“The Professor is Charlotte Brontë’s first novel, in which she audaciously inhabits the voice and consciousness of a man, William Crimsworth. Like Jane Eyre he is parentless; like Lucy Snowe in Villette he leaves the certainties of England to forge a life in Brussels. But as a man, William has freedom of action, and as a writer Brontë is correspondingly liberated, exploring the relationship between power and sexual desire.
William’s first person narration reveals his attraction to the dominating directress of the girls’ school where he teaches, played out in the school’s ‘secret garden’. Balanced against this is his more temperate relationship with one of his pupils, Frances Henri, in which mastery and submission interplay. The Professor was published only after Charlotte Brontës death; today it gives us a fascinating insight into the first stirrings of her supreme creative imagination.”
Initially I was intrigued by the book. I thought it interesting how William Crimsworth is from a similar background as Jane Eyre (orphaned, wealthy relatives, decides to be independent) and takes the same path as Lucy Snowe in going to Brussels. It was intriguing the stark contrast between Eyre and Snowe’s need to guard their honor, act appropriately, and be above reproach to avoid utter ruin versus Crimsworth’s freedom of a man. He is cautious and close, but more from a personal wariness of trusting others than from societal decrees on decorum.
All is well and good while he teaches at the boys’ school. The entire book turns to tripe when he begins teaching part time at the adjacent girls’ school. Instantly Crimsworth turns to Creepsworth. His descriptions of the pupils focus a whole lot on their appearances. Their minds are so simple and coy! The most intelligent student is meek and ugly and destined to become a nun. Everyone else is of varying states of beauty and varying states of weak female-mindedness. Most disturbing are the long descriptions of the students. Each time he looks at a student he remarks something to the tune of “but she was fully-formed” or “womanly already.” For awhile he is in love with the seemingly most intelligent woman at the school, the directoress. She is reasonably smart and beautiful, so OF COURSE she is duplicitous and cunning. He learns of the directoress’s duplicity and distances himself from her and her evil feminine wiles.
“I seldom spoke to them — they were nothing to me. I considered them only as something to be glanced at from a distance: their dresses and faces were often pleasing enough to the eye: but I could not understand their conversation, nor even read their countenances. When I caught snatches of what they said, I could never make much of it; and the play of their lips and eyes did not help me at all” (230)“…[Y]ou spoke of grapes; I was thinking of a fruit I like better than your X– hot-house grapes — an unique fruit, growing wild, which I have marked as my own, and hop one day to gather and taste. It is of no use your offering me the draught of bitterness, or threatening me with death by thirst: I have the anticipation, of sweetness on my palate; the hope of freshness on my lips…” (232)Frances speaking, “[a]n old maid’s life must doubtless be void and vapid — her heart strained and empty. Had I been an old maid I should have spent existence in efforts to fill the void and ease the aching. I should have probably failed, and died weary and disappointed, despised and of no account, like other single women. but I’m not an old maid [….] I should have been, though, if not for my master.” (279)