On this day in 1816, Charlotte Brontë was born! So, it is only fitting that I recently completed my reading of the first novel she ever wrote: The Professor (1857). I gravitate towards nineteenth century novels and was positive that, at 208 pages, The Professor would be a quick hit to satisfy my desire to read a classic. I wasn't entirely right!
With the success of Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell in 1846, Charlotte submitted The Professor to publishing houses the following year—at the same time Emily put forward Wuthering Heights (1847) and Anne submitted Agnes Grey (1847) . Interestingly, the publisher took on Emily and Anne’s works but was not interested in The Professor. This may speak to the problems in the narrative: while the characters are unlikable in The Professor, they do not have the same intensity of a Heathcliff, who dazzles the reader in Wuthering Heights. Following this, Charlotte would turn her mind to a new novel—Jane Eyre (1847)—which would end up being published before either of her sister’s novels (and cause confusion as to who had written Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey). Charlotte’s first attempt at a novel would not be published until after her death, the publication process being overseen by her husband.
The Professor is the only novel in which Brontë chose to use a male narrator. Using first-person, the reader is carried through the plot by William Crimsworth, a young man who has had a comfortable education at Eton but decides to earn his own money without taking any handouts. While this may seem like an altruistic trait with which readers could identify, Crimsworth has an arrogant sense of self-worth and frequently makes haughty judgements about others throughout the book. To be fair, his brother Edward, his collogues Monsieur Pelet and Mademoiselle Reuter, and his ‘friend’ Hunsden are not very likeable characters either—so as readers we’re passing judgement on them all as well.
"Novelists should never allow themselves to weary of the study of real life" (Brontë 126).
The novel is based on Charlotte and Emily’s time in Belgium where they were furthering their education in hopes of opening their own school in Yorkshire (a dream the female character, Frances, successfully accomplishes in the novel). The characters in The Professor will certainly make modern day readers wonder at the people and experiences Charlotte must have had while on the Continent!
The novel does alter quite a bit in the final pages. Greater depth is added to the character of working-class Frances, the female love interest, as she holds her own in debates with aristocratic men and she takes a stand to maintain her career aspirations after marriage. This is the Charlotte we tend to think of, based mainly on the strength of her later protagonist Jane Eyre. In addition, Crimsworth softens as he becomes more reflective and less arrogant. So, if you’re like me and struggle with the first section, know that there is pay off in the end.
While certainly not her best work, there are still a number of reasons to read The Professor: you can trace the evolution of Charlotte’s writing craft; it can be seen as a trial for her later novel Villette (1853) which deals with the same subject matter; and there is some embedded commentary on writing that must surely be based on the experiences of Charlotte and her sister.
“… celebrity has a tendency to foster this sentiment, and in [Frances] it should be rather repressed – she rather needs keeping down than bringing forward; and I think, monsieur – it appears to me that ambition, literary ambition especially, is not a feeling to be cherished in the mind of a women…” (Brontë 120).
The publication of The Professor, after it was rejected during her lifetime, was organized by Charlotte’s husband who found a willing publisher. However, Charlotte is quoted as saying “Far rather would I never publish more, than publish anything inferior to my first effort.” Juxtaposing these two things, it begs the question:
are posthumous publications a valuable addition to the literary sphere or just a way to capitalize on an author's popularity?
Of course, this question applies to many authors, not just Charlotte (Austen's Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published in 1817 after her death; Mary Shelley had her Mathilde (1959); Shakespeare's First Folio was published 7 years after his death, half of the plays never having appeared in print). As a scholar I am torn. On the one hand, I want to read everything by an author, including the seemingly voyeuristic pieces like their correspondence or diary entries as I believe we can't separate the art from the artist—although how long do we wait for these personal writings to be history and not intrusive?
On the other hand, it may be more important to respect an author's efforts during their lifetime and if they didn't have a certain work published, they had reason for it. Although in the case of Charlotte, she had tried to have her novel published, so does that make it fair game? Perhaps a line needs to be drawn between works the author intended to have published and those works they put aside because they felt there were not reflective of their best efforts.
While it is inevitable that the perception of an author will change over time, I am hesitant to encourage heirs and widows to comment on or sway an author’s history/biography. For example, William Godwin’s posthumous biography of his wife Mary Wollstonecraft hurt her reputation so much it was generations before we started reading her works again. What do you think?