It is well known that many author’s first novels are left unpublished and that the authors themselves wish to keep it that way. In the first novel, the author is often learning the skills of novel writing and they don’t necessarily want everyone to witness that often less-than-graceful effort.
The first novel of Charlotte Brontë’ (1816-1855) could be put in this category. It is definitely rough around the edges compared to her other novels. The Professor, completed in June, 1846, was rejected by the publisher that went on to publish Jane Eyre, for being too dull and uneventful. They wanted more drama, more spark.
Even after she achieved notoriety and fame from her subsequent novels, her publisher continued to refuse to publish The Professor though Brontë wished to. It was not published until 1856, a year after her death.
Brontë was clear that she wanted her first novel to be realistic, not fanciful and fantastical. And in truth it is. There is no great drama or great surprise. It is a story of simple lives of working class people overcoming obstacles and even has a peaceful, happy ending.
Since the publishers wanted drama she went on to give them the tumultuous tortured, Jane Eyre, which, as we know, was a huge success.
In some ways we can be thankful to the publisher who asked Charlotte Brontë, then Currer Bell, for more drama, more movement in the plot. That catapulted her to write Jane Eyre and in so doing, release and reveal her passions, expose her rage.
What’s in a point of view?
Brontë chose to write The Professor from the point of view of a young man, the first-person masculine. This gave her some distance as a writer which I assume she wanted.
The first-person female point of view of Jane Eyre brings us up close and personal to Charlotte Brontë’s own inner world. Maybe too up close and personal for Brontë as she never returned to that level of intensity again.
Shirley is written in omniscient third-person. With Villette, Brontë returns to the first-person female but the narration does not have as much of the intensity of Jane Eyre because the character herself, Lucy Snowe, is more subdued. In those two novels, Shirley and Villette, Brontë was able to again engage in the realism she wanted way back in the first novel.
Charlotte Brontë wanted to show the truth of life, a certain life. Regular people, especially women, overcoming obstacles. She was committed to bringing voice to a certain class of people and exposing the class system and its impacts on the population. She was also committed to showing how gender lands one in a class all its own and how women, no matter what class born into, had very little agency and sovereignty in 19th century England.
Though her first novel is less engaging than the subsequent three, The Professor has a lot to admire. I would venture to say that in this first novel, Charlotte Brontë achieves something she is unable to in the later three.
She is able to achieve a liberated woman: Frances Henri. This woman liberates herself before she marries and retains her autonomy after as well.
The novel has several of the same themes she tackles in later novels. It is interesting to see her working those out or attempting to already in this book. And she creates some powerful female characters who are self-actualized and self-reliant with powerful voices and occupations.
But what is more overtly stated and addressed in this novel than in the others is how a man and a woman in a romantic relationship can achieve and retain equality and even have conversations about it.
William Crimsworth, a victim of the patriarchy
In The Professor there is a male character, William Crimsworth, who is rebelling against his fate.
He has lost his parents and been given some opportunity and an education by his uncles but, once his education is complete, they want him to become Rector of a parish of their choice as well as husband to a wife of their choice. When he does not want that they cut him out, so he goes off on his own. Having no connections and money, that leaves him with little opportunity.
But he does have a brother, Edward Crimsworth, ten years his elder, whom he has not seen for many years. Edward is a businessman, a tradesman. He runs a mill in Yorkshire county. William decides to go learn a trade and become a tradesman like him. Edward takes him on as an employee but is extremely abusive to him. It is painful to read.
“Antipathy is the only word which can express the feeling Edward Crimsworth had for me— a feeling, in a great measure, involuntary, and which was liable to be excited by every, the most trifling, movement, look, or word of mine. My southern accent annoyed him; the degree of education evinced in my language irritated him; my punctuality, industry, and accuracy fixed his dislike, and gave it the high flavor and poignant relish of envy; he feared that I too should one day make a successful tradesman. Had I been in anything inferior to him, he would not have hated me so thoroughly; but I knew all that he knew, and, what was worse, he suspected that I kept the padlock of silence on mental wealth in which he was no sharer. If he could have once placed me in a ridiculous or mortifying position, he would have forgiven me much”(21).
William perseveres because he has no other options but it gets worse and worse. He ends up befriending a strange character of a man, Hunsden, who acknowledges how terrible his brother is treating him and wonders why he puts up with it. When William expresses that he has no other options, he tells him if he goes to Brussels and meets his friend, that man will find him an option. So William goes to Brussels. He becomes an English teacher.
At the school where he is a professor, William Crimsworth meets Frances Henri. She is also a teacher, of lacework, at the school but then enters his English class to improve hers. Though at first unimpressed by her, once William begins to read her lessons and the stories she writes for assignment, he comes to know her as an intelligent and engaging person. His interest in her grows.
Frances Henri is a woman who is also orphaned. She is from Switzerland but her mother was British. She ends up living with her aunt in Brussels teaching lacework to make money. She wants to improve her English because her goal is to someday go to England which she holds in high esteem. When the schoolmistress sees that William is interested in Frances, she fires her out of spite. She had her own designs on Professor Crimsworth and Frances will now be getting in the way.
Soon after Frances is fired, her aunt dies and she is left utterly alone and without resources but she is able to maintain the apartment she lived in with her aunt. Once William is able to locate her, he becomes even more enamored with her. Though poor, her home is well cared for, though she serves him very weak tea she does so with grace and though alone and desolate, she has a strength of will to find work to support herself to continue pursuing her dreams.
Yet, he finds himself with nothing to offer her. He has quit his job at the school after having a falling out with his employer over an ethical issue. He will not return to offer her marriage until he has something of a financial future.
Frances in the meantime finds her own new job teaching English. She improves her station in life with her own intelligence and ambition. William eventually also gains a new position teaching in another school and proposes marriage to her but she will only accept on certain terms: that she may continue to work after they are married.
“How rich you are, Monsieur!” and then she stirred uneasy in my arms. “Three thousand francs!” she murmured, “while I get only twelve hundred!” She went on faster. “However, it must be so for the present; and, monsieur, were you not saying something about my giving up my place? Oh no. I shall hold it fast,” and her little fingers emphatically tightened on mine. ‘Think of my marrying you to be kept by you, monsieur! I could not do it; and how dull my days would be. You would be away teaching in close, noisy schoolrooms from morning till evening, and I should be lingering at home, unemployed and solitary. I should get depressed and sullen, and you would soon tire of me.”
“Frances, you could read and study—two things you like so well.”
“Monsieur, I could not. I like a contemplative life, but I like an active life better. I must act in some way, and act with you. I have taken notice, monsieur, that people who are only in each other’s company for amusement never really like each other so well, or esteem each other so highly, as those who work together, and perhaps suffer together”(168).
Is Brontë actually tackling the wage gap in this book written in 1846? She sure is. And she also allows her character the agency to not be victimized by it.
Frances is a professional woman in this book. And she is equal to her husband. Why isn’t this talked about more? In this book, Charlotte Brontë does not need to cripple the male character to get the female character freedom, independence and equality. They start out in the same position and move forward together. They actually discuss it. She achieves something astonishing in this book. It must have been more than radical for its time and it makes me question the reason why the publisher never wanted to publish it. Perhaps it was for reasons more than we have come to accept. Perhaps Charlotte Brontë intended to be even more revolutionary than we thought. Have we missed something?
Read Nasty Women Writers posts about the Brontë’s:
William Crimsworth writes, and I remind you that this is Charlotte Brontë writing William Crimsworth:
“Both my wife and I began in good earnest with the notion that we were working people, destined to earn our bread by exertion, and that of the most assiduous kind. Our days were thoroughly occupied. We used to part every morning at eight o’clock, and not meet again till five p.m.; but into what sweet rest did the turmoil of each busy day decline. Looking down the vista of memory, I see the evenings passed in that little parlor like a long string of rubies circling the dusk brow of the past. Unvaried were they as each cut gem, and like each gem brilliant and burning”(183).
It angers me that most people upon reviewing or writing about The Professor minimize it to the fact that she, Charlotte Brontë had the real life experience of being in love with a Professor Heger in Brussels when she was a teacher in a school there. That love went unrequited and that this novel is her trying to work that out.
All novelists take things from real life and fictionalize it in some way. Why does Charlotte Brontë’s writing get reduced to her experience of unrequited love over and over again? She uses professors and schools and teaching positions over and over again because that was something she could write about with authority, having been a teacher in Brussels herself. And it was one of the few options open to women of her time.
What she does in this first novel, The Professor, is remarkable and that should be noticed and discussed more than her infatuation with a professor once upon a time. In The Professor, woman writer Charlotte Brontë creates a married couple who achieve equality. They are two working class people who build a life together with their talents and ambitions, both lifting themselves out of poverty and homelessness.
Once finally published, it must have made an impression on so many readers’ lives, both men and women, to see such a couple on the pages of a book and to see that as a possibility. To dare to hope as clearly Charlotte Brontë dare.
Was she trying to send this message out to both men and the women? Men, this is what you are up against and how you could have a true partner and women, you can expect a true partner.
After a year and a half of working separate jobs, Frances approaches William and says:
“I am not satisfied,” . . . “You are now earning eight thousand francs a year,” (it was true, my efforts, punctuality, the fame of my pupils’ progress, the publicity of my station, had so far helped me on), “while I am still at my miserable twelve hundred francs. I can do better, and I will” (183).
And this is when she proposes the school.
William, upon hearing her plan to open a school and hopefully raise enough money to one day retire in England thinks to himself:
“I put no obstacle in her way, raised no objection. I knew she was not one who could live quiescent and inactive, or even comparatively inactive. Duties she must have to fulfill, and important duties; work to do, and exciting, absorbing, profitable work. Strong faculties stirred in her frame, and they demanded full nourishment, free exercise. Mine was not the hand ever to starve or cramp them; no, I delighted in offering them sustenance, and in clearing them wider space for action”(185).
And that, dear men, is how you treat the woman you love.
They create the school and it is a smash success. They work together well and have a happy home life as well and to beat it all, Frances is a successful, professional mother. She has given birth to a son, Victor, in their third year of running the school. Crimsworth paints a picture of her going up to her son’s bed in the evening to say good night. That means someone else is caring of him during the day when she is running the school and teaching. A successful, professional mother supported by her husband created in 1846.
Crimsworth admires and cherishes her.
“Frances was, then, a good and dear wife to me, because I was to her a good, just and faithful husband. What she would have been had she married a harsh, envious, careless man—a profligate, a prodigal, a drunkard, or a tyrant—is another question, and one which I once propounded to her” (189).
To which Frances replies:
“Monsieur, if a wife’s nature loathes that of the man she is wed to, a marriage must be slavery. Against slavery all right thinkers revolt, and though torture be the price of resistance, torture must be dared. Though the only road to freedom lie through the gates of death, those gates must be passed, for freedom is indispensable. Then, monsieur, I would resist as far as my strength permitted; when that strength failed. I should be sure of a refuge”(190).
Amen to that.
Charlotte Brontë proves herself to be, yet again, a Nasty Woman Writer.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2023
Brontë, Charlotte. The Professor. Wordsworth Classics,1994. Originally published in 1856.