The Professor

The_ProfessorI 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.

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14 Responses to The Professor

  1. Helen says:

    I read this last year and I agree with you – it’s not a terrible book but not a good one either. The only Bronte book I still need to read is Shirley, so I’m hoping I’ll enjoy it more than I enjoyed this one!

  2. Alex says:

    Thank goodness you didn’t want to tell me how wonderful this is. I would have been devastated if you’d wanted to say anything about it other than it was dull. That sums up my reaction precisely.

  3. I’m probably one of the people you’ve heard say that about saving an author’s most beloved book for last. I don’t do that exactly, but when I find that I love a new author, I do try to parcel their books out to myself in a way that will keep some of the best ones in the future. The problem is that I can’t really ever predict which of an author’s books I’m going to love best. I read Janet Malcolm’s book about Gertrude Stein fairly early on, and that one turns out to be one of my favorite of her books so far; whereas The Journalist and the Murderer, which is famous and gets put on syllabi for journalism classes, did very little for me.

    The moral of that story may be to give up trying to be cute with the order I read an author’s books in, but I sort of like gaming it out. Sometimes — like my thing of reading Helen Oyeyemi’s books in the order she wrote them — it can be extremely rewarding.

    • Teresa says:

      I seem to parcel authors out by accident, because I discover so many new authors all the time. I’m two books away from reading everything by Kate Atkinson and Sarah Waters, and I’ve even gotten those unread books out of the library, but I get distracted. I kind of like being all caught up with authors who are still writing because then I can be extra excited about their new books and read them right away. (Like the new Marilynne Robinson next year, which I am over the moon about because I’ve read all her fiction and am hungry for more.)

  4. My opinion is closer to “terrible.” It is certainly dull, although the later Brontë occasionally peeks through in passages so bizarre in context that they suggest an alternative novel. The beginning of Chapter 19 is an example, where the narrator begins writing about what novelists should not do using phrases like ” time brings us on to the brink of the grave, and dissolution flings us in – a rag eaten through and through with disease.”

    Meanwhile, in the same room, C.’s sister was writing a masterpiece. How strange.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s those peeks of the later Bronte that keep me from calling this entirely terrible. You can see her potential, but she’s still working on achieving it. This feels like a rehearsal.

      The fact that Emily, right out the gate, wrote such a remarkable book makes me wonder what else she had in her. Both Charlotte and Anne improved so much in their second novels. Would Emily have done the same? (These days, I consider Wuthering Heights the best of all their novels, although Jane Eyre is the one I love best.)

  5. Stefanie says:

    Wow. Unless some strange completist urge comes over me, I think I will skip this one. Thanks for taking one for the team! :)

    • Teresa says:

      It was the completist urge that got me to read it, and I’m not sorry I did, but I don’t see myself revisiting it. (I’m unlikely to revisit Agnes Grey or Shirley either, but I did enjoy them more.)

  6. JaneGS says:

    Yours is actually a very rational approach to reading–I’ve gotten in the mode of reading a classic author’s works in the order written, which means sometimes I have to slog through some rather dreary or dreadful early stuff while they are finding the voice and honing their craft.

    I did attempt to read The Professor, but I didn’t get very fair, and have never really had the urge to go back to it. Jane Eyre obviously couldn’t have been written if CB hadn’t gotten The Professor out of her system. I would like to read Villette, but after I give Shirley a try.

    • Teresa says:

      Sometimes after I get interested in an author, I’ll go back and read in order, but mostly I’m haphazard in how I choose. Order really only matters to me when there are recurring characters.

  7. Oh, dear!
    I really enjoyed The Professor! After reading all of these reviews, I figure I must be really quirky. But I felt very much in tune with the sentiment and the characters. Two thumbs up from me!!!
    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

    • Teresa says:

      I saw some positive reviews at LibraryThing, so you’re not alone. And I did think the romance was nice, which I don’t always expect in a Bronte novel.

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