The Professor - Charlotte Bronte's First Novel

CharlotteBrontePortrait
Portrait by J. H. Thompson

First novels can be hit-and-miss, even those of "great authors."  Nathaniel Hawthorne was so ashamed of Fanshawe he wanted all copies burnt.  Jane Austen's Love and Friendship, written in her teens, did not (unsurprisingly) carry the depth and drama of her later, famous novels.  Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, is arguably one of the weaker of the four.  While some talented authors debut a masterpiece, it's as equally likely that their first book is not their best. All of this goes to show that 1) no one is born a great novelist, and 2) it is worthwhile to keep trying, even if your first writing is highly flawed.

The Professor was Charlotte Bronte's first novel but not published until after her death.  It has a very similar plot to Villette (1853), and it's best read as a first draft of that superior novel.  Unfortunately, this is still insufficient for enjoying the book, because it's just not a great story.  It took me several tries over many years to start and continue reading it, and I'll be completely honest: if it weren't for me trying to read all the Bronte novels (with just Anne's Tenant remaining), I don't think I would have finished The Professor.

Our male protagonist (Bronte's only one) is William Crimsworth, a young Englishman just recently finished with his education.  He attempts to work for his industrious brother (think Gaskells's John Thornton, except meaner), which doesn't pan out, so he goes into the world to seek his fortunes independently.  He ends up teaching English at two schools in Brussels, one of which is a girl's school.  He falls awkwardly into a love rectangle involving the directors of both schools and one of the students (who is also a teacher, to make it slightly less weird).  Some conflict ensues.

The story is highly uneven and overall uneventful, not a winning combination.  For fans of Villette, there is some interest in seeing the precursors for better characters: William and Frances are like Lucy and Paul, Zoraïde is clearly an early version of Madame Beck, and the minor character Hunsden is not unlike Rochester in his charisma and abrupt manners.  However, you're left wishing you were re-reading Villette instead, with all its intrigue, mystery, and surrealism.  The Professor, by contrast, is very careful and stolid and utterly boring.

In addition to the lackluster plot, Crimsworth is a rather irritating narrator.  One doesn't feel quite comfortable in his romance with his female student, and apart from that, his prejudice against Catholicism and various nationalities is rampant throughout the book.  (There is some of this in Villette, though less, if I remember correctly.)  It really shows how even within one race of people, there can be many deep divisions.

In the end, I can only recommend The Professor to Bronte completionists.  It is probably for the best that it was rejected by publishers, because Jane Eyre came next, bringing with it a dynamic female narrator that was to carry forward to Villette, the refined novelization of Charlotte's own experience in Brussels.  Those of us trying to write our own stories can look at this as an example of why not to give up, and also of how our characters, given enough time, will evolve and mature just as we do.

Comments

Brian Joseph said…
I agree, first novels are often underdeveloped works where authors are exploring ideas. This is true for even the great writers. I think that in such cases these books can be of interest to folks looking to explore the particular author’s progression as a writer. In the case of Charlotte Bronte, I think that her work was so important that she might warrant such study. I like the lesson that you take from all this about not giving up.
Sharon Wilfong said…
I used to be a completionist as you say. But as we both mentioned, I have so many TBR books, that I've learned that if a book is not doing anything for me, time to shuck it off.

Since I don't even own the Professor and I' trying to read the books I already have, I will probably be in my seventies before I could give it a try.
mudpuddle said…
this probably says more about me than it does about Charlotte, but i liked The Professor a lot; better that Villette, actually... the latter was interesting and i liked it even though i thought it repetitive and stodgy with an incomprehensible fantasy, possibly drug induced, at the end... and the finale was not very believable. but the other book was well constructed, logical and had interesting characterizations. it was believable as well, showing Ms. B's knowledge of how humans actually behaved, i thought... no two persons ever think alike, that's for sure....
Sharon Wilfong said…
Well now, Mudpuddle. Now you've got me intrigued. I may have to give the Professor a go because I really like books that show insight into human behavior.
I haven't finished this yet but I can tell not much is going to happen so I wasn't careful about reading your review.

I REALLY did not like Villette. I didn't like her vitriol against Catholics (as in this one) and I did not like the tone of anger and bitterness beneath it. She also seemed to play with the reader, leading them to expect something and then giving them something quite different as if to say "ah-ha, expecting something happy? It's not to be!" I put it down to her life circumstances at the time with so many deaths in her family but it didn't make it more palatable all the same.

I thought the book was good until he arrived in Belgium and then it was mind-numbing. I don't know how poor Frances could have born him as a husband. He'd be like a purgatorial punishment. It was as if Brontë set him up as the perfect human being and anything less fell short. And thus EVERYONE else fell short, many of whom we got to know how and why in vitriolic rants. I am so tired of it. But I must say, in spite of all the flaws, I like it perhaps a little more than Villette. It lacks the bitterness (at least so far) that really put me off that one.
I didn't like Villette either, Mudpuddle, although I would say it's worth reading. One must just prepare oneself!
Marian H said…
In some cases, the earlier work is enjoyable in its own way. I mentioned Fanshawe - that was one I kind of liked. :)
Marian H said…
It's on the shorter side as far as 19th century novels go, so not such a big investment if you do decide to read it!

In general, I ought to try to stop being a completionist. The last one I suffered through was Kafka's The Castle, and I'm otherwise a big Kafka fan, but it was pure misery...
Marian H said…
Mudpuddle, I appreciate your perspective and can definitely see where you're coming from! As for Villette, it's been so many years since I read it, I just remember loving it. But I think it might be one of those love/hate books, like Wuthering Heights.
Marian H said…
Villette is very depressing and oppressive... I think what worked for me was just how imperfect the narrator was. Lucy is certainly, and somewhat self-consciously, flawed as a person, but also suffering from extreme loneliness. Her romance with an equally flawed character won me over in the end. I'll have to read it again soon to see if it holds up to memory. :)

I'm totally with you on Crimsworth! More like Cringeworth. Also I'm not buying that he suddenly was looking for a wife and, ta da, Frances. That came out of left field and was kinda weird.
Marian H said…
P. S. I'm not sure how far you are along, so I won't say more, but the character arc of Frances is quite interesting. I did like that bit of the story.
Funny, now that I think of it, it wasn't so much Lucy I dislike (although I can't say I liked her) but the authorial tone behind the novel and it's the same with this one; William is not likeable, but I'm more put off by the tone again.

I'm about to read the last chapter. I'm totally not invested in this book, so if you want to say more about Frances, please do!
Marian H said…
@Cleo - I think I was just surprised how independently minded Frances turned out to be, e.g. insisting on working, arguing with William's friend, etc... It didn't even seem to have much to do with the plot, but it was an interesting detail.

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