Jane Eyre | Shirley | Villette | The Professor
Charlotte Brontë was the eldest of the three Brontë sisters who became famous as authors. During her short lifetime (she was born on 21 April, 1816, and died on 31 March, 1855, at the age of just 38) she wrote various short stories and poems, plus four novels, including the novel Jane Eyre that she is best known for. The Professor was the first novel she wrote, but it was not published until after her death.
Before writing a novel, Charlotte had produced numerous short stories set in the fantasy world of Angria. However, when thinking about writing for publication, Charlotte 'restrained imagination, eschewed romance... and sought to produce something which should be soft, grave and true.' Charlotte took inspiration for the novel from the time she spent in Brussels, Belgium at the Pensionnat Heger finishing school. As well as studying French, German and Literature, Charlotte gave English lessons to Monsieur Heger, the proprietor of the school, to help him to improve his pronunciation. After leaving Brussels in 1843, Charlotte realised she had fallen in love with him, so her letters contained more passion than was proper for friends. Monsieur Heger, a married man, made her promise not to write to him more than twice a year, so Charlotte put some of her anguish into her writing.
The Professor takes the form of a memoir, and tells the story1 of aristocratic but impoverished William Crimsworth. In his memoir, William writes that he became tired of working as a clerk, so travelled to Brussels to work as a teacher with the encouragement of Mr Hunsden, 'a manufacturer and a millowner' who disliked the injustices he had been subjected to by his employer Edward Crimsworth (his brother). Although he had not trained as a teacher and had no experience of teaching, a recommendation by Mr Hunsden's friend secured him a position as teacher of English and Latin at Monsieur Pelet's school. Adopting a brusque manner (which minimised the amount of French he would need to speak), he was able to control the class of boys. He was given a room in the school, but one of its windows was boarded up because it looked out over the garden of the nearby girls' school.
Mr Crimsworth (or Monsieur Creemsvort, as he was often called by his colleagues and pupils) gained a reputation for being an excellent 'professor', so he was invited to teach at the girls' school at the times when he was not teaching at the boys' school (which meant that he was allowed to remove the boards from the window in his room). He admits that he learned the girls were not angels, as he had thought. However, with the encouragement of M Pelet, he did begin to fall in love with Mademoiselle Reuter, the 'directress' of the school, as she was not a 'pretty doll' or a 'fair fool'.
William then writes that he was then introduced to Mademoiselle Frances Evans Henri, the needlework teacher, when she joined his class to improve her English. She did not make a good impression on him at first, as she arrived late to her first lesson so he dismissed her straight away, but she persevered and produced work that he judged to be 'bon'.
On discovering that Mlle Reuter and M Pelet were planning to marry, and Mlle Reuter had 'dissolved' Mlle Henri's job, Mr Crimsworth decided he could not continue working for them and also realised he had fallen in love with his pupil.
Circumstances conspired to keep them apart for a while, but when they were reunited, William proposed to Frances. Although Frances refers to William as 'Mon Maître' or 'Monsieur' (not least because she can't pronounce 'W'), she is independent-minded and persuaded him that it was best for her to continue teaching when they were married. They had a son, and Frances started her own school, then Mr Hunsden was re-acquainted with them. They may not be living happily ever after, but by the end of the memoir, Mr Crimsworth admits they are living as happily as possible for their circumstances.
As with her sisters' novels, Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Emily's Wuthering Heights, Charlotte makes reference to phrenology (judging people by the shape of their heads2), and also to what a wife could do if her husband became abusive:
I should have tried to endure the evil or cure it for awhile; and when I found it intolerable and incurable, I should have left my torturer suddenly and silently.
Although The Professor is mostly a gentle love story, it includes polemics against Flemish people and Roman Catholics that limited its appeal to publishers during Charlotte's lifetime. Charlotte had attempted to publish it in 1846 and again in 1849, but it was not published until 1857, two years after she had died. Her husband Arthur Nicholls said in the preface:
[T]he authoress made some use of the materials in a subsequent work - "Villette". As, however, these two stories are in most respects unlike, it has been represented to me that I ought not to withhold "The Professor" from the public. I have therefore consented to its publication.