Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor seems like one of those first novels that everyone except the author likes to pretend doesn’t exist. I wonder if this is because there aren’t any crazy women squirreled away in the attic and none of the characters are overly swarthy and brooding. In any event, I feel that it is my duty to bring this odd little gem to the attention of the internet. (This may also be the start of Brontë summer, but we’ll see.)
I am not entirely sure why some authors decide their novels ought to start out with epistles, but it seems to be a requirement for the Victorians. We begin with a man named William Crimsworth (the epitome of a British name, if I may say so), who is cleaning out his desk and finds a copy of a letter he wrote to an old school friend, Charles. In his letter, he calls his friend sarcastic and cold-blooded and wonders what animal magnetism drew them together. He then remarks that he saw his friend’s name in the newspaper and decides to launch into a brief autobiography in which he turns down marriage prospects and respectable livings, and instead begs his rich brother for a job. William comments aloud that Charles never answered the letter because he got a job in the colonies (I am sure the name-calling and self-centered rambling had nothing to do with it). William assumes Charles’s silence means that it will amuse him to hear William’s life story. So naturally he decides writes a book detailing the rest of it.
William’s brother Edward, a newlywed man with a giggly wife, is rather cold to William when William begs for a job. William, in turn, calls Edward “Mr. Crimsworth.” Not a lot of love lost here, especially when Edward interviews him for a translator position and makes sure he understands that there won’t be any special treatment nor sibling perks.
He is only invited to his brother’s house once, for an office party celebrating his brother’s birthday. It is awkward as he stands around and contemplates the family pictures on the wall, remarking that he looks most like his mother. A tall young man named Mr. Hunsden pops up behind him to remark that the picture looks sensible. William bows and tries to extract himself from the conversation like a “shy noodle” (his words – also, a fantastic phrase). Hunsden figures he may as well stick around out here and chat since William hasn’t had a dancing partner all night. Their conversation mostly focuses on what makes people attractive, and Hunsden remarks that William is much more aristocratic than his brother. William wonders how he knows that they’re brothers (he likes to pretend his boss is a complete stranger), but Hunsden just complains about William’s shabby wages before finally running off to dance again. William stares at him for the rest of the evening, informing us that he had absolutely nothing better to do than watch. (Sure, William. I am 90% sure that if Brontë were writing today, William and Hunsden would end up together by the end of the novel. If you don’t believe me, let’s see how this all plays out, shall we?)
Time passes and William realizes he’s in the wrong line of work. One evening he takes a walk, rather than go home to his miserable hovel (apparently it’s all the fault of his “slut of a servant” for not lighting a fire. That’s a little harsh). On his walk, he again encounters Hunsden, who is smoking on the sidewalk. Hunsden invites him up to his bachelor pad for coffee (Very unbritish, I know). They stare at each other for awhile. William contemplates how pretty and feminine Hunsden is. Hunsden calls William a fossil and says he looks like an aristocrat. I’m not entirely certain if they are flirting or insulting each other. At any rate, Hunsden declares William won’t make any money being a tradesman, nor will he find a rich woman to marry, so he’d better think of something else to do.
William spends the next day in a daze, and then tells his slave driver brother that he quits. His brother literally brings out a whip and accuses William of spreading lies about his ill treatment. (The whip doesn’t help your case, Edward). Then Edward throws William out and threatens to have someone cane him if he ever comes around again. Ah, those good old Victorian family values. William picks up his hat and gloves (and, presumably, his stapler and office plant) and walks home.
When he gets home, everything is dark except for the glowing fireplace in the sitting room, where Hunsden has made himself quite comfortable. Rather than calling the police or demanding to know how he got in, William just pouts at him while Hunsden declares that William owes him a debt of gratitude and tells him to go to the Continent. Because all of Hunsden’s ideas so far have been brilliant, William takes the suggestion with enthusiasm and decides to leave immediately. He is so busy packing that he ignores Hunsden standing in his way, waiting to be thanked before giving up and leaving without a farewell.
Thus William Crimsworth goes to Belgium. He tries to speak French. It is embarrassing. People take pity on him and speak English instead. (Unfortunately for poor monolingual English readers, Brontë does not take pity on us. She throws in plenty of French without translating it, and those of us who do not speak French have to find an edition of this novel with the translations in the back and flip back and forth every time William has a conversation with someone. It’s quite tedious, which is possibly why this book doesn’t do as well as her others.)
Eventually William finds work as a teacher under Mr. Pelet, the principal of a school, who after hearing a few recommendations, wants him to start that very day. (If only jobs were half as easy to get these days.) As an initial test, William reads the Vicar of Wakefield in English to a group of unimpressed boys. (To be fair, it didn’t impress me much, either.) The principal, at least, is pleased, and takes him up to his tiny room.
One of the windows in William’s room has been boarded shut because it overlooks the girls’ school. Naturally, the first thing William does when he’s alone is to try and find a peephole. He pretends it’s because he wanted to look out into the lovely garden there, but I don’t think he’s fooling anyone. He doesn’t find a single crack.
He likes his boss, even if he thinks most Flemish people are intellectually inferior (ah, more of those good old-fashioned Victorian values). One day, Pelet’s ugly old mother invites William to tea and his first thought is that she intends to seduce him. It turns out he need not have feared for his chastity, however, as Mrs. Reuter is also there and their talk is all business about giving lessons at the girls’ school. (Honestly William, none of the evidence points to you being Hot Stuff.)
The next day, William ventures over to the forbidden girls’ school to speak to Mrs. Reuter’s daughter about the lessons. He admires the garden (uh huh) and falls in love with Miss Zoraïde Reuter, the principal, almost instantly. They start sizing each other up, under the guise of meaningless chatter, and he concludes that she is a Real Woman (as opposed to those fake robot women roaming the countryside). As he starts teaching the teenaged girls, he makes another startling discovery – they are not all perfect angels. William is late to dinner and on his return, he is grilled by Pelet, who mainly wants to talk about Miss Reuter and whether he thinks she’s pretty and whether the girls are pretty (which is not at all creepy coming from an educator). As it turns out, some of them are, of course, but they are also annoying little turds.
William eventually convinces them to remove the wooden boards from his window, as it is apparently no longer indecent to stare at girls in the garden when one is their professor. Instead, he takes the time to stare at Reuter, who he has started mooning over. He sees her walking with Mr. Pelet in her garden one day, and they giggle at the fact that Willima blushes whenever Reuter’s name is mentioned and that he’s ten years younger than she is. Also, they find it funny that he has no hope of success with her, because she is already engaged to Pelet.
This puts a damper on William’s amorous intentions. He tries to bring it up to Reuter, but she instead asks him to tutor one of the other teachers, Miss Frances Evans Henri, in English. She joins his class, and no one seems to find it odd. For some reason (possibly because she won’t tell him how she already knows English), he enjoys knocking her down a peg when she turns in her writing, making her sit in a chair and spending a lot of time going over her every error. He interrogates her to the point of harassment, but eventually learns that her mother was English.
Even with that answer, he continues to press on in a rather rude way, telling her that she should learn grammar and history to get herself out of the drudgery of teaching sewing classes. She replies back that she has already learned grammar and history, and furthermore, was able to afford to take the classes because of her lace-mending. What’s more still is that she has a life goal to go to England and teach French. So there. He harrumphs at this idea, completely forgetting that he was once in the exact same position with Hunsden.
The lessons continue and he watches her grow under his tutelage. Reuter thinks it’s a little weird that he praises Miss Henri so much in class, since she’s still technically a teacher and all (it’s a fair point). So of course, the very next week, Frances Henri is absent. William asks Reuter what happened, but she evades the question quite skillfully. He tries to get Frances’s address, but Reuter feigns ignorance, and eventually confesses she gave Frances the boot. So William does the obvious thing and quits his job to go in search of her.
He goes to Brussels and wanders around the graveyard. Because it’s a Victorian novel and a small, small world, he runs into Frances while she is staring at her father’s grave. Naturally, he falls in love with her then and there.
She tells him she left on leave to visit her aunt, but while away, Reuter paid a visit to basically fire her. At least she did it in person, I guess. Frances now invites William to her house (Alone? How scandalous!) and brings out the tea like the proper anglophile she is. (No, seriously, this girl is obsessed with England.) They do a little reading from Paradise Lost (she must either be very dedicated or she is punishing herself for something) and William learns that Frances is planning to save money to get to England by her lace-mending, since she doesn’t trust Reuter to give her a proper reference. Although she gave him money for the lessons, he thinks it is hardly something she can spare, and hides the money under one of her vases. He leaves, with the new goal in life to marry Frances and save her from destitution.
He doesn’t really care, therefore, when Pelet and Reuter break off their engagement. Pelet gets stinking drunk around him and Reuter declares William to be ever so handsome. William is awkwardly embarrassed for everyone involved, and is probably relieved when they eventually get back together and get married.
One day, William gets a couple of letters. The first is from Frances. She has, of course, found the money he hid and refuses to keep it. She also has a new teaching job she got through contacts in her lace-mending and now makes 1200 francs a year. He also gets a letter from his buddy Hunsden, who starts out by insulting William’s choice of city and profession, goes on to complain about William’s inability to thank people and write letters to his British friends, and concludes that he is coming to inspect William’s woman (who he has heard is the schoolmistress) and intends to steal her if she’s worth having. It is literally signed Hunsden Yorke Hunsden. I can’t not love this guy.
William decides to ignore the letter from Hunsden (because how does one even begin to reply to that) and instead chooses to brood over Frances’s. Now that she makes more money than he does, marriage is out of the question. Since he quit his last job, he moves into a little flat and daydreams about teaching her a lot of things. Before we learn more than we want to about his student/teacher fantasies, William gets himself hot and bothered and has to open a window. At this point, Hunsden knocks on the door and lets himself in.
William stares at him silently for awhile. Hunsden, who is used to this by now, lights a cigar and starts to read one of William’s books until William snaps out of it. In his own humorously rude way, Hunsden learns that William is neither engaged nor heartbroken nor financially well off, and he laments that William will never have wealth, reputation, or love at this rate. After he’s finished with the insults, Hunsden gets to the news – Edward Crimsworth had to sell his house and all his furniture when his business failed. He had almost lost his wife because he was a terrible person (especially without money to cushion the blow), but she came back when it turned out he wasn’t completely destitute.
William doesn’t much care about the house or his brother, but does want to know what happened to the picture of his mom. Hunsden claims that it was probably sold, and he leaves the house cackling. William can’t sleep, but he hears a noise in his sitting room at 5 am. He finds a package there, which contains the portrait of his mother. Rather than being concerned by the breaking and entering, his first instinct is to wonder who the heck would send him his mother’s painting. (Never mind how it got there literally hours after he talked about it.) The question is answered by the included note from H.Y.H., who writes that there is a pleasure in giving candy to babies and he regrets only that he can’t see the look on William’s stupid face when he opens the package. Aww. It’s like everyone here is five years old.
William, of course, is not properly thankful and shoves the portrait under his bed. In search of a job, he goes to visit Victor Vandenhuten, the father of one of his rich pupils, who gives him a recommendation to his friends (It doesn’t hurt that William once saved Vandenhuten’s son from drowning). He eventually gets a job at a college, and decides that he needs to profess his love right away. He hasn’t spoken to Frances in ten weeks, but nevertheless goes to her house and listens at the door to her reading poetry. He finally knocks and decides now is a good time to read and correct aforementioned poetry, because apparently his professor instincts are too strong. He does this for a good long time.
Then he makes her sit on his knee and demands to know if she’ll marry him. It’s kind of a weird Santa Claus way of going about it, but it works for Frances. She accepts with the ever-so-passionate declaration “Master, I consent to pass my life with you.” William replies dramatically “Very well, Frances.” Then they kiss and stand there silently staring at the fire for awhile. It is… Okay, it’s a little underwhelming. Possibly not a romance for the ages.
After they call a draw to the staring contest, Frances asks if he’s going to let her keep teaching. He says he will, of course, but that he’ll make more than enough money for both of them. Frances doesn’t want to be a kept woman and would rather have an active life. He agrees to this and kisses her again. He thinks to himself that his new fiancée isn’t pretty or rich or talented, but at least she doesn’t have any obvious defects to get over, so he likes her anyway. Well, with compliments like that, it must be true love.
One day in November, while the two lovebirds are walking down the street, Hunsden passes them by. He tips his hat at Frances and grimaces at William, not saying a word to either. Frances thinks this is weird, but William appropriately concludes that Hunsden will be paying him a visit soon. He does, and first accuses William of ruining marriages by running around with Madame Pelet-Reuter. William corrects him on that account and proudly announces that his bride-to-be is nothing but a lace-mender. (I’m sure she’ll thank you for that, after working so hard to become a professor herself).
Hunsden is surprised at this and quietly wishes William and Frances prosperity before he tries to leave. William wants to show her off, however, and drags Hunsden along to her house. At first, Frances and Hunsden are cordial to each other and start chatting in French. Frances is shocked to learn that Hunsden doesn’t like England. (Presumably she cries, “But England is perfect! How could it not be, with Doctor Who and Benedict Cumberbatch and Earl Grey tea and Prince Harry? Here, have some more tea! Keep calm and carry on, old chap!”)
Hunsden offers to drag her around the slums to prove that England isn’t perfect, and Frances basically covers her ears and starts quoting Milton. She manages to squeeze the word “hell” into her quote which is, of course, so very scandalous coming from a woman that Hunsden naturally takes a liking to her. Then he insults the Swiss and that gets her even more riled up and she accuses him of being a man without feeling and then angrily serves supper to everyone. William leaves with Hunsden, who has vowed to return to continue a verbal battle with the woman “doomed” to become Mrs. William Crimsworth. Hunsden remarks that she is not good enough for Hunsden, but too good for William. They wrestle around on the ground for a bit and part ways without a farewell. Men are weird.
Two months later, William and Frances get married, and spent a year and a half working. Frances is displeased to realize that her husband is earning 8,000 francs a year to her pitiful 1,200, and she wants a more equal partnership – namely, she wants to start up a school. They do so, and it becomes quite popular. They also have a kid, call him Victor, and eventually return to England. They take a tour of the island and move into a quaint little mansion in the Hunsden Wood (which is, of course, very close to where our Hunsden resides).
Hunsden is still unmarried, but occasionally he goes abroad and brings home random foreigners or Birmingham and Manchester men. But fear not, gentle Victorian readers – he has a picture in his pocket of a woman named Lucia that he wanted to marry once, so rest assured that he’s at least 50% straight. Probably.
Hunsden comes over for dinner at the Crimsworths’ several times a week, and Frances is a little worried that he’s going to corrupt her son. (Hunsden once bought Victor a dog named Yorke, presumably named after himself.) William also worries about this a little bit, but he’s as incapable of taking a stand as ever, so he just finishes up his novel and goes in to eat with his odd little family.