The Professor Charlotte Brontë
The following entry presents criticism of Brontë's novel The Professr(1857). See also Charlotte Brontë Crticism.
The Professor (1857), Charlotte Brontë's first novel, was unpublished until after the author's death despite repeated efforts to find a publisher. Even the popularity of Jane Eyre and the fame her work brought her weren't enough to entice publishers to print The Professor while Brontë lived. Eager for more from Charlotte Brontë's pen, readers were nevertheless unenthusiastic about The Professor, and it received numerous unfavorable reviews upon publication. Written from the point of view of a male narrator, the novel has been criticized as an immature effort and a failed attempt to write from the male perspective. Modern critics are primarily interested in the gender issues posed by the work and in analyzing the work's early reception, while others focus on the influence The Professor had on Brontë's later novels. However, Brontë's first attempt as a professional writer has consistently met with reservations from readers and critics alike.
Plot and Major Characters
Drawn from Brontë's experiences in Brussels, The Professor tells the story of the orphan William Crimsworth, who seeks his future in Brussels after attempting to make a living as a clerk for his older brother, a mill owner in the north of England. Crimsworth begins the novel as a dependant, the ward of an aristocratic family. He rejects this life and the expectation that he become a clergyman in order to enter voluntary servitude to his prosperous brother. Unable to endure his brother's tyrannical nature, Crimsworth departs for Brussels to pursue a career in education. Hired to teach English at a girls’ school, Crimsworth falls in love with Frances Henri, a pupil-teacher at the school. Crimsworth resists the manipulations of the deceitful Catholic headmistress, Zoraïde Reuter, who later marries the headmaster of a nearby boys’ school. After resigning his position at the school, Crimsworth finds a new post, enabling him to marry Frances. His bride refuses to give up her own career as a seamstress, and together the two earn a respectable income and return to England.
In The Professor, Brontë is very much concerned with the treachery of Catholics, as was much of contemporary Victorian England. Through Mlle. Reuter and his interaction with the Catholic students at the school, Crimsworth experiences the superficial and deceptive nature of the Catholic educational system. Mlle. Reuter is characterized as duplicitous and manipulative and stands in sharp contrast to the honest Protestant Frances. Often viewed as the mouthpiece for Brontë's own views, Crimsworth offers a scornful account of “Romish wizardcraft” and its effect on the schoolgirls, who are portrayed as deceitful and shallow. Crimsworth's sexuality is explored as he is both voyeuristically fascinated and repulsed by the girls he teaches. Additionally, the novel focuses on the relationship between sexual dominance and social identity. As a dependent without any fortune or social stature of his own, Crimsworth is acutely aware of his unattractiveness to young women. Frances is also orphaned, poor, and meek in manner—a characterization that stresses the connection between inferiority of social status and the enforced repression of emotion. Through Frances, Brontë explores her concern for the predicament of women who lack wealth and social connections. Both Frances and Crimsworth combat their lack of social advantage by working hard and exhibiting self-restraint, characteristics that are ultimately rewarded with financial and domestic security.
The contemporary view of The Professor was largely unfavorable. Upon its publication, many reviewers dismissed the novel as a poorly conceived first attempt of a young novelist. Brontë's characters are considered unnatural, and her style said to be less artful than in Jane Eyre, or Shirley. Additionally, many of The Professor's themes were reworked into Brontë's Villette, which critics considered a much more successful work. The close parallels between the subject matter of these two novels led critics to dismiss The Professor for its inferiority. Others looked to Brontë's experience in Brussels, which had become widely known as a result of Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë, to explain the overly biographical and unpolished narrative of Crimsworth. Specifically, explains twentieth-century critic Annette Tromly, Brontë's frustrations involving unrequited love resulted in her writing an “uncontrolled” novel. Tromly maintains that while Brontë may have drawn from her own life to write The Professor, she did so in a much more complex way than critics typically assume. Tromly goes on to examine subtle and ambiguous characterization in the work. Other critics are concerned with the gender issues Brontë investigated in The Professor. Ruth D. Johnston explores the narrative processes in The Professor that establish the feminine subject. Arguing that representation is the locus of both ideological and sexual conflict, as well as the generation of the subject, Johnston concludes that The Professor's narrative processes make feminine subjectivity impossible. Also concerned with gender issues, Annette R. Federico studies the way in which female authors, including Brontë, used male narrators to understand gender relations and how these authors represented masculinity. Federico asserts that The Professor, with its descriptions of male dominance, voyeurism, and sexual suppression, reproduces Victorian masculinity. Federico further maintains that the novel is not concerned with attaining power but outgrowing the need for power. Like Tromly, Catherine Malone observes that appraisal of The Professor is typically informed by the biography published soon after Brontë's death. Surveying the criticism of the novel, Malone notes that the unappealing nature of Crimsworth's character has been attributed to Brontë's immaturity as a writer. In her assessment of Crimsworth's characterization, Malone contends that Brontë does not fail to create a convincing male protagonist, but that a male protagonist is unable to tell the story that Brontë desired to write, that is, a “history of suffering.” Criticism is frequently tied to the well-known life of The Professor's author, which has led Malone to argue that we have come to love Brontë more than her books. Significantly, the body of criticism is much smaller for this novel than for Brontë's other work, as even the defenders of The Professor acknowledge its inferiority to the genius of Jane Eyre.