this weekend. The introduction is by Heather Glen, who has many interesting things to say.
In her lifetime, Charlotte re-worked the manuscript many times, and repeatedly tried to get her publishers, Smith and Elder, to publish the book, and failed. It was only published after her death. "My feelings towards it can only be paralleled by those of a doting parents towards an idiot child. Its merit - I plainly perceive - will enver be owned by anybody but Mr Williams and me; very particular and unique must be our penetration, and I think highly of us both accordingly." At the time of its publication, her novelist friend and biographer Mrs Gaskell found it unpleasant, and critics have said it was a poorer version of Villette, and yet Charlotte insisted on its value.
Was this merely authorial partiality? ... I wish to argue that the charge of "unpleasantness" that has so often been brought against this novel provides a more important clue to its nature than does the patronising judgement that dismisses it as an immature. For much in The Professor that appears "unpleasant" is in fact significant: part of a coherent imaginative interrogation of values and assumptions, which Charlotte Brontë is often assumed to have shared.The time in which The Professor was written tells us more. Glen argues it is different from Villette in this aspect: "It is offered to the reader less as the confessional autobiography of a peculiar individual than as a fictional example of a quite distinct and influential contemporary genre - that of the exemplary biography of the self-made man," a genre Samuel Smiles was famous for. He wrote stories of people with no money, connections, etc. but by dint of hard work, rose to success, and William Crimsworth, the protagonist of The Professor, has much in common with this genre. Though one might see it as a ironic piece of Self-Help books - the hero does have aristocratic birth and connections, but he rejects their advances because they wish to mould him against his will. It is almost as if Charlotte is saying, "Fat lot of good birth is going to give you, because there will be pressure on you, to surrender to others' wills." He does, however, despite spurning his aristocratic relations, have a successful career as a schoolteacher in Brussels, but he "succeeds not because of birth or good fortune, but despite handicaps, and through is own unaided efforts" with the typical Smiles values, "industry and perseverance, self-reliance and independence, self-respect and self-control." Glen speculates that in this context, "The Professor seems less a clumsy attempt to hide its author's 'real," feminine concerns behind the mask of a male narrator than a fictional imitation of a genre that ... was overwhelming masculine."
Unpleasant it certainly is.
There is something oddly disagreeable, even repellent, about Crimsworth's story. It seems altogether more disturbing than one might expect of a simple tale of obstables surmounted and victory won - full of suggestions and a barely suppressed violence, a peculiarly sadistic sexuality. And Crimsworth imself is a more disquieting character than the heroes of the Self-Help tradition - anxiously watchful, coolly domineering, a prey to "Hypochondria."Crimsworth seems to be under a tremendous amount of self-control and suspicion towards the rest of the world, and his sentiments to women are rather savage and domineering. The usual reason given for this was Charlotte's inexperience as novelist and uncertainly with the masculine voice, but Glen points out her preface states that this book was by no means a first attempt. Looking at her adolescent writings,
One sees a kind of literary experimentation which dispels the notion that the author of The Professor was an inexperienced amateur ... For fifteen years before she came to write this novel, Charlotte Brontë had been playing with different kinds of narrative voice. The majority of her early stories are told from the points of view of male narrators, narrators who are themselves often seen with a highly sophisticated irony. A favourite, for instance, is Lord Charles Wellesley, a bombastic but uncertain, cynical but vulnerable, world-weary would-be Byronic hero: even as he swaggers and postures, his pretensions are exposed and mocked and his insecurities revealed. The voice of the first person in these tales is not simply one of special pleasing, but is itself objectified and question. From a very early age, Charlotte Brontë seems to have been using the male narrator not as a "disguise" but as a means of exploring the logic and limitations of a particular kind of contemporary masculine stance.The notes at the back tell us that Charlotte Brontë had written and abandoned an earlier preface to the novel, written from the point of view of an old acquaintance of Crimsworth.
He opens by informing the reader that, while the author of the succeeding narrative was indubitably a "respectable man." he was "perhaps not altogether the character he seems to have thought he was. Or rather - to an impartial eye - in the midst of his good points little defects and peculiarties were visible of which he was himself excusably unconcscious." ... it proposes from the outset an ironic view of the novel's narrator.So Crimsworth was meant to be unpleasant, which makes perfect sense, because Charlotte was fond of writing unpleasant protagonists. Good kindly Mrs Gaskell thought Lucy Snowe unpleasant, which was ironic because she was fond of Lucy Snowe's original, Charlotte Brontë; Mrs Gaskell only saw one side of Charlotte. We see Jane and Lucy mainly through their own voice, but rarely through others, because they are both fairly sympathetic characters compared to Crimsworth. Crimsworth on the other hand, adopts a tone that makes it easy to judge him from the outside, rather than from the inside. Which makes it an interesting approach. Were you and I to meet our favourite fictional characters in real life (say, Jane Eyre or Lucy Snowe) we would not like them so much as we do when we read their story. There is a reason why Lucy is almost always alone and isolated. The thing is that most readers don't realise the character we sympathise on paper would be odious in real life. Charlotte had already experimented with the unrealiable narrator in Lucy Snowe, which makes it likely she was doing it for Crimsworth as well. Thus her detractors who say she was too egotistical and could only write about herself are wrong, for to deliberately write unreliable narrators requires the shedding of egotism. Charlotte turns the tables over, by making Crimsworth odious on paper AND in real life, which is daring for a mid-19th century major novelist. Other attempts at making unsympathetic narrators include Miss Clack from The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868) and The Woman in White (see Count Fosco's perspective), and these tend to be for comic effect, well except Count Fosco. I don't know if non-Gothic realist protagonist any have been so psychologically disturbing as Crimsworth.
Glen remarks that the novel starts off awkwardly with a letter Crimsworth wrote to a schoolfriend, but the latter never received it.
The epistolary form is abruptlyt abandoned for a straight first-person narrative. But this apparently false start does not seem to be the result of authorial ineptness. For its effect is distinctive and powerful; and it is reinforced and elaborated in the novel that follows. We learn at the end of the first chapter that no answer to this letter was ever reecived; that by the time it arrived, its intended recipient had departed the country: "What hs become of him since, I know not." The confidence and intimacy usually assumed by the first-person form thus receives a curious check at the outset of this narrative.Personally, it is somewhat disturbing, because it is unresolved, but then reality often is, and Charlotte herself said reality was the best aspect of the book. And the reality is a sense of isolation that carries on in the book.
For the world that is introduced in this opening chapter is one in which there seems no possibility of positive human interaction at all. The first paragraph of Crimsworth's letter recalls and reconstructs the relation between himnself and his friend in prose whose insistent negativism suggests not expressive interrelation but unceasing defensive opposition.Crimsworth wrote to his friend,
What animal magnetism drew thee and me together I know not; certainly I never experienced anything of the Pylades and Orestes sentiment for you, and I have reason to believe that you, on you part, were equally free from all romantic regard to me ... your sardonic coldness did not move me. I felt myself superior to that check then as I do now.The fact the friend never receives the letter and Crimsworth never learns what happened to him speaks for itself - the sense of rejection and isolation, foreshadowed earlier on in the boys' friendship. It is as if Crimsworth guarded himself from forming too intense a friendship with Charles, who seems to be cold-hearted. Which points to a fear of rejection - a feeling Charlotte knew too well. According to Mrs Gaskell,
She has had so little kindness & affection shown to her. She said that she was afraid of loving me as much as she could, because she had never been able to inspire the kind of love she felt.Instead of positive exuberance of spirit, there is a sense of weary cynicism from the start go.
From the very beginning, Crimsworth's story is framed in imagery of opposition, of antipathy, of rejection and resistance. The marked negativism of the prose is accompanied by a constant emphasis on refusal and denial: "his daughters, all of whom I greatly dislike," "I declined both the Church and matromny," "I had no thoughts of the sort," "I do not think that my turn of mind qualifies me to make a good tradesman," "my uncles did not remonstrate; they and I parted with mutual disgust," "A resolution no more to take from hands which had refused to minister to the necessities of my dying mother," "an irreparable breach," "I repressed all - even mental comment on his note," "I anticipated no overflowings of fraternal tenderness," "my refusal of their proposals will, I fancy, operate as a barrier against all future intercourse." ... All whom he meets habitually oppose, reject, repulse, resist, deny. Even supposedly non-hostile encounters are portrayed in terms of opposition and combat, from the first glimpse of Crimsworth's brother and his wife ... Mr Crimsworth soon checked her animated scolding with a kiss ... to the closing portrait of the relation between Crimsworth and his son. The world of the novel is one in which awareness of difference leads not to interaction but to antagonism, rejection, separation. "Once convinced," says Crimsworth, "That my friend's disposition is incompatible with my own, once assured that he is indelibly stained with certain defects obnoxious to my principles and I dissolve the connection." Teaching is a battle: the task of the teacher is not to respond to her pupils but "to enter into conflict with this foreign will to endeavour to bend it into subjection to her own."What is the point of asking for favours, he seems to say, if you are going to be rejected? Worse still, you will be indebted to the person whom you approach. Crimsworth is over-cynical, over-pessimistic, but one can't help wondering that he is justified after all. Reality is rejection, isolation, tyranny; and Crimsworth's suppressed emotions seem to indicate one who has learnt to guard himself from disappointment. [hostility and spying???]
The Frances/Crimsworth relationship is rather disturbing.
Even the courtship between Frances and Crimsworth is imaged as a struggle for power. Thus, when he praises her work she appears to him not gratified but "triumphant" - a triumph that he feels impelled to check by "reproof." The scene of his proposal to her is marked by a barely suppressed violence.Indeed, in the end of the novel, Hunsden has a jibe at Frances' expense. "Don't you feel your little lamp of a spirit wax very pale, beside such a girandole as Lucia's?" he asks Crimsworth, referring to Frances. Lucia was Hunsden's former beloved, whom Frances has just said was not the sort of person that Hunsden would seriously intend to marry as she was an actress or singer.
"Yes," Crimsworth, replies candidly, to which Hunsden says, "and the Professor will soon be dissatisfied with the dim light you give?" Crimsworth points out, "My sight was always too weak to endure a blaze, Frances."
Crimsworth is openly acknowledging that his wife is weak and an inferior being compared to stunning Lucia, but at least he tells us frankly that he is only capable of handling a delicate woman, not a bold, stunning woman who would scorn him (Hunsden gives the impression that Lucia scorned him or would scorn him, so Crimsworth hasn't got a chance). Charlotte is telling us one truth about human nature: the less fit, who are unable to capture nature's prize, settle for a lesser being. In the Crimsworths' case, this works out, as both of them are comfortable with each other in a way impossible with anyone else. There will be weak men who prefer delicate women rather than outstanding beauties, who are beyond control, and who will not worship them the way Franceshero-worships Crimsworth, whom she calls Monsieur. The overpowering being will overwhelm the weak one, as extreme partygoers overwhelm extreme introverts. This casts some pessimism to the book: we don't see a grande passion for a great woman, but a yearning for a soul similarly fragile, because the latter is easier to cope with. There seems nothing great or exalted in this passion, and yet it works out, unlike the quicker and more vivid emotions in Jane Eyre. Crimsworth must have control over his wife, which not only shows a domineering character but an insecure nature. His childhood was lonely and parentless, and he has trouble making himself agreeable; he is afraid of being abandoned. A Lucia would leave him in a trice; someone like Frances would be constant to him.
Glen points out that the novel is remarkably absent of "positive feeling for others within the world projected by Crimsworth's narrative." good will is "inexplicable," and a "perversity" (when Hunsden helps Crimsworth) or "part of the universal, self-interested struggle to maintain the advantage (M. Vandenhuten helps Crimsworth because he is indebted to him.
Such concord between individuals as there is seems simply an extension of egotism ... The pervasive image of human relations is of conflict or, at best, friction between self-defensive and self-seeking individuals.Interestingly Frances, the best character, says that patriotism "spreads man's selfishness in wider circles." One might almost suspect this was 21st century game theory, natural selection and evolution of altruism, for goodness seems almost utilitarian.
Oh, and the spying, made famous in Villette, appears here. Everyone is spying on each other. It's classic Charlotte Brontë and would be pretty ridiculous if it wasn't Charlotte Brontë doing it.
The account that Crimsworth gives of his employment as a clerk is in fact an account of others' attempts to find him out ... and his own efforts to evade them ... The school to which he goes is a place of staring eyes ... his central strategy is to watch more sharply and from a more "commanding" position than they ... Interaction with others is a process of watching and counter-watching. Thus, Crimsworth's power struggle with Mdlle Reuter begins with looks ...Disturbing, isn't it? He even peeps at his wife embracing their son.
But more often, looking appears less as a mode than as a refusal of interaction.I can testify to that. When I went to study abroad, I became more sensitive to the point of paranoia, and saw that some people will stare at you in a hostile way, some in an incredulous, unfriendly way, to reject further interaction with you. Especially when people look bewildered, or think you are a little strange or awkward - they are treating you like the Other, or someone contemptible. (Especially if many of them are rich and sophisticated kids, as was in my uni).
The imagery of looking and being looked at runs throughout the novel, chillingly replacing any more intimate conception of human interaction. And it points not merely to a peculiar strategy of the individual Crimsworth, but to the essential nature of the world through which he moves. In an extraordinarily precise and consistent way, Charlotte Brontë seems to be exposing and articulating the logic of a whole society - a society whose essential dynamics are the same as those Jeremy Bentham had sought to enshrine and objectify in his great plan for a Panopticon ... an exemplary institution - a school or a madhouse, a factory or a prison - in whih the inmates would be completely separated from one another within individual cells, and in which each would be clearly visible from a central inspection tower.All of us judge each other, by the way we speak, dress, behave in public. There is no space for the deviants in society. I never understood the power of this novel till I went to university and heard my coursemates gossip about certain students who were a little strange. I do think, however, it would have been more artistically true had Charlotte Brontë placed this spying only in Crimsworth's mind, and not in reality. It seems ludicrous people are spying each other so overtly. (What reason would Edward have to spy on William, a menial clerk? His ego would want nothing to do with him.) Besides it would make him look neurotic and detached from the world, and enhance the emotional agressiveness of the novel.
The fundamental assumption of Crimsworth's narrative - an assumption embedded in that informing imagery of controlling observation - is the primacy of the antagonistic individual perspective, a perspective opposed to rather than shaped or modified by that of others. And, as Charlotte Brontë carefully shows, the individual who defines himself thus is a problematic entity. for even the most ordinary situations in this avowedly "plain and homely" novel are charged, in Crimsworth's telling, with a peculiar tension.When he is at his first job, Edward is trying to figure him out, but William suppresses himself and tries to appear unreadable.
I showed him my countenance with the confidence that one would show an unlearned man a letter written in Greek; he might see lines, and trace characters, but he could make nothing of them;my nature was not his nature, and its signs were to him like the words of an unknown tongue.How cautious and cold! But William is justified, for Edward is a tyrant.
The self in this encounter is hidden, defended, watching but indecipherable...The essential drama has become not the development of, or even the choices facing, the self, but the activity of these others and the strategies of the self to evade them.Sounds like an espionage story. Charlotte might well be commenting on how the individual is threatened in society - as in the fête scene from Villette, Lucy, who is walking alone, sees groups of her acquaintances, who are alternately a threat, or a source of misery and isolation. And this was no new preoccupation - it haunted the Romantics too, who opposed urbanisation and industrialisation, and the oblivion of individuality and solitude. Crowds become a threat and a damning judgement.
Crimsworth's story, on one level, a tale of self-respect vindicated, of self-sufficiency affirmed and rewarded, of individual success, is on another level - one that is carefully articulated through syntax, through imagery, through narrative structure - a tale not of triumphant achievement but of thwarting and conflict, not of security arrived at but of continuing and irresoluble unease. It is a tale not of competence and independence but of a self unable to change the world through which it moves and antagonistically bound to that which it would reject. And if it is a tale of "self-control," it is one in which self-control" is exposed as a process of radical, indeed violent, self-division.He expects no welcome or affection from his brother, as if to caution himself against harbouring high hopes and future disappointment. Crimsworth seems to inflict his personality on others as well, when musing on Mdelle Reuter's masked attraction to him, after he rejects her.
The emphasis is less on the surface of propriety and indifference than on the processes of repression and denial by which it is produced.... The negation of impulse appears as an assertion of choice and control ... To reject and deny is to exercise power - over one's actions, over one's feelings, over others. It is the primary assertion of individual separateness;that which enables a public mask to be different from the private self.The whole novel is "dominated by negatives." Impulse is denied, and everyone seems to be lying about themselves. Mdelle Reuter hides her emotions from the world, and this is described in negatives.
she said nothing, and her face and forehead, clothed with a mask of purely negative expression, were as blank of comment as her lips. As neither surprise, pleasure, approbation, nor interest were evinced in her countenance, so no more were disdain, envy, annoyance, weariness.Glen observes that she is a "mass of warring and suppressed personalities." The most obviously suppressed personality, however, would be Crimsworth, who is rebuked by Hunsden for his "apparent passivity," for he never relaxes or does excessive things i.e. drink and keep wild company.
And the sequence of negatives opens up a series of rejected possibilities, enacting in miniature that strategy of denial, of repression of impulse and refusal of expressiveness through which Crimsworth defines and maintains his social identity. It is not simply that he has a series of violent impulses that he restrains. In the peculiar centrifugal prose of his story, self itself appears to be held together by violence.Charlotte on the surface seemed a shy, quiet and rather boring country-spinster to the London crowd, and a nice, interesting and agreeable friend to Mrs Gaskell, who found her a model of propriety. Inside she seethed and burnt with passion and fury and disagreeableness, which she transmuted into fiction and which others found repulsive in Jane Eyre. And we see this similar suppression in Crimsworth. For to show passion was to expose yourself to possible attack by others, to judgement and ill-treatment, to give others the triumph of knowing they have humiliated your pride.
Crimsworth's sense of identity is in his self-reliance. He makes a point of not being indebted to others, and refuses to ask Mr Brown help to find another job, because Brown has helped him before, and refuses Hunsden's help. But it is "not merely the key to success: it is essential to his whole mode of being." He wants not only money to live on, "but also the capacity to act, the power to be." He wants "an independency - not just money but freedom and autonomy as well." Fair enough. In the light of people being forced to pursue careers they greatly dislike, because it prevents them from being true to themselves, this comes as visionary. Crimsworth not only wants to "do more, earn more" but more importantly, "be more." Charlotte herself complained that as a governess, she could not be herself; she felt oppressed - not just because she was poor and forced to work hard, but because she felt it was anathema to her existence. She was ill-suited to teaching wild and noisy children, and no doubt the genius and future novelist thought her governessing beneath her talents, and did no justice to her potential. She wrote to Ellen Nussey:
I know my place is a favourable one for a governess. What dismays and haunts me sometimes, is a conviction that I have no natural knack for my vocation. If teaching only requisite, it would be smooth and easy; but it is the living in other's people's houses - the estrangement from one's real character - the adoption of a cold, rigid, apathetic exterior that is painful.Crimsworth has a great aversion to owing people favours. He says that at school he was frugal with his pocket-money; "The image is less one of freedom and autonomy than of anxious defence against constantly present threat."
It is interesting to note that Crimsworth respects the English in Belgium, who have propriety and keep to themselves. Glen speculates propriety has a double meaning
The surrounding imagery all emphasises a primary, and now obsolete, meaning of "propriety," that of property"; and a second now rare, that of "essence or individuality." The self is here a private possession to be defended against attack and preserved in its inviolable distinctiveness.The English in Belgium "warded off insult with austere civility, and met hate with mute disdain; they eschewed company-keeping, and in the midst of numbers seemed to dwell isolated." Which confirms the stereotype of cold, frigid Britons. But Crimsworth seems to approve of this unsociable behaviour (which makes sense, as he too is unsocial). By extension, a cold, civil, introverted contempt, might be seen as dignified and "aristocratic." By withholding yourself from the openly hostile multitude you show you are above them, which is potentially an even more powerful force than open jeering. Open jeering and condemnation exposes the perpetrator as a vulgar philistine, and therefore shows their weakness. They see their victim as a threat or an easy victim, and are only satisfying their cruel egoes. It is only too easy to despise them. On the other hand, a well-bred contemptuous neglect shows how little the target of neglect/disdain means to you; therefore, you are superior. The key to survival is to conceal all disappointment and hurt caused by others, and never to appear desperate (as in Crimsworth's refusal of Hunsden's suggestion to get a job from Brown) for people can use that against you.
But Charlotte's meaning of "propriety" is most likely the common meaning - being proper. When Hunsden and Frances meet for the first time, Crimsworth observes there were "such models of propriety," for Hunsden, less fluent in French, cannot express as he really feels, "with a care that forbade any eccentricity."
Here the context stresses not individuality but its reverse; not self-possession but conformity to others' rules and requirements. In both cases the restraint of free expressiveness is the same, as is the word that is chosen to describe it - "propriety." The sense of self as isolated, inviolate, the ultimate piece of private property, thus appears inextricable from its opposite - the sense that the self is inexorably bound by others' conventions and prohibitions, that it has no independent existence at all.And both Frances and Hunsden are original characters, one can imagine both feel constrained.
Glen argues that this fictional autobiography of a self-made man questions the self-help novels that "embodied and celebrated some of the central ideological assumptions of her society." From what I know, Victorian self-help novels were overly optimistic; hard work, intelligence and virtue will eventually earn you success, though you are without birth, money or connections. Dinah Mulock Craik's novels seem too naïve in that sense.
Through her presentation of Crimsworth's narrative she offers not merely an exposure of the shortcomings of this particular teller but a coherent imaginative interrogation of those assumptions, and a disturbingly intimate exploration of their experiential implications. Like the lyrics of Blake's Songs of Experience, this finely articulated dramatisation of a representative monologic voice embodies as acute a vision of the logic of a whole society as do many more obviously sociological analyses.That logic "is very bleak indeed." While self-help novels tend to be over-optimistic and unrealistically make it seem easy for the protagonists to rise, The Professor is a subversion. The tone is exceedingly negative to a "field of conflicting possibilities," all denied.
The energy is that of deadlock: no movement beyond it is envisaged. Although Crimsworth's is a linear narrative, in which effort leads to success, the novel's imaginative structure is claustrophobically circular. It begins with a description of a "friendship" fuelled by antagonism and a family divided by hostilities; and it ends with a similar, if more ambiguous set of images.Crimsworth to some extent bullies his wife into reading boring old Wordsworth. Even more disturbingly, their son, a melancholy boy named Victor, is said at the end of the book to be going to Eton, where he will be "soundly disciplined" and given a radical grounding in "the art of self-control." Victor is certain to be picked on, given his temperament and interests (he prefers books to sports), and his attachment to his mother's gentle and compassionate nature. He is ardent, but his father insists that that must be suppressed for him to survive in life.
Will reason or love be the weapons with which in future the world will meet his violence? Oh, no! for that flash in his black eye - for that cloud on his bony brow - for that compression of his statuesque lips, the lad will some day get blows instead of blandishments - kicks instead of kisses; then for the fit of mute fury which will sicken his body and madden his soul; then for the ordeal of merited and salutary suffering, out of which he will come (I trust) a wiser and a better man.One gets the idea he wants to break his child's will. Both parents are unwilling to let go of their only child. But Crimsworth sees Eton as a necessity for Victor: public school was where you got a good education and made connexions. In order to succeed, the book ominously concludes, one (at least if one is a deep and melancholy soul) one must suffer, put aside those that matter most to you, and then plunge into the activities of other souls alien to you. He must be separated from his kind and loving mother, for that is bad preparation for the cruel world or comeptition and hostility. History is repeating itself; what happened to the father will happen to the son, except Victor has loving parents and money to support him.
There is a sense of competition that requires one to forgo one's true self. Frances has an idealised view of England, which Hunsden brutally enlightens.
"The England of the novel is a place of competitive enterprise, in which "Concern" has a one-dimensionally economic meaning; of domineering masters and resentful "slaves," writes Glen. "Belgium is a place of "Popish" duplicity and suspicious watchfulness, in which "getting on" means gaining and maintaining "the advantage" over others" - a shallow, superficial, cruel society where the weak and unfit die. It is almost Darwinian in outlook except it predates Darwin - but then the hungry 1840's was a very Darwinian time. In this aspect it is more modern than the later novelist George Eliot, whose Darwinism is less obvious (though she does do it in The Mill on the Floss). The Professor is certainly pessimistic for its time, and that pessimism seems more in tune with the late Victorian era. No wonder George Gissing (a late Victorian novelist) greatly admired Charlotte Brontë.
Glen quotes Carlyle's Past and Present, whose sentiments seem to be reflected in the novel:
We call it a Society; and go about professing openly the totalest separation, isolation. Our life is not a mutual helpfulness; but rather, cloaked under due laws-of-war, named "fair competition" and so forth, it is a mutual hostility.Glen observes that Charlotte's isolated approach is much different from the typical Victorian novel's outlook, which is cosy and full of social cohesion, something you don't see in today's serious novels:
Instead of Dickens' great metaphors of circulation and stoppage and George Eliot's of the social web, Charlotte Brontë offers images simply of repression and repulsion; instead of a connecting energy, she shows the tense balancing of denied impulse. The energies that animate Crimsworth's world, seem, indeed, to work against anything we might call social bonding.His tale is one of successful self-help, but there is no sense of a supportive context for this achievement. the world of business is a world of ruthless competition, in which individuals such as Edward Crimsoworth fail and make fortunes in seemingly arbitrary ways ... But if the individual life-trajectory remains the focus, this seems less the results of Charlotte Brontë's failure to imagine a social world than the expression of the logic of her vision.But let's come back to the ending. It is far from optimistic, even with the Crimsworths' financial success. Crimsworth asks Frances how she would react had she married an abusive husband, Hunsden tells them about his unrequited love for a woman called Lucia who was probably a singer or actress, Crimsworth shoots Victor's rabid beloved dog and Victor is angry with his father. Crimsworth proceeds to ponder on Victor's future sufferings at Eton.
Hunsden, says Glen, is the serpent in their paradise. Victor has a strong attachment to him, to Frances' alarm, because she feels Hunsden is leading Victor astray. Hunsden says Frances mollycoddles him and making him a milksop, which would make him a target of bullying. Frances says it is better for him to be a milksop rather than a "fine lad," and she feels Victor is safer at school than with Hunsden. She wishes Hunsden had children, "for then he would better know the danger if inciting their pride and indulging their foibles." Hunsden, I imagine, would be frank and easy with Victor, and encourage him to do sports, and tell him about the world. Though Frances has a point in worrying about Victor becoming a proud "fine lad," (attributes unlike his own father) one could argue that Hunsden is a good influence. Under his parents' influence, he is more likely to be grave and melancholy - traits that do not help in the world of The Professor. Hunsden provides the boy with reality - what his parents cannot give him, because it is not in their natures - he is in a way training Victor how to prepare for the harsh world by making him a "fine lad," because it is fine lads who are popular, who make money and connexions. They may be brutal, they may be superficial and insensitive, but they are likely to survive.
And it is likely that Victor will survive, despite his parents' forbodings. There is a reason why Charlotte purposely says Hunsden is influencing him, why his beloved dog who followed him everywhere has rabies and dies when Crimsworth shoots him, why he eventually comes to accept Crimsworth's mercy killing of Yorke the dog. These are preparations for the real world, and once Victor has accepted the death of a beloved friend, he is more ready to go to school. Yorke's death is analogous to Crimsworth's loss of contact with his only good friend at school, Charles Townshend, except the Victor-Yorke relationship is stronger. Hunsden's supposedly bad influence is a sample of what real life has to offer, and once Victor is comfortable with that, he is fitter for the world. The fact he is attached to Hunsden, even more than his parents (who are of Hunsden's generation) are, is a good omen of his future success.
But we also hear of Hunsden's personal life at the end - his unrequited passion for Lucia. It serves not only as a comparison between frail Frances and bold Lucia (we get the impression the virtuous like Crimsworth and Frances are frail in body, and the bold and lively are not entirely respectable, since Lucia was on the stage, according to Frances); but also it shows us what sort of person Hunsden is. Hunsden is chasing the unattainable in Lucia. Frances shrewdly perceives:
You never seriously thought of marrying her; you admired her originality, her fearlessness, her energy of body and mind; you delighted in her talent, whatever that was, whether song, dance, or dramatic representation; you worshipped her beauty, which was of the sort after your own heart: but I am sure she filled a sphere from whence you would never have thought of taking a wife.Which points to a grave defect in Hunsden, who likes to claim he's realistic.
Which brings us to the question, what sort of person is Hunsden? Early on in the novel, he is described as neither refined nor vulgar, tall and seemingly powerful but with feminine lineaments; he is a radical reformist who champions the underdog's cause and yet proud of his ancient lineage. Hunsden Yorke Hunsden is a mass of contradictions. He is also a man of the world: a successful merchant and fluent talker, who can make himself at home with others, unlike the unworldly and reserved William. And yet despite his social success, Hunsden seems to be incapable of deeper affections, of a close relationship. When Crimsworth and Frances return to England, they seem to be his closest friends, his other friends being chosen for their conversation (French and German intellectuals) and their views (the practical merchants) - he finds them interesting, but on the other hand he likes the Crimsworths. The Crimsworths are much different from his usual circle, and despite his taunts he seems to have genuine affection and friendship for William and even Frances. Even his chosen friends are contradictory: foreign radical intellectuals and practical English merchants. While he seems allied with the English merchants in head and heart, when arguing with Frances about how good/bad England is, he claims to hate his country, and exposes the mercantile class there as mercenary, greedy and oppressive to the poor, that the industrialised country is full of famine, poverty, pollution and inequality. His books are imaginative French novels and solid English books on political economy. He belongs to several worlds, as well as to neither; according to him he is a "universal patriot." His position in life is fluid.
I call Hunsden a Limbo Person. He doesn't fit any particular category. Though he claims to be practical, he has some affinity for imaginative idealists - but in the end, reality wins. He is a Universal Person - a friend of the wealthy mercantile and even the humble clerk William, a friend of foreign intellectuals and British tradesmen. But this universality comes at the expense of a fixed identity, and an inability to truly settle down and be contented. Perhaps this is the key to his and Crimsworth's long friendship. Crimsworth, too, is a misfit, though in a different way - poor where Hunsden is prosperous, rejected where Hunsden is respected, plain where Hunsden is handsome. Throughout the novel Crimsworth doesn't fit in - even after his success, he states his friends are few in number. This is what makes them kindred - and why Crimsworth and Frances are attached to each other. Three lonely souls together make interesting and excellent company. We too get the impression Hunsden feels more honest and at ease with them; with others he must present a front of respectable merchant, or courteous talker; to the Crimsworths he is honestly and (sometimes repulsively) eccentric - what he cannot be with others, who will judge him. With fellow misfits he knows he will be accepted, and among them he is their natural leader, because he is superior to them in wealth, position and connexions. Frances and Crimsworth may contradict him, but in the end they still accept his foibles and consider him a good friend. He is truly an individual character.
At one point we see this, when Frances tells him," Your portrait to anyone who loved you would be for the sake of association be without price." Hunsden colours, for he is affected.
I believe he filled up the transient pause succeeding his antagonists's home thrust, by a wish that someone did love him as he would like to be loved - someone whose love he could unreservedly return.Class is treated in an unusual way in the novel. Hunsden admires the portrait of William's mother, because she had sense and discernment; you could speak to her of graver matters apart from dress, visiting and compliments, but this is followed up by a sneer on her aristocratic birth and her plain features.
Not that I admire a head of that sort; it wants character and force; there's too much of the sen-si-tive ... in that mouth; besides, there is Aristocrat written on the brow and defined in the figure; I hate your aristocrats.(William's mother, an aristocrat, scandalously married his father, a well-to-do merchant, something frowned upon at the time, because merchants were considered unsuitable partners for the upper classes.)
Hunsden also argues that aristocratic features doesn't make the nobility the best, and asks William to compare his mother's portrait "with Mrs Edward Crimsworth - which is the finer animal?"
The finer animal means the one who is supposedly better-looking and Alpha. But Charlotte uses the term ironically; the word animal indicates degradation and vulgarity, and objectifies people to unthinking bodies rather than mind and character. "Animal" also implies sensuality; those days sensuality was considered coarse. (Later on, Caroline Blemont is described as sensual for her age - and Crimsworth foresees she will become coarse). Coleridge himself condemned his own "thick sensual lips."
Hunsden also agrees with William that Edward Crimsworth is a finer animal compared to Hunsden, but these handsome and vigorous physical features he inherited from his father the merchant, not his mother the noblewoman.
Edward Crimsworth, tall, handsome, imperious and rich, is certainly a finer animal compared to the thin, plain and awkward William. But it is William who has inherited the aristocratic features and manner of his mother and uncles, and Edward can clearly see William's refinement. For William is more refined than Edward, and in his own unrecognised way, superior, though Edward may be successful, popular and more respected - the latter has more power and charisma, but in a vulgar sense, unlike William's aristocratic restraint and invisibility. In the 19th century, true gentility was considered refinement, honour and integrity and no ostentatious behaviour. Edward may be handsome and successful, but he speaks with a northern guttural accent; William speaks like an educated gentleman, smooth and polished. Edward "had no dignity"; he also bullies his workmen, clerks and wife; in their final scene together he even yells at William and threatens him with a whip - a very coarse way to exert one's will.
William on the contrary laughs with unconcealed scorn, to Edward's fury, for he knows in this respect William is superior. William remains calm and reasonable - instead of lunging at Edward, he coolly says he will fetch a magistrate to arrest Edward for assault.
So what is the point of "fine animals"? Is Charlotte Brontë questioning the way we assign class to people, treating the brash and sensual as superior to the refined and restrained? This manner of speech would have made reviewers call her coarse, but is it not truer to say that society was coarse in the first place, to judge people based on striking appearance? And is Charlotte not refined to question such coarseness?
Yet people do recognise William as refined, though they might criticise his plainness. Hunsden remarks that he laughs in a scornful, aristocratic way - a pity he hasn't got the money to support his aristocratic features. In Belgium, though at first Mdelle Reuter scorns his boyish plain looks, later, when he treats her with aristocratic neglect, she falls for him, to Pelet's fury. According to Pelet, she is besotted with Crimsworth's youth, noble deportment, formality (signifying to a person you don't care for them could be seen as a superiority in position), and his "pure morals," to Crimsworth's amazement, for Mdelle Reuter is shallow, mercenary and superficial. Zoraïde Reuter, driven to passion by his disdain, raves about him to her mother.
"How well disdain becomes him!" she cries. "He is as handsome as Apollo when he smiles with his haughty air.
"For my part," points out Madame Reuter, pragmatically, "with his spectacles on, he always reminds me of an owl."
(Translations by Heather Glen).
The English people Crimsworth comes into contact with are cold and reserved (the national character of the 19th century English) and a number of them more prosperous, they like to show off; hence they do not respect Crimsworth, who is poor and frugal. In Belgium, however, being thrifty is considered a virtue, and Crimsworth's frugality does not raise comment. One gets the idea Charlotte is showing the different sides of prejudice: the English are proud and snobbish towards their social inferiors; the Belgians are bigoted against Protestants. He observes the English are more dignified and restrained than the Belgians; therefore a genteel reserve is not considered special for the former. The latter, who are said to be more outgoing but coarse, will admire this gentlemanly reserve and manners, not being possessed of this novelty. It is in Belgium that Crimsworth makes friends and connexions, not England, because there his difference gives him an advantage. In England, where (he says) people tend to be dignified, it is animal magnetism that determines your success. In Belgium, land of animal spirits but supposedly less intellect and refinement, the latter qualities give you an edge. This is almost like game theory, except this book was written in the 1840s-50s.
There is a disturbing part, right after Hunsden meets Frances for the first time, when he and Crimsworth shove each other in the streets. Hunsden clearly admires Frances' spirit and intelligence, and wonders why she defers to Crimsworth.
"Your lace-mender is too good for you,but not good enough for me; neither physically nor morally does she come up to my ideal of a woman. No; I dream of something far beyond that pale-faced, excitable little Helvetioan (by the bye she has infinitely more of the nervous mobile Parisienne in her than of the robust "jungfrau.") Your Mdelle Henri is in person chetive, in mind sans caractiere, compared with the queen of my visions. You, indeed, may put up with that minois chiffone, but when I marry I must have straighter and more harmonious features, to say nothing of a nobler and better developed shape than that perverse, ill-thriven child can boast."Previously Hunsden had told Crimsworth the latter disliked the women he had seen in Yorkshire because they think nothing of him, and he can never attain women of that position; hence he has sour grapes in his mouth. Crimsworth, however, by then, had fallen for Frances, who is unlike the handsome and prosperous ladies of Yorkshire.
These tell us Charlotte's views about courtship: for a successful marriage, we must be comfortable with the other person, and Crimsworth's inferiority complex regarding the Yorkshire ladies (though in mind he is superior) is the best reason for him not to pursue them. He can exert control on Frances (though not tyrannically); this suits both of them, and hence their marriage is happy. He knows she is loving and faithful and will never leave him. A successful marriage, Charlotte seems to be saying, is not a grand passion, but contentment and complete ease with the other person, though they may not be beautiful, successful or wonderful in general. This is where Hunsden fails - in courtship he is less practical than the less worldly Crimsworth.
While he talks fluently with the young ladies of his district, he doesn't think highly of their intelligence. On the other hand he respects Frances' mind and originality of spirit, and feels at ease with her to jokingly insult her instead of being charming and conventionally polite as he is to other young ladies. His ideal of a woman is Lucia, a beautiful actress/singer with great independence of spirit, but he could not have her. Such a woman would not think much of him, though he is well-to-do and interesting in his own way, and the fact Lucia "broke chains" indicated she was not a thoroughly respectable woman by Victorian standards. Such a woman might be suspected of not being entirely faithful or devoted to a (comparatively dull) husband like Hunsden; she would not love him and might abandon him. What Hunsden wants, Crimsworth understands, is to be loved unconditionally and fully so he can return that love unreservedly. Lucia would never give him that kind of love. He, too, feels inferior to her, and that might not put him at his ease.
So why not go for someone like Frances? Here his statement that she is too good for Crimsworth but not good enough for him, Hunsden, makes sense. Frances would be a good and devoted wife, intelligent and spirited to converse with on graver matters, and original in thought. Yet he will not pursue Frances or someone like her, because she is too childlike, too nervous, and not regal or womanly. She is "for a sensualist, charmless"; she is not a fine animal that one can show off or profess ardour for. So Hunsden is trapped in this situation: he longs for love and devotion, but the sort of woman who can give it is not to his taste; and the woman he loves is unattainable and not interested in him. He is too realistic not to have actively pursued Lucia. A "superior" woman is beyond him. This ends on a gloomy note: it suggests one has to "settle for less" in order to get a faithful partner. This William is willing to do, which is why he is happily married unlike the more attractive Hunsden.
And this explains his mutual affection for young Victor Crimsworth. Victor loves him as a friend and father figure, and Hunsden's need to be loved and worshipped is fulfilled in his friends' son.
What I find interesting is, Glen says that Lucia is based on Madame de Stael's Corinne, an independent woman who becomes an actress, and devoted herself to her career. Thus she could never fully give herself to her beloved. Yet Frances pursues a teaching career after marriage, makes a success of it, and has a happy marriage. The difference, I think, lies in the temperament and character of both ladies. Frances is spirited in thought, but constrained in deeds and manners; she is highly strung and nervous, but quiet and sedate. No one can pull Lucia down; she will do as she pleases. Which does not sound very good for independent women, but I think Charlotte was making a realistic point.
In case you're interested in reading it for yourself, I scanned a copy of Heather Glen's introduction. Here it is.