excited anticipation beating in his heart, but his brother gruffly patronized him, treating him in a purely mercenary manner and without affection. William gave up all thought of having a loving relationship with his brother, and was hired to be his brother's clerk for the mill. Though in a lower position than he was accustomed to, and though soon cruelly mistreated by his brother's jealous nature, William worked diligently and without complaint, doing all things well. This incited his brother to greater jealousy, and on several occasions another visiting mill owner witnessed the elder brother's harsh and demeaning action towards the younger. The visiting mill owner sidled up to William one night, poked and prodded his character, liked him, and decided to let slip a few words in the right ears against the harsh elder brother. The end result was William's loss of his job through his brother's anger and loss of any potential position in the town.

Secretly, William was overjoyed. Work as a clerk for his brother had become a thing he dreaded, and he was happy to be free. Through an unexpected friend, William received a letter of commendation to take with him to Belgium, where he would seek work yet again. Through all this, William had uncharacteristic composure and a level-headed determination to make his way in the world. His conscience was unmarred, he was not hurt by his brother's rejection and scoffing, but was confident that he would find successful employment in another country. In this he mirrors Joseph, who was cruelly mistreated by his jealous brothers and forced to leave town and make his way in another place.

William eventually became a schoolmaster, or "professor" for a boy's school in Belgium under the headmaster Monsieur Pelet, and through that connection, was also hired as an English teacher for a girl's school next door. He taught with severity, at first, and the boys respect him for it, but when he came into the classroom of girls, he found that many of them were young ladies only a few years younger than himself, and he was momentarily bashful and tongue-tied. He had only seen young women at a distance, had no sisters or mother, and was astonished at their angelic appearance. But then he heard a few crude whispers in French from the leader of the girls, and suddenly he was all confidence again. Their halos were now tarnished and he could gird his mind to steel against flirtation, pouts, sheep's eyes, and tantrums, which he soon received in abundance.

Meanwhile, a subtler temptation swished her skirts and exercised her clever mind against him. The young and pretty headmistress of the girls' school thought him innocent and unaware, and she used all her wiles and tricks to find his weaknesses. William thought her alert mind was attractive, and though she was older than him, she was youthful and pretty compared to what he had been expecting the headmistress of the girls' school to be. Her conversation never lagged and he enjoyed following her through trails and hedges of chatter. One evening the balmy weather and the fragrances of the flowers in the lane seemed to call him to invite her to walk outside. In the only moment of unguarded weakness that he let slip, he asked her to pick a flower for him and give it to him with her own hands. She played her cards as only a woman author can make her charactress to play, William got his flower, and dreamily went back to his lodging at the boy's school that night thinking of marriage. She was lovely, but he knew she was wily, and she was Roman Catholic. That thought pained him; he was a firm Protestant and saw many moral problems with the confessing Catholics in Belgium, including dishonesty and the practice of false doctrine. Perhaps he could change her if she were always as docile as she had seemed that night.

Just then he heard voices, and saw the schoolmistress below his window in the garden speaking with Pelet, the head schoolmaster of the boy's school. He judged by their words and manner that they were engaged, and that the schoolmaster was hotly jealous of her attentions to William. Whatever admiration William had for the lady was now gone. She was sly, manipulating, and dishonest, and William had no taste for a woman like her. In the days following he was distant and ignored her, and she did all she could to get him back. His aloofness challenged her and she was more determined than ever, but he was aware of her subtle tricks of speech and expression, and had no trouble ignoring her.

William Crimsworth seems to be modeled after Joseph of the Bible: he exemplified moral, upright, faithful living.
William Crimsworth seems to be modeled after Joseph of the Bible: he exemplified moral, upright, faithful living.

At this time, a young woman named Frances Henri came to the school to teach a few of the schoolgirls to sew, embroider, and mend lace. William, who was alert as ever and accustomed to read character in people's faces, soon noticed that she was shy, but intelligent; timid, but determined; eager to learn, but reticent to lead or show authority. She did not stand out to him more than any of his other students, for she was also his pupil, and he did not think anything of her until one day during the girls' recitation of English. The girls' Belgium tongues usually slaughtered the English sentences William had the girls recite, but when the young sewing teacher read her portion, she pronounced the words crisply and in true English fashion. William was astonished and glanced up to see if she realized what miracle had just come out of her mouth, but she was humble and unaware, and the recitation passed to the next person.

In the weeks that followed, William sought to interrogate this little English-speaking foreigner. Though she was shy and placid, he saw that he could stir her excitement for learning and excelling in knowledge, and that she had true potential as a student. He sought her out after class to discuss books he lent her, to tutor her in English, to criticize and critique her work (for he saw that criticism pleased her most). If my readers will not mind, I will attempt to remind you of a similar scene and situation in Jane Eyre, in which Rochester, the master, and Miss Eyre, the student, come to know and respect each other through intellectual discussion and their excitement over similar things. In The Professor, master and pupil become friends in the same way, but it is in direct contrast to what the schoolmistress tried to initiate through sensuality, dishonesty, and unfaithfulness. Here was reward for faithful, humble virtue, and dissatisfaction and emptiness for slyness and discontent.

These kind and intentional meetings William arranged with Frances did not escape the notice of the headmistress, who suddenly committed an act of extreme jealousy: she dismissed Frances Henri and covered all traces of her removal. William has found --and lost-- his ideal companion, Frances Henri, in an instant. Just like the true English gentleman he was, he began to search for her faithfully in every Protestant church he knew of, on the streets, amongst their mutual acquaintances, but no-one seemed to know what had become of her. At one point he even received a letter from her thanking him for his kindness, enclosing a bit of money to pay for the lessons she had had from him. She left no return address, much to William's dismay, but he eulogized in an unnaturally knowing manner that women would be women, and they would forget to leave a return address on their correspondences. A dig from Charlotte Bronte into the characteristics of her gender? These an a few other inconsistencies will remind you, as the reader, that the book was written by a woman: though the main character is a man, he tends to think of things as a woman would think of them, and to know things as a woman would know them.

Our very own Biblical Joseph now shines morally bright and faithful at this, the climax of the book. His hopes for the future are shattered, and suddenly the engagement between Schoolmaster Pelet and the headmistress of the girls' school is announced. William realizes that Pelet's marriage will bring the abominable temptress into Pelet's house: the house where William has been living and working for a year. Conscience whispers in his ear, and he prepares his escape in obedience to the Biblical command: "Flee temptation." Though he must quit his only source of income and leave the only home where he had truly felt at home, he knew he could not live in the same house as "Potiphar's" wife, and he left. The rewards of righteousness are quick in pursuing the obedient heart, as you will see by William's words:

And then, as I walked fast along the road, there rose upon me a strange, inly-felt idea of some Great Being, unseen, but all present, who in His beneficence desired only my welfare, and now watched the struggle of good and evil in my heart, and waited to see whether I should obey His voice, heard in the whispers of my conscience, or lend an ear to the sophisms by which His enemy and mine—the Spirit of Evil —sought to lead me astray. Rough and steep was the path indicated by divine suggestion; mossy and declining the green way along which Temptation strewed flowers; but whereas, methought, the Deity of Love, the Friend of all that exists, would smile well-pleased were I to gird up my loins and address myself to the rude ascent; so, on the other hand, each inclination to the velvet declivity seemed to kindle a gleam of triumph on the brow of the man-hating, God-defying demon.

The professor left his place of employment rather than be faced with a morally compromising situation.
The professor left his place of employment rather than be faced with a morally compromising situation.

The professor, William Crimsworth, is without a job, without a home, without any hope for finding Frances; but through all this, the reader will get the sense that he is confident in the moral decisions he has made, and content to rest, to work, to live, in the care of the Great Being. I will not reveal all the story to you, for that is neither my duty nor my privilege. I will, however, hint to you that the story ends as well as Joseph's story ended, and that the righteousness, perseverance, purity, and discipline of William's life reaps real and physical blessings, just as it did in the life of Joseph.

© 2010 Jane Grey

Questions & Answers

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      • Jane Grey profile image
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        Ann Leavitt 7 years ago from Oregon

        I think you will enjoy Jane Austen as an even better writer of the same sort of social intricacies as the Professor had. Austen is definitely lighter and has more complex characters! Thanks for our comment.

      • profile image

        Leah 7 years ago

        What a refreshing view of The Professor, finally! So much criticism from many. I am almost finished reading it. I read Villette a couple of weeks ago. Great book, if you can reconcile the ending within yourself. The Professor is less complex than Villette and not as heart wrenching as Jane Eyre, true, but I am finding it an enjoyable read. I am going to switch to Jane Austen for the next couple of novels as a light-hearted change of pace, and then will read Shirley.

      • Jane Grey profile image
        Author

        Ann Leavitt 7 years ago from Oregon

        You're welcome, Scorpio; let me know what you think of it when you read it!

      • profile image

        scorpio 7 years ago

        thanks for introduction to professer.

      • Jane Grey profile image
        Author

        Ann Leavitt 7 years ago from Oregon

        So did I, Ezhuthukari! The Professor is not as well known, and it's easy to see why.

      • ezhuthukari profile image

        ezhuthukari 7 years ago from Kerala

        Oh I liked Jane Eyre much better!

      • Jane Grey profile image
        Author

        Ann Leavitt 7 years ago from Oregon

        Hello Katrina,

        I had a hard time enjoying Wuthering Heights because it was too psychologically "creepy" for me. There was not a lot of trust in God or submission to His sovereign purposes going on there, as there was in Jane Eyre and The Professor. My sister does enjoy Wuthering Heights more, though, for the same reason that you do. She loves the complex relationship and the subtle connection the characters felt.

        I have not read Anne Bronte yet, though I've had several people recommend the Tenant. Thanks for your comment! I enjoy discussions like this one. :)

        Jane

      • profile image

        katrina 7 years ago

        Hello!

        I am a HUGE Bronte fan!! I like Jane Eyre the most out of everything that Charlotte Bronte wrote, but I honestly have to say that as much as I absolutely love Mr. Rochester, I like Wuthering Heights more. Emily Bronte seems so much more raw... less cultured, and I have to agree with your sister that I love the emotional depth of the novel. It tears at you so much more than Jane Eyre does, although I love that too! And have you ever read Anne Bronte? What are your opinions on her? I like "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall".

        ;-D

      • Jane Grey profile image
        Author

        Ann Leavitt 8 years ago from Oregon

        Hi Pat!

        So glad you could visit; my unusual hub is the result of all the reading I do of English literature, and my literature hubs are some of my favorites! I hope you will enjoy the book-- I found it considerably more hopeful and cheerful of a book than Jane Eyre (though I love Jane Eyre for other reasons!)

        jane

      • 2patricias profile image

        2patricias 8 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

        Pat writes - I read 'Jane Eyre' when I was at school, but have not read any other novels by Charlotte Bronte. You make this book sound very interesting, so I am tempted to buy a copy.

        This is an unusual topic for a Hub, nice to read something along literary lines. Thanks.

      • Jane Grey profile image
        Author

        Ann Leavitt 8 years ago from Oregon

        I'm glad to have introduced another Jane Eyre fan to the Professor! Thanks for stopping by, Trish! I appreciate you being my reader.

      • Trish_M profile image

        Tricia Mason 8 years ago from The English Midlands

        I shall have to look this book out.

        I have read 'Jane Eyre' and I have listened to the 'Villette' audio book, but have not yet encountered either 'The Professor' or 'Shirley'.

        I have read nothing by Emily or Anne Bronte.

        More books for my reading list. There are so many! :)

      • Jane Grey profile image
        Author

        Ann Leavitt 8 years ago from Oregon

        I think I would read Shirley first also; from what I've heard it sounds like it is similar to Austen's and Gaskell's books, which I love. Wuthering Heights started out all right, I thought, but by the end it seemed to become a psychological nightmare and I didn't enjoy reading it. My sister loved it's depth, though, and we usually love the same books, so it could just be the kind of book that you either love or hate. My book list is huge, too! Actually, it's mostly a mental book list; there are so many good books! :)

      • Kendall H. profile image

        Kendall H. 8 years ago from Northern CA

        I haven't read Villete or Shirley but if I had to choose I think I would tackle Shirley first. I always preferred Charlotte to Emily though. For some reason I just could not get into Wuthering Heights. Perhaps because I wanted to slap a lot of the characters for being so over the top. (But I'm sure there are some die-hard fans who would want to slap me for that comment. )There are so many wonderful classic stories out there that its hard to choose which ones!

      • Jane Grey profile image
        Author

        Ann Leavitt 8 years ago from Oregon

        Kendall, I know exactly what you mean! I was reluctant to read any other books of hers, too; partly because I didn't think any would be as beautiful or hopeful as Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre is still my favorite; the plot is intricate, dramatic, and ponderable. I didn't find that with The Professor. There wasn't anything especially intriguing about William Crimsworth, and the plot does exactly what you expect it to do. However, Crimsworth makes a great "cut-out" character in the sense that it is easy to put yourself in his position and live his life along with him, because his defining characteristics are not outstanding or unusual.

        I haven't read Villete, though I own it and would like to read it sometime! Shirley is another book I want to read. Have you read either of them?

      • Jane Grey profile image
        Author

        Ann Leavitt 8 years ago from Oregon

        Hello Joy at Home! Thanks for stopping by! I am impressed that you have read this book; I had not heard of it or of anyone who had read it before I came across it on an audiobook website a month ago. The life experience you mention is the main reason the narrator "wrote" the story, saying he wanted to put in order his story so that others would read and be encouraged.

      • Kendall H. profile image

        Kendall H. 8 years ago from Northern CA

        Ever since I first read Jane Eyre I've been trying to get myself to read more of Charlotte Bronte's books but I never seem able to. Perhaps I'm just too enamored with Mr. Rochester. I will 'try' to make more of an attempt now that you've explained The Professor. What are your thoughts on Villete?

      • Joy At Home profile image

        Joilene Rasmussen 8 years ago from United States

        I remember reading this book aloud with my sister, in highschool. We both loved it.

        I'm looking forward to reading it again sometime, as I'm likely to appreciate it even more now that I've had a family and some life experience.

      • Jane Grey profile image
        Author

        Ann Leavitt 8 years ago from Oregon

        Hi Rose,

        I hope you will read it when you get a chance! It is not long, or difficult. Except for a few passages in French it was all easy to understand.

      • Jane Grey profile image
        Author

        Ann Leavitt 8 years ago from Oregon

        Hannah, I appreciate your honesty and completely agree with you. I had no penetrating insights when I read this book, therefore you will encounter none in my explanation of it. There were some insights available to the average reader, and those were the ones I picked up and wrote about. My article was merely meant to trigger interest for a book worth recommending, and to give someone an idea of what the book is about without giving all of it away. Thanks for your comment; as usual, you have shown depth of insight and understanding!

      • Rose West profile image

        Rose West 8 years ago from Michigan

        Thanks for this introduction to The Professor. I know I can always trust your book recommendations, and once again I am intrigued to read. One of my New Years resolutions is to set out on the Bronte path. Thank you!

      • profile image

        Hannah 8 years ago

        Good to see you're writing again, and not just editing previous work. This did not strike me as your best work. It lays out the obvious very well but lacks the penitrating insights that I usually enjoy from your writing. It also doesn't seem as polished. The sentenses that make me sit up in my seat and exclaim 'Brilliant' are more few and far between than usual. One more little thing: did you really mean "good sad evil" in the quote just before the grey mansion picture. The Professor seems to be a very edifying read, and I can see you enjoyed it a lot.

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