Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1747
First published: 1857
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Psychological romance
Time of work: Nineteenth century
Locale: Belgium and England
William Crimsworth, the narrator and a young teacher
Edward Crimsworth, his brother
Mr. Hunsden, a wealthy mill owner
M. Pelet, the master of a boys’ school
Mlle Zoraide Reuter, the mistress of a girls’ school
Mlle Frances Evans Henri, a student
Orphaned in infancy, William Crimsworth had been meagerly supported by his mother’s brothers, Lord Tynedale and the Honorable John Seacombe. William’s brother Edward, ten years his senior, had taken over his deceased father’s mill and had prospered.
Upon his graduation from Eton, William refused to accept further aid from the uncles who had treated his mother so coldly and asked his brother for employment. When he arrived at Bigben Close where the mill was located, Edward censured his young brother for having submitted to Tynedale and Seacombe for so many years. Edward was harsh and cold in speech and act, and his pretty young wife, although inclined at first toward warmth, began to treat William in much the same way. Edward hired William as a clerk at ninety pounds a year and requested that the young man live away from Crimsworth Hall.
A grudging brother and a harsh master, Edward invited William to his house only once, along with some other mill workers, to attend a party. That evening, William met Mr. Hunsden, a flippant, wealthy mill owner who, judging Edward a false brother and a tyrant, publicly denounced him. As a result, Edward furiously dismissed William. Hearing of William’s decision to go to the Continent, Mr. Hunsden gave him a letter of introduction to a Mr. Brown in Brussels.
When William presented his letter, Mr. Brown suggested teaching as a possible career. Through his influence, William became a teacher of English and Latin in the pension of M. Pelet. Next door to M. Pelet’s day school was a seminary for girls headed by Mlle Reuter. Shortly afterward, Mlle Reuter asked William to give lessons to her girls during part of each week.
Having met Madame Reuter, a gross and droll woman, William was surprised to find her daughter, Zoraide Reuter, young and charming. William discovered that teaching young ladies was not the same as teaching young boys. Mademoiselles Eulalie, Hortense, and Caroline proved to be haughtily disdainful but at the same time coquettish. M. Pelet took a deep interest in William’s personal relationships at Mlle Reuter’s school and questioned him about his impressions of Mlle Reuter and the three young coquettes of the classroom.
William admired Mlle Reuter. When he made a weak attempt at flirtation, she did not discourage him. One night, however, William overheard M. Pelet and Mlle Reuter talking in the park about their forthcoming marriage, which M. Pelet wished to hasten and she wished to delay. M. Pelet then accused her of encouraging William, who was obviously in love with her; he described the affair as ludicrous, since she was ten years William’s senior. Mlle Reuter laughed pleasantly at M. Pelet’s disclosure and denied interest in William.
Although William knew M. Pelet to be insincere in his friendship, he did not reveal his knowledge. He did, however, attempt to overcome his attraction toward Mlle Reuter. William sensed that she was trying to regain his favor when she appealed to him to treat kindly a new pupil, Mlle Frances Henri, who was also a teacher at the seminary. William, not disposed to please Mlle Reuter, harshly criticized Frances on her first appearance. Later, he was surprised at the girl’s fine accent in reading English, and his interest turned from Mlle Reuter to Frances, who was an enigma to him. Once, taking time for private and encouraging discourse with his apt pupil, he found that the schoolmistress had been eavesdropping. William learned that the girl’s mother had been English, that she had been reared by an aunt, and that she was trying to educate herself in the hope of teaching French in England, where her present profession as a teacher of sewing would not be a stigma upon her dignity if she were also a teacher of language.
Watching Frances grow in poise and wit, William made special efforts to encourage her, until Mlle Reuter warned him that he gave Frances too much of his time. The directress seemed to hover over him constantly in an attempt to recapture his affections; but he found her deceitful, artful, and cruel. After she abruptly dismissed Frances from the seminary, she innocently pleaded that she did not know the young woman’s address.
Frances returned to the seminary to find William, but the directress kept them from meeting. Instead, William received a note of thanks from his pupil and twenty francs in payment for his teaching. William gave notice to Mlle Reuter that he intended to quit the seminary.
After a month’s futile search for Frances, he accidentally came upon her mourning over the grave of her father. When it began to rain, Frances took William to her rooms, where the pair drank tea and read from an English book. Frances was earning a living by lace mending. She could not seek another position as a teacher because she feared that Mlle Reuter would not give her satisfactory references. Bitterly resenting Mlle Reuter’s treachery, William took his leave. He managed to return the twenty francs before he departed.
Drawn to William by his coolness, Mlle Reuter had repulsed M. Pelet with hints that she favored the English schoolmaster. After William’s resignation, she perceived that she had overplayed her hand and returned her favor to M. Pelet. Smirking with victory, he informed William of his forthcoming marriage. Deciding that the school would be intolerable with Mme Pelet under the same roof, William resigned his position.
Frances wrote that she had been employed by a Mrs. D. to teach in an English school in Brussels. Along with this communication came a letter from Hunsden announcing his arrival. Hunsden, after berating William for his failure to forge ahead, casually announced that Edward’s mill had failed. He had sold Crimsworth Hall and abused his wife until she left him, but he had managed to renew his credit, start another business, and regain his wife. William’s one concern over the matter was the whereabouts of his mother’s portrait, which had hung in Crimsworth Hall. The next morning, William received as a gift from Hunsden the missing portrait.
Within a few weeks, William was fortunate enough to be appointed professor of English in a college in Brussels. Cheered by the promise of his new position, William went to Frances, whom he had not seen since the night he had met her in the cemetery, and he asked her to marry him. She accepted on the condition that she retain her teaching post. Although William’s income was large enough for both, she pleaded that she did not wish to marry him merely to be supported.
William and Frances were then married. Within a few months, Mrs. Crimsworth proposed that she elevate her position by starting a school, and William agreed to her plan.
When they had been married ten years, a period in which Frances’ school flourished and a son had been born, the Crimsworths went to England to live. They settled near Hunsden. During the years that followed, he became their close friend. Young Victor Crimsworth, reflecting in character many of the attributes of each parent, grew up in the atmosphere of a tranquil and loving home.
Charlotte Brontë’s first novel, THE PROFESSOR, if compared to her mature, well-structured works like JANE EYRE, SHIRLEY, and VILLETTE, does fall short in many respects. It fails in balance, character motivation, dynamic moral testing of its hero, and an unskillful author intrusion.
Its length, neither that of a novel nor a short story, may account for some of these defects. In a full-length novel, Brontë might have worked out better proportion in both the English and Belgian episodes and had time to lengthen or shorten other episodes, such as Crimsworth’s meetings with Mlle Henri. Often the reader feels oppressed by prolonged set descriptions, such as the narrator’s extensive delineation of his three students (Eulalie, Hortense, and Caroline) and the conference with M. Pelet and Mlle Reuter. These might not seem so awkward and irrelevant had the work been longer and contained more characters. Often Brontë spends care on such scenes that have no great bearing on the plot at all. After she makes a close drawing of Edward Crimsworth and his wife, they practically drop from sight; only are they briefly reported on by Yorke Hunsden on his first visit to Brussels.
In fact, Crimsworth’s two entirely different experiences in England and Belgium have little connection, united merely by the slender thread of Hunsden’s friendship. Without rational motivation and after months of silence, Hunsden suddenly writes and appears at Crimsworth’s door. The quite contrived introduction of M. Vandenhuten and his son (rescued earlier from drowning by Crimsworth) are used only as a means of Crimsworth’s getting a job after leaving M. Pelet’s school. They function not at all before or afterward.
The hero himself meets with no impossible choices or tragedies. All is low-key, purposefully drawn so by Brontë. Crimsworth, her narrator, retains a balanced, even interpretation of himself and others. Readers, however, wish for a hero who would develop and long for dynamic situations and exciting dialogue.
Brontë attains the latter only in exchanges between Hunsden and Crimsworth; the former is her most striking achievement in THE PROFESSOR, although she makes Zoraide Reuter, the schoolmistress, a second fascinating and well-developed character. Unfortunately, hero Crimsworth and heroine Mlle Henri are quite lackluster.
It is customary for critics to read THE PROFESSOR as a forerunner to the later novels, a work in which Brontë experiments with plot structure and character, both of which she skillfully handles in JANE EYRE and SHIRLEY. THE PROFESSOR, however, has story interest of its own, and the novel tells a great deal about the author’s values from the many asides to the reader. Brontë reveals her ideas of marriage, her intolerance toward the Belgian character, and her deep suspicion of Roman Catholicism. Much of her personality is richly exhibited by the bold choice of a male first-person narrator.