NOT JUST JANE EYRE’S UGLY STEP SISTER: An appreciation of Charlotte Brontë’s ‘The Professor’

My Brontë obsession began when I was twelve, when I read Wuthering Heights. I’m not sure I fully understood the book at that age, or even when I reread it at age sixteen, but there was something about the Brontës themselves that captured my imagination. Three incredibly creative and talented sisters, with a brother who was just about as creative and talented, living in a small, isolated village in Yorkshire, but producing Great Literature. As a girl, I memorized their strange pen names – Ellis, Acton and Currer Bell – and admired them for their choice to use pseudonyms so that no one could stop them from publishing their work just because they were women.

When it comes to the Brontës, there are a few works – especially Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre – that are always mentioned, along with a few key facts about their lives (most of them died of TB, their father outlived them all, as children they made up fantasy worlds called Glass Town and Gondal and Angria that they wrote about, and the three sisters wrote Great Books and went for walks across the moors). But there is much more to them, as I was recently reminded. In preparing for a Jane Eyre session in a course I was teaching on feminist literature, I went on a small Charlotte Brontë binge which led me to her other works, including The Professor.

The Professor is not one of the better-known Brontë books. During Charlotte’s lifetime it was rejected by many publishers and only ended up being published posthumously. Today, of all her novels, Jane Eyre gets by far the most attention. Having read The Professor, though, that doesn’t seem quite justified. Above all, the main character and (unreliable) narrator, William Crimsworth, makes it a very interesting book. In interactions with his future wife Frances Henri, for instance, he presents everything from his own perspective so much that she is given hardly any room. In this way, the way in which the narrative itself is set up could be read as a commentary on how men don’t see women. And what’s more, Crimsworth doesn’t seem to be very perceptive when it comes to his own thoughts either. For instance, from his obsession with the boarded-up window in his room blocking the view of the garden of the girls’ boarding school below and his long monologues describing the female pupils in his classroom, it becomes quite clear that he is totally obsessed with women (or more like: teenage girls) and sex, but doesn’t know it himself. In a time of mansplaining, manspreading and #metoo, a narrator like the obtuse, self-absorbed and condescending Crimsworth might be the narrator we all love to hate.

This glimpse into Victorian pedagogy (or: the lack of) and Crimsworth’s pompousness really makes for an entertaining read.

Besides this, it’s also just an extremely funny book at times. This is, again, largely thanks to Crimsworth. The funniest passages, in my opinion, are the ones in which Crimsworth shamelessly describes his teaching methods. On his first day as a teacher at a Belgian boys’ school, for instance, he is asked to test the pupils’ English language skills. The boys read parts of a novel out loud in turn and Crimsworth can hardly bear their so-called mangling of the language, so he stares at them until they squirm in embarrassment and then proceeds to read out twenty pages of the novel at them, in a slow and clear voice, for the next hour (!). Then he bows, and leaves the schoolroom. And that was his first lesson at his new school! We also see him ripping up pupils’ exercises in class when they’re messy or when he suspects plagiarism, and in one scene he takes pride in speeding up his dictation when one of his students – and future wife – can’t keep up. This glimpse into Victorian pedagogy (or: the lack of) and Crimsworth’s pompousness really makes for an entertaining read.

So maybe we should shift the focus away from Jane Eyre and towards Charlotte Brontë’s other works, as recent Brontë scholars have also suggested. Maybe it’s even time for a movie or Netflix series based on the book (I would love to see the character of Frances given a better treatment, for instance, similar to what Greta Gerwig did for the character of Jo March in her 2019 film of Little Women). That might help to make The Professor more than just Jane Eyre’s ‘ugly stepsister’, and more of a work of fiction in its own right.

Saskia Bultman

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