‘The Professor’ is a book largely forgotten by the reading public, despite it being Charlotte Brontë’s first work. Written before ‘Jane Eyre’, it was not published until after her death. It carries all the hallmarks of an early and somewhat flawed text, however this alone was not the reason for its rejection from publishers.
Meet William Crimsworth, son of a poverty-stricken aristocratic family, who rejects offers of help from his rich uncles in favour of interdependence. He first becomes a trade clerk for his older brother. However this relationship quickly degenerates into brutality and drudgery, and William leaves to find work abroad. In Belgium all William’s dreams seem initially to come true with a teaching position at an all-boys school, part-time work at the neighbouring girls’ school and a blossoming romance with the girls’ directress Mlle Reuter. Yet, William’s world is again blown apart with the discovery of Mlle Reuter’s enjoyment of romantic conquests and her secret engagement to the director of the boys’ school he works at. But all is not lost. Enter Frances Evans Henri, a teacher-cum-student who both submissively follows his word and seems to revel in his authority over her.
The deciding word in Charlotte Brontë’s ‘The Professor’ is mastery. At the heart of this narrative lies a quest for sexual, economic and social mastery. William shifts constantly between social and economic dependence and independence, and struggles to live in accordance with his own high ideals of agency and self-determination.
Brontë’s work explores Victorian masculinity through male dominance, voyeurism and sexual suppression. It is a both an illuminating and repressed text, and Crimsworth’s desire seeps out between his claims of moral and intellectual preference. In particular, this is seen from his fascination and repulsion towards the young female students. One example being that before he takes a position at the girls’ school the window in his room, that overlooks the girls’ garden, is nailed shut. His desperation to explain his voyeuristic desire to tear it open, as an innocent enjoyment of nature, does little to fool the reader:
. . . many a time after . . . did I look with dissatisfied eyes on that most tantalising board, long to tear it away and get a glimpse of the green region which I imagined to lie beyond.
Brontë does adhere with her female characters to the classic dichotomy of the femme fatale and the angel in the house. What is most interesting and unusual, however, is the intellectual and sexual mastery of Mlle Reuter and the economic independence and open delight in submission of Frances.
Personally, I found it hard to forget that this was one of Brontë’s first works. Her attempts at ultra realism lend the narrative an unstructured and somewhat meandering form. Her protagonist can be viewed as overtly intellectual; oftentimes a prig and I took a dislike to Crimsworth for vast sections of the novel. Yet it is hard to believe that this was not in part Brontë’s intention. Her use of a male first-person narrative allowed her to explore gender relations and sexuality with a freedom that was unattainable under her later guises of ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Shirley’.
For lovers of Brontë’s work or those interested in Victorian sexual politics this is a fascinating read. For those yet to read any of Brontë’s work, I would point you in the direction of the superior genius of ‘Jane Eyre’.
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