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