(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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The Professor (1857), Charlotte Brontë's first novel, was unpublished until after the author's death despite repeated efforts to find a publisher.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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell [by Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë] (poetry) 1846

Jane Eyre: An Autobiography [edited by Currer Bell] (novel) 1847

Shirley: A Tale [as Currer Bell] (novel) 1850

Villette [as Currer Bell] (novel) 1853

The Professor: A Tale [as Currer Bell] (novel) 1857

The Twelve Adventurers and Other Stories (juvenilia) 1925

Legends of Angria: Compiled from the Early Writings of Charlotte Brontë (juvenilia) 1933

Five Novelettes (novelettes) 1971

The Athenaeum (review date 1857)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of “The Professor: a Tale. By Currer Bell.” In The Athenaeum, No. 1546, June 13, 1857, pp. 755-57.

[In the following essay, the critic offers a plot summary and dismisses The Professor as incomplete, lacking the “descriptive or womanly touches” of Brontë's other novels.]

After nine years—the fitting Horatian interval—Currer Bell's rejected novel makes its posthumous appearance in print. The wondrous story of Jane Eyre has so much gratified, and the more wondrous, “ower true,” and over-tragic life-drama of Charlotte Brontë so much amazed the world, that it feels disposed rather to err on the side of gentleness than...

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M. M. Brammer (essay date 1960)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Manuscript of The Professor.” In Review of English Studies, ns, Vol. 11, No. 42, May, 1960, pp. 157-70.

[In the following essay, Brammer discusses the fair copy of Brontë's The Professor, examining the nature of the changes made to that copy by the author and her husband William Bell Nicholls.]

Charlotte Brontë completed the fair copy of The Professor on 27 June 1846.1 Her original draft, presumably finished by April of that year,2 has not, so far as is known, survived; but the fair copy of this particular novel is of some interest. It is well known that after a series of ‘ignominious dismissals’ from...

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Rebecca Rodolff (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “From the Ending of The Professor to the Conception of Jane Eyre.” In Philological Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 71-89.

[In the following essay, Rodolff discusses Brontë's move from the masculine narrator in The Professor to the feminine narrator in Jane Eyre, and focuses on the last two chapters of The Professor as the source of this transition.]

Charlotte Brontë owed her facility in Jane Eyre to practice as well as to genius. Her Angria stories, written mostly in the 1830s, provided an extensive training in the art of fiction: the young author acquired technical skills and a serviceable store of...

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Annette Tromly (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Professor.” In The Cover of the Mask: The Autobiographers in Charlotte Brontë's Fiction, University of Victoria, 1982, pp. 20-41.

[In the following excerpt, Tromly reviews the contemporary reception of Brontë's The Professor and surveys the plot, characterization, and imagery in the novel.]

From its earliest reviews onward, critics have accorded The Professor the same reception which greeted the return of Milton's Satan to Hell: “a dismal universal hiss.” Only one voice has disturbed this reassuring critical certitude; and the dissenting voice has belonged to the person who is apparently least qualified to speak. Charlotte...

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Ruth D. Johnston (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Professor: Charlotte Brontë's Hysterical Text, or Realistic Narrative and the Ideology of the Subject from a Feminist Perspective.” In Dickens Studies Annual: Essays on Victorian Fiction, Vol. 18, edited by Michael Timko, Fred Kaplan, and Edward Guiliano, AMS Press, 1989, pp. 353-80.

[In the following essay, Johnston uses Lacanian theory to examine The Professor and discusses the possibility of constructing feminine subjectivity within a realistic framework.]

The essay which follows explores the construction of sexual identity in representation. I argue that the realistic notion of identity as a particular temporal/spatial...

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Heather Glen (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Professor, by Charlotte Brontë, edited by Heather Glen, Penguin Books, 1989, pp. 7-31.

[In the following essay, Glen disputes earlier critics’ claims that The Professor is an amateur or apprentice work, arguing instead that it provides a “coherent imaginative interrogation of values and assumptions” regarding masculinity and society.]

The Professor was the first of Charlotte Brontë's four novels to be written. It is also by far the least known. Completed, probably, at some time in 1846, it was one of the ‘three distinct and unconnected tales’ that the Brontë sisters, as ‘Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell’, began in...

(The entire section is 8667 words.)

Irene Tayler (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Professor, Jane Eyre, Shirley.” In Holy Ghosts: The Male Muses of Emily and Charlotte Brontë, Columbia University Press, 1990, pp. 159-99.

[In the following excerpt, Tayler describes the fluctuation of gender and sex roles that Brontë's characters experience, linking their struggles with Brontë's own desires for gender equality in society and a deeper sense of balance between the male and female qualities within herself.]

Charlotte's work with her sisters in getting out their joint volume of poems still left her time to undertake her first novel specifically conceived and intended for publication—The Professor. In her “Author's...

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Bettina L. Knapp (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Charlotte Brontë: ‘If You Knew My Thoughts. …’” In The Brontës: Branwell, Anne, Emily, Charlotte, Continuum, 1991, pp. 133-82.

[In the following excerpt, Knapp examines the hatred between brothers Edward and William Crimsworth in The Professor and discusses the impact this has upon William's anima and his relationships with women.]

Written with the grace and charm of many a Victorian novel, The Professor also possesses a psychologically fascinating quality of its own. Unlike Wuthering Heights, neither the happenings nor the characters emanate from the author's archetypal depths; they are not, therefore, mythical in stature....

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Annette R. Federico (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Other Case: Gender and Narration in Charlotte Brontë's The Professor.” In Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 30, No. 4, Fall, 1994, pp. 323-45.

[In the following essay, Federico discusses Brontë's use of a male narrator in The Professor.]

Male novelists who use female narrators have been praised for their insights into “feminine psychology,” yet we seldom expect women writers to represent masculinity from a male point of view. In her recent work on feminism and narratology, Susan Lanser considers “the social properties and political implications of narrative voice,” claiming that “female voice”—the grammatical gender of the...

(The entire section is 7996 words.)

Catherine Malone (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘We Have Learnt to Love Her More than Her Books’: The Critical Reception of Brontë's Professor.” In Review of English Studies, Vol. 47, No. 186, 1996, pp. 175-87.

[In the following essay, Malone explores the claim by some critics that Brontë fails to credibly produce a male protagonist in The Professor. Malone argues that it is not possible for a male protagonist to relate convincingly the type of suffering about which Brontë sought to write.]

The Professor appears before the public under circumstances which preclude criticism’,1 mourned the Saturday Review in June 1857. Smith, Elder's decision to publish...

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Carl Plasa (essay date 2000)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Charlotte Brontë's Foreign Bodies: Slavery and Sexuality in The Professor.” In Journal of Narrative Theory, Vol. 30, No. 1, Winter, 2000, pp. 1-28.

[In the following essay, Plasa discusses the figurative representation of colonialism found in The Professor. The critic also explores Crimsworth's self-contained sexuality.]

As we look back at the cultural archive, we begin to read it not univocally but contrapuntally, with a simultaneous awareness both of the metropolitan history that is narrated and of those other histories against which (and together with which) the dominating discourse acts.


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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Anonymous review of “Currer Bell's Professor.” In Dublin University Magazine 50, No. 295, (July 1857): 88-100.

Discusses Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Brontë, followed by excerpts from that work pertaining to Brontë's attempts to publish The Professor and a plot summary of the novel.

Betsinger, Sue Ann. “Charlotte Brontë's Archetypal Heroine.” Brontë Society Transaction 19 (1989): 301-09.

Suggests that William Crimsworth, The Professor's narrator, is not the book's character of primary interest, but that Frances Henri is the novel's heroine and becomes the model for...

(The entire section is 365 words.)