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The Professor by Charlotte Bronte: A Reflection on Deceit and an Endorsement for Making Connections




Welcome to the first post in the JASP series dedicated to exploring the abbreviated, abandoned, unfinished, and rough drafts of novels that were written by Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be delving into the books and fragments together all while posting reviews and recommendations. So, come along, friends. Cruise through these short pieces with us and examine the first drafts of stories that might’ve been different, had time, circumstances, and illness not taken their authors away from the task of writing them.

Hello, friends and fellow Janeites.


            Some literature is written strictly for the purpose of entertaining the reader. Quite famously, several authors, including Edgar Allan Poe, have remarked that stories should perform merely that one function—to engage and provide enjoyment to the reader. But the Bronte sisters, particularly Charlotte, whose work The Professor, is the subject of this blog, appear to be of an entirely different mind-set. Whilst aiming to provide the reader with breathtaking descriptions of settings and characters, the author also strives to make a point, to educate…alas, to be very much a professor.




Synopsis

            William Crimsworth is the protagonist, narrator, and the titular character, but the reader should not anticipate learning his name until the story has progressed quite a bit. In the beginning, he is writing a letter to a schoolfellow from Eton, named Charles, but this missive is merely used as a device so that the author may dump information about Will’s backstory and personality traits upon the reader. Through this epistle, it is shared that William does not forge connections easily. Even with the letter’s recipient, Charles, there seems to be very little affection or sense of comradery, as William struggles to recall what it was that initially brought the two together or bound them to one another as more than acquaintances. But he also shares that since leaving school, his life has been rather eventful.

William has affluent relatives, but when one of his uncles offers him the rectory in his village and the opportunity to marry one of his six daughters, William wholeheartedly declines. He does not care for any of his cousins or the church. He should be discontented if he tried to feign otherwise. He decides upon the idea of pursuing a profession as a tradesman merely because the idea is looked upon with disdain by his uncles. William’s father, and older brother, Edward, were both in trade, and while William’s actions might seem sensible—to join in the family business—there is never any indication given that William seeks out this profession because he has any sense of familial obligation. Rather, he is motivated by the desire to step away from the authority his uncles wield and so, he seizes upon that which he thinks will annoy them most greatly.

            The narrative from there unspools so that our storyteller winds up as a clerk, working for his brother, Edward, at a mill. He loathes this profession but perseveres. Edward is a harsh man, often referred to as a tyrant, and he makes it plain, from the very first, that he will not show his younger brother any preferential treatment. If anything, he is abominably cruel to William, so much so that other prominent members of the town remark on their situation. It is because of William’s chance encounter with a man named Hunsden that he eventually escapes the oppression of his older brother and leaves the mill.

            Even though the two men know very little of each other, and it is established that William is ungrateful for the good turn Hunsden did him when he spoke out against Edward’s treatment, Hunsden consents to write William a letter of introduction and the two conclude that William should leave England and travel to Belgium. It is there that William, using the connection he made with Hunsden, attains a position as a teacher…a professor…at a school for boys run by a man named Pelet. For William, this change of pace was exactly what he hoped to find when going abroad. He takes, quite quickly, to teaching the young boys, and almost immediately learns a few tricks concerning how best to accomplish his task of educating them. And he gets along well enough, for a time, with not just Pelet, but also the woman who serves as the headmistress for the girls’ school next door, Mademoiselle Zoraide Reuter.

At once, it looks as though Zoraide may have taken a shine to young William and with some gentle encouragement from his friend and colleague, Pelet, William finds himself nearly half in love with Zoraide. When she offers him a post at her school, teaching the young ladies part-time, he jumps at the chance, and their relationship continues in quite an amicable way. Until one night, while the moon is high in the sky and William is just about to turn in for the evening, he eavesdrops on a conversation that takes place out in the garden. It is then that he learns M. Zoraide has been deceiving him. She has been engaged to M. Pelet all this time and has been trifling with William’s emotions, leading him along simply for her own enjoyment and for the pleasure of making her true paramour a tad jealous. Determined once more to endure, William shuns the friendship Pelet continues to offer and, moving forward, deals with M. Zoraide using his head, rather than his heart.

            Once William has decided fully that neither Zoraide nor Pelet are to be trusted, he is more devoted to his teaching post than ever and that’s when he encounters Mademoiselle Frances Evans Henri. He is initially intrigued by her because she is also a teacher in Zoraide’s school but has managed to become one of William’s pupils as well. It seems that Frances teaches the art of lace mending to the young ladies, but she requires lessons in English and could benefit from learning a few classroom management techniques—which William already possesses. He is fascinated by Frances, at first, because she bears an English name and even has a slight English accent, but she does not seem to speak the language very well. William sets out to understand her better and after reading a highly entertaining essay she writes he determines she is imbued with strong senses of perseverance (like himself) and dutifulness. Moreover, she exhibits strength and rarity in her writing and that propels his interest in her further. Through a series of conversations, William not only learns more about Frances, but they build a closeness, a bond of friendship, and eventually it blossoms into much more.

            There are several dips and dives that occur from there, including Frances’ dismissal from Zoraide’s school and William’s great search to find her because no one, especially not Mademoiselle Zoraide, will consent to tell him where Frances lives. He seeks his lost friend for nearly a month only to find her in a graveyard, mourning the loss of her aunt, with whom she has lived all her life. William knows when he sees her once more that this woman is pure and true and his love for her flourishes. He wishes to make her his wife. But their circumstances do not lend themselves to making such a hasty match. She has lost her job, and he is on the verge of leaving his because he cannot continue working for people he disrespects as he does Pelet and Zoraide. It’s then that William calls upon another connection. It seems that during his teaching career, he had the chance to save one of his students from drowning. The boy’s father, Mr. Vandenhuten, told William should he ever need anything, he’d gladly show his gratitude and appreciation, and do whatever was in his power to repay William’s heroic efforts. And so, William seeks Mr. Vandenhuten and asks for assistance.

            Within a few days, Mr. Vandenhuten secures a position for William at one of the local, prestigious colleges as a professor and it is learned that Frances has been tapped to teach French to ladies at an English school. Invigorated by their good fortunes, William asks Frances to marry him, and she accepts his offer.

            The timeline becomes a little muddy near the end of the story, as the narrative skips ahead. Once William and Frances are wed, she determines that she wants to make more money and do something more useful, so she proposes opening her own school for girls. William supports her all while keeping his own occupation. He marvels at how one minute, his wife is a schoolmistress and the very next she becomes his tender, loving Frances once more.

They continued in this way happily for many years. They have a son, whom they name Victor to honor their friend Mr. Vandenhuten, and then, after nearly ten years of wedded bliss, the family fulfills Frances’ goal of traveling to England. They tour the country for some time then because Willliam is inclined to be settled in his homeland, they buy a place that is affectionately nicknamed Daisy Lane. It just so happens that Hunsden appears again because he owns a home, one of many, nearby. Throughout the story, he has popped up occasionally, almost always to do William a favor, and while they never seem to truly admire each other or have what might be called a conventional friendship, Hunsden does become a sort of uncle-figure to young Victor.

            It is through Hunsden, in the final chapters, that we learn those who wronged William throughout the story have been served their comeuppance. Apparently, William’s brother, Edward, has been forced to pay for his cruel ways. Not only did he lose his business and suffer greatly when his wife left him, but he also had to sell his beautiful estate, Crimsworth Hall. In the last pages, it is marked that Edward is prospering again, but that is all said with a bit of a sly wink, as if Hunsden knows someone like Edward is bound to lose everything again. And as for the deceitful couple, Pelet and Zoraide, they too have endured their share of woes. Their marriage has left both discontent and Hunsden suggests William invite them to visit Daisy Lane. It is implied that William will enjoy triumphing over those who once hurt him deeply, but he makes no comment on this matter as the book ends at that point.


Impressions and Overall Thoughts

            As an introduction to this novel, there is an explanation about this work included and after reading the full piece I was compelled to return to some of that which was shared originally. It seems that The Professor was the first novel Charlotte Bronte ever penned, but she, a bit pompously, wrote that she did not consider this story a first attempt for she’d already written a great deal by the time she started it, so the words had poured forth easily. Furthermore, it is stated flatly that Bronte preferred the “plain” and “homely” to the “ornate.” I do believe this description is included so that the reader will not anticipate lavish parties, ballgowns, or a sweeping romantic narrative. The Bronte sisters, especially Charlotte, favored writing stories that were dedicated to portraying modern life just as it was, without the frills or fanciful touches that some other writers chose to employ.

            Near the end of the first section in which William finishes his letter to Charles, the author breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the reader. She says this narrative will not be “exciting” or “marvelous”. It will just be a simple retelling of things that happened to a rather ordinary man, William Crimsworth. This is a fascinating storytelling device that Charlotte Bronte employs regularly throughout her work. First, she does quite often address her audience. Throughout this work and her others as well, she speaks to her “reader” including them whenever something integral must be explained or she is attempting to drive home a salient point. But more intriguing is this method she utilizes in which she seeks to temper the reader’s interests. Here, she readies them for the tale by saying it is not “exciting” or “marvelous.” She did nearly the very same in her novel, Shirley, when she told the reader up front it would not be a “romantic novel” or a love story.

            The intriguing bit about these warning labels is that, occasionally, they are misleading. For those who’ve read Shirley, it is clear that while the first part is not in the least bit romantic, once the title character is introduced, the entire book becomes dedicated to finding love and making it endure. And…it could be argued…that while The Professor is not a particularly “exciting” tale, it is filled with “marvelous” details and descriptions.

            Ultimately, one could conjecture that Charlotte Bronte seeks to engage her reader’s interest by downplaying her work, drawing them into her web of stories by promising one thing but delivering another. But there is no way of telling what she intended this tale to become. Even though it was the first work she authored, it was not published during her lifetime. And her husband, to whom she’d only been married a short time before she passed away, only consented to have the work put in print because he was pushed to do so. Had she taken the time to revise the work or return to it and make corrections, William’s story might have ended in quite a marvelous or exciting fashion—but the world, and Bronte’s readers, will never know.


Extras

            For those who seek to know more about Charlotte Bronte and what or who inspired her writing, it is recommended to read some of the works she, and her character William, mention in this text. It seems the professor and his wife, Frances, were fans of Wordsworth’s poetry, as well as Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron’s writings.

            And please, join us next time, dear reader, as we continue winding our way through Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen’s unfinished works, pondering what could’ve been done differently or how the message might’ve changed if these pieces had ever reached their true conclusion.

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