The Professor by Charlotte Brontë

The Professor was Charlotte Brontë’s first novel. She was unable to find a publisher for it during her lifetime and it was eventually published posthumously in 1857. Like Jane Eyre and Villette, this book is written in the first person, but with one difference – the narrator is a man. This is interesting as it shows us Charlotte’s views on how a man would think and behave and what his feelings towards women might be.

The narrator’s name is William Crimsworth, and at the beginning of the novel he is starting a new job as a clerk, working for his brother Edward, a rich mill-owner. However, William finds Edward impossible to get along with – he’s cruel and cold-hearted and treats William badly. Finding himself out of work again, William takes the advice of another businessman, Mr Hunsden, and goes to Belgium to teach English at a boys’ school in Brussels. Here he becomes involved with two very different women: one is Zoraide Reuter, the headmistress of the neighbouring girls’ school, and the other is a poor friendless student-teacher, Frances Henri.

This is the third book I’ve read by Charlotte Brontë. I first read Jane Eyre when I was a teenager and it immediately became one of my favourite books, but I didn’t begin to explore her other work until just last year, when I read Villette. Villette, like this book, is set at a school in Brussels and in many ways is a very similar story to The Professor, but with a female narrator and a more complex, layered plot. In both The Professor and Villette, Charlotte was able to draw on her own personal experience of teaching and studying in Brussels. This is obvious both in her descriptions of the city and in the way she could write so knowledgeably about education and the relationship between teachers and pupils.

What I love about Charlotte Brontë’s writing, as I mentioned in my earlier post on the author, is the way she writes about feelings and emotions. In The Professor she perfectly captures the loneliness and isolation a man might feel on arriving in an unfamiliar country with no money and without a friend in the world.

William is not as sympathetic a character as he should be though, due to Charlotte Brontë expressing some of her own views and prejudices through his narration. There’s a lot of racism and anti-Catholicism throughout this story, particularly when William is describing the girls in the school, making assumptions about them based on their nationality and considering them inferior to Protestant English girls. I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that the scheming, manipulative Zoraide Reuter is Catholic, while the quiet, honest Frances is Protestant (and half-English). Even allowing for the fact that the book was written in the 19th century, some of these passages were uncomfortable to read. And because I could never really warm to William’s character, I didn’t find this book as moving as I might have done otherwise.

Brontë also includes a lot of French dialogue in this novel, which it is assumed that the reader can understand. Some editions of the book provide translations in the notes, but the French is not translated in the original text and it can be frustrating to feel that you might be missing out on something essential to the plot. Also, the constant references to ‘physiognomy’ started to really irritate me (physiognomy is the concept of judging a person’s character based on their appearance). The word seemed to appear on almost every page, whenever William met someone new!

I know I’m probably giving the impression that I didn’t enjoy this book, but that’s not true. Charlotte Brontë’s writing is beautiful and for that reason alone I would say this book is definitely worth reading. Just don’t choose this one as a first introduction to Charlotte’s work – my recommendation would be to start with Jane Eyre and then move on to Villette before deciding whether to try The Professor. I can’t comment on her other book, Shirley, as I still haven’t read that one – maybe later in the year!

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17 thoughts on “The Professor by Charlotte Brontë

  1. Jo says:

    In my ignorance I did not even realise she had written this. I have just finished Jane Eyre, and at the moment writing a post all about it. It was certainly excellent and having read your review on Villette I will definitely give that a go, perhaps at a later date though.

    p.s. love the new blog look!

  2. The Book Whisperer says:

    I absolutely adored Jane Eyre and Villette too but I have yet to read this or Shirley. I do want to read this book eventually but I must admit to always believing that it would be a poor-mans Villette.

    I plan on reading Shirley in a few months. I have heard that it’s not one of her best but, like you, I love her writing and want to make up my own mind.

    Great review, Helen.

    • Helen says:

      I suppose it could be described as a poor-man’s Villette, as it was very similar but without the emotional depth and complexity, but I think it was still different enough to make it worth reading. I’ll probably read Shirley eventually but I’m not expecting that one to be as good as Jane Eyre or Villette either.

  3. Lisa says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever come across this book, but of Charlotte Bronte’s books I’ve only read Jane Eyre. I’ll take your advice and try one of the other books before coming back to this one.

  4. Anbolyn says:

    I read half of Villette last year and didn’t like it. I think Jane Eyre may be the only one of her novels I ever read. I didn’t care for all the French in Villette – it drove me crazy, as I’m sure it would in this novel also. I like the idea of the love triangle, though.

  5. Laura's Reviews says:

    Great review! I agree that I thought The Professor was a “poor man’s Villete” also. I also enjoyed reading it because it was Charlotte Bronte’s work, but it is definitely a lesser novel when compared to Jane Eyre and Villete.

  6. Caroline says:

    I was pretty thrilled to see a post about the fairly obscure Professor. It is a poor man’s Villette too, though I didn’t think so when I read it as a teenager. If you like the depth of character and the individuality in Villette, you try Shirley. I’ve actually blogged about it, and while I initially found it dull I now like it better every time I read it. For sheer philosophical depth Shirley trumps them all (Villette is the masterpiece but there are comparatively few arguments there on existence, because it’s a tale rather than a discourse). And you get a better sense of the characters in Shirley, because it’s third-person and related from a less biased point of view. I also find the characters in Shirley more loveable, though that might be relative. It’s actually based on people she knew, which makes it more convincing.

  7. Taryn says:

    I am a few years behind but I will put in my say anyway 🙂

    Jane Eyre is one of my favourite books as well, while I struggled with Villette. I didn’t enjoy the jumpiness of the plot as much as the way Jane Eyre builds slowly. Though I must admit the ending was very effective.

    I really enjoyed The Professor though. I can see the weaknesses in the story, and it was slow and I skipped parts at times (mostly towards the end of the book) but I found the characters engaging and interesting. The main character’s intriguing relationship with Hunsden was amusing too. I thought it interesting as well that it had quite a feminist vibe to it – his wife earns her own money, is creative and clever and not particularly beautiful – because women don’t have to be. It seemed quite ahead of its time in this way, though not, as you say in terms of racism!

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for commenting, Taryn. I’m glad you liked The Professor. I did enjoy it overall, just not as much as either Jane Eyre or Villette (I’m ashamed to say that I still haven’t read Shirley, although three years have now passed since I wrote this post). I hadn’t thought about the book being ahead of its time, but you’re right – it does have some strong feminist elements.

      • Taryn says:

        Shirley was a struggle as well lol, I can’t say you’ve missed much. Jane Eyre will always be my favourite 🙂

        I’ve subscribed to your blog now so looking forward to seeing other good books to read!

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