I sometimes here people say they like to save a favored novelist’s supposed best book for last, so they have something to look forward to. I can see why people might do that, but it’s not my approach. I don’t have all the time in the world, so I might as well start with an author’s most-loved work and work my way down until I’m not interested any more. That way, I don’t waste much time on sub par works. With the Brontë sisters, I most definitely saved the worst for last.
It’s not that The Professor, Charlotte Brontë’s first novel, published after her death, is a terrible book. It’s just not a very good one. I can understand why publishers initially rejected, and why they went ahead and published it after her death, when they knew they’d get no more writing from her. It’s not good enough for a publisher to take a risk on, but not bad enough to be an embarrassment for an established author. Mostly, it’s just dull.
The novel’s narrator and main character, William Crimsworth, is a young man of some education and little money, attempting to make his way in the world. His uncle offers him a living as a clegyman and a wife from among his daughters, but William detests his cousins and believes he would make a terrible clergyman, so he chooses to ask his brother, a mill owner whom he barely knows, to help him get established in trade. Edward Crimsworth gives William a job as a clerk, and he gets along moderately well, even though Edward is unkind to him, lecturing him, spying on him, and showing scorn at any opportunity.
Soon, circumstances unfold that enable William to move to Belgium, where he obtains a job as an English teacher. The bulk of the story takes place here, with William developing a fascination with the headmistress of the girls’ school next door and later with one of his adult female students. The story plods along with William deciding which woman to give his heart to and figuring out how to give her the sort of home he believes she should have. The love story here is sweet, but like the rest of the novel, dull.
Brontë attempts to infuse the novel with some drama by having characters throw up roadblocks in William’s path or interfering in William’s life for reasons that are never clear. But these secondary characters are not developed enough for their motivations and interest in Williams’ life to make much sense. Why, for instance, does Mlle Reuter toy with him as she does? And more important, why does Hunsden do anything that he does—from helping William leave his brother’s employment to needling William about the woman he loves?
William himself is not a bad character, but he is (say it with me now) dull. We’re given no reason to root against him, but no reason to root for him either. He’s unobjectionable, which is a fine quality in a neighbor or coworker, but not so much in a leading character in a novel. The whole book is unobjectionable. I’m not sorry to have spent my time with it; it was short and not terrible, but if I’d started here, I may never have gotten around to seeing how masterful Charlotte Brontë’s writing can be. As it is, this did make me want to reread Villette, which is not a bad result at all.