Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Professor


The Professor, by Charlotte Brontë

I know I'm posting a lot and it's a little crazy, but I'm trying to get a lot of reading in before the semester starts and I go back to work. So bear with me, I'll disappear soon enough.

I picked up Charlotte Brontë's first novel, The Professor, at the library--I've enjoyed her books, but I've never read this one. It's written from her own experiences of studying and teaching in a Belgian school and her unrequited love for her married teacher.

The story is about a young Englishman, an orphan, who doesn't get along with any of his relations and ends up teaching English in Brussels. He is surrounded by people he doesn't care much for (in fact he is practically a misanthrope), but a hard-working young teacher catches his eye. As they get to know one another, they find mutual sympathy in an un-English country.

The heroine is quite unusual for her time. As you might expect, she is plain. She is also very intelligent and hard-working, and she insists on working even after her marriage, and after bearing a child. She is a middle-class working mother. I'm not sure I've ever run into that in a Victorian novel before. She is Brontë herself, so I suppose she represents what Bronte herself wished for: the intelligent teacher for her husband, and a fulfilling professional life as well.

I'm afraid Brontë displays quite a bit of typical English prejudice in the book, though to be fair, flaws in the English national character are also highlighted. The protagonist complains of Flemish dullness, French immorality, and English waste, and makes innumerable comments on physiognomy and character. The anti-Catholicism is awful (the heroine turns out to be Swiss-English and a Protestant). So that was a serious flaw in the book; it was much more constant here than in most other Victorian novels I've read.

Brontë wrote this novel with the determination to make it completely realistic. Her protagonists are not beautiful or socially successful. They have to work hard for their living, and there are no romantic coincidences or anything like that. It's not a long book and I read it quickly. I enjoyed it, and sympathized with the characters, but it's definitely not my favorite Brontë novel. That would be Jane Eyre, and if you bring in the other sisters, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

4 comments:

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Is this the one in which a Jesuit priest tells the Protestant girl to stay Protestant because she is so fresh and wonderful that way? =P (I had to read an excerpt from a Charlotte Bronte novel in uni, but I can't remember whether it was this one or Vilette.) I guess there's some irony in the fact that some real Jesuits did start saying that after Vatican II.

And I've noted some of that "typical English prejudice" in other Victorian novels--and its natural offspring, "typical New England prejudice," in some American classics as well. But I suppose books from the same period written in other languages display the same mix of national pride and tolerant xenophobia.

What's most interesting to me, however, is that Charlotte Bronte wanted to make The Professor as realistic as possible. I know that she was criticised for the mental telepathy in Jane Eyre and had to defend herself by saying that such things have happened in the past and would be likely to happen to characters such as Jane and Mr. Rochester. So I'd be interested to know what Bronte thinks falls under the realm of complete realism!

Jean said...

Wow, that Jesuit priest must be in Villette--it wasn't in The Professor.

I expect you're right about other nations' literature as well. And it's to be expected--I don't normally pay attention, but this case was really unusual in its constant harping on national types. I was surprised.

In the introduction, Bronte writes that she didn't want to make anyone unusually beautiful, and her protagonist was going to have to earn all his own money. I guess she was rebelling against the romantic tropes of the novels of her day (maybe she was thinking of Evelina!).

Jean said...

Oh! I just remembered this cool youtube video--Bronte lovers, enjoy: Bronte Sisters Power Dolls.

decidedlybookish said...

This does sound incredibly similar to 'Villette'. I guess it goes to show how autobiographical much of Charlotte Bronte's work is.