Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Belgium of The Professor

Instead of going on to Villette, I've decided to go straight with the first-written but last-published novel by Charlotte Brontë. Rejected many times in her lifetime, even after the sccess of Jane Eyre, Charlotte said it is like her idiot child, and that she thought it deeper and more real than Jane Eyre. Though ill-expressed, the content of The Professor when read carefully shows depths you wouldn't expect in this love story. To me, it is better than Dinah Maria Mulock's novels, which were critically acclaimed in her lifetime. (Miss Mulock, by the way, was a best-selling Victorian novelist, who is now unknown to most but Victorian enthusiasts and scholars.)

The protagonist is a harsh, cynical, unlikable young man called William Crimsworth, an orphan whose parents families were against each other. His father was a manufacturer and his mother a lady of high birth. His mother's family thought she married beneath her. Anyway after their parents' deaths and failure in business, he and his brother were adopted by their maternal relatives and sent to Eton. Over there he was unhappy and made only one friend, whom he has lost touch with. This is all expressed in a letter to his friend who is now in a colony, emphasising Crimsworth's isolation. Crimsworth rejects his maternal relations' offers to help him become a clergyman (he is not suited for it) and to marry his plain cousin, as his brother who has succeeded in trade has urged him not to submit to them.

After that he goes to work for his cruel, tyrannous brother who works him to death and refuses to treat him as an equal. Now this is set in an industrial town, possibly Yorkshire or Lancashire, which is quite important as it represents trade, detestable to Crimsworth. He eventually meets at a party Mr Hunsden, who has transacted business with his brother. Hunsden is crass but sympathetic, trying to bring out William who rebuffs him, thinking he is patronising him. Hunsden is from an old family in the district which has lost money, and he is a tradesman so that he can restore the family fortunes. I feel sorry for Hunsden as Crimsworth is cold and cynical though Hunsden can be tactless and blatant.

Now for the setting. This is set in the early 19th century presumably (since The Professor was written in 1846 and Crimsworth's son is 10, the scene of action predates 1836).  At that time an industrial revolution was undergoing in Britain, especially in the North. While in the Regency the aristocrats and the gentry were those with power and influence, there came a new power: wealth and trade. The aristocrats' lifestyle lost them a great deal of money, but the prudence and hard-work of the middle classes helped them gain a more secure footing. People from nowhere, workers and tradesman, invested in mills and factories to make cloth and other things. Charlotte Brontë, being from Yorkshire would have known about all this. Her friend's father, Mr Taylor was a cloth merchant. While the aristocrats used to marry within themselves it became more common in the 19th century for the less well-off among them to marry the sons and daughters of wealthy manufacturers, whom they had once thought vulgar. That's why Mrs Crimsworth was forsaken by her family for marrying the manufacturer. But her act later became more acceptable with time. It is curious that Eton-educated boys eventually entered trade (the Crimsworth sons) which resulted in the paternal relations forsaking them but it shows a change in time and attitude. Edward also marries the daughter of a manufacturer instead of a born lady. Though being wealthy she would have been educated and indulged in a proper lifestyle. But Charlotte, being influenced by the unworldly Romantics, portrays trade in a realistic and not very emotional way. I think her being unworldly made her see them as Titans - admired but repellent in some way.

After William is sacked by his brother after Hunsden exposes the latter's ill-treatment of his brother, Hunsden helps William find a job as a teacher in Belgium. He gets his friend Mr Brown to help William, something William resents as he hates being in debt. I think William is rather mean and snarky - he ought to see Hunsden as a potential friend, and be glad he has someone to be grateful too. Still you must admire his independence, a virtue upheld by the Victorian middle classes. So he goes to Brussels and secures a job as English teacher in the school of Monsieur Pelet who is French. Belgium is described as unromantic and the characters are decidedly less formal than the British middle classes. Madame Pelet, Pelet's mother, walks around the house in her undergarments (19th century undergarments were actually well-covered) to his surprise. She seems slovenly. This would not have been the case in Britain where they were stiffer. Pelet is described as a genial, intelligent Frenchman who is too fond of committing adultery with people's wives.  This was a stereotype used by the English in the Victorian era, which may have had some basis of truth (modern french novels were full of adultery, unlike English literary fiction which was squeaky clean).
"Belgium! name unromantic and unpoetic, yet name that whenever uttered has in my ear a sound, in my heart an echo, such as no other assemblage of syllables, however sweet or classic, can produce."
The place is green and well-furnished, clean and glittering, and seems quite comfortable. William has found a refuge temporarily.

The Belgian schoolmistress, Mademoiselle Zoraide Reuter, is depicted as shrewd but seems willing to be cordial, and dumpy and yet attractive. She seems to be in her mid to late twenties, older than Crimsworth, but he falls for her. She employs him in her school, and this is where he makes his observations. The Belgians are depicted as shallow prying people (Mdelle Reuter does that all the time) with a lax education system. They, the Germans and the Spanish pupils are unruly and indisciplined in class, unwilling to work, unable to pronounce English well, and aim to flirt with Crimsworth. This is based on Charlotte's own experience at the Pensionnat Heger in Belgium, where she taught. I agree the foreigners are depicted too badly but I believe it, as the English were reputably very cold and reserved in that era, and it is not too hard for them to think foreigners to be very uncouth. Here he has a dig at the Catholics: the girls are not permitted to form close friendships and while the priest is unfazed when they confess to lying, they are stricter when it comes to missing lessons or doing something undisciplined. It is form, not substance, Charlotte is saying, that characterises Catholicism. The English in Belgium are aloof and mingle among their own kind, but they dress badly compared to the neat, trim, elegant Belgians. Crimsworth's only favourite pupil among the real pupils is Sylvie, quiet, intelligent and ugly. However, he laments that Catholicism has made her think that he is a heretic (he is Protestant), and when he tries to be kind to her by patting her head, she shrinks from him. The scene is that of isolation amid a noisy crowd, the only sober person amid a bunch of boisterous spirits.

There's quite a bit on phrenology: reading people's character by looking at the bumps on the skull. Surprsingly it was popular among the Victorians, much as tarot reading is now, and the most famous British phrenologist was George Combe, who read Charlotte's skull as a woman of genius. Overall the Belgians fare badly as narrow, unthinking, unfeeling and unintellectual. Frances Henri's head is however interesting. Crimsworth reads M. Vandenhuten as benevolent and calm but less nervous and intelligent.

But it's internal setting that matters too. The schoolroom is not always a madhouse: at least when Mademoiselle Henri, the sewing teacher is present. Small, quiet and insignificant, she nevertheless gets his attention when Mdelle Reuter allows her to attend Crimsworth's English classes. Among all the students she writes out the best essays and pronounces nearly as well as a well-educated English lady in Essex or Middlesex.  She is not very fluent, however, still he is attracted to her prowess and diligence at mastering the English language. It turns out her mother was from England, and her father is Swiss. She too is Protestant, and feels a heretic in Catholic Belgium.  After his new attraction to Frances Henri, Mdelle Reuter sacks her and she is forced to live in poverty.

A lucky chance brings Crimsworth to Frances, after weeks of searching for her. She is in the graveyard: her aunt has died. Her lodgings are described as sparse but neat, which pleases him more than a well-furnished place would. It is cold, and yet it is described with great affection. Old English crockery, brought over by her English mother, is used to serve them tea. In this respect there is much more nostalgia and realism than in Jane Eyre, more perhaps even in certain parts of Villette. All the crockery is described as old-fashioned,
A china tea-equipage, whose pattern, shape and size denoted a remote antiquity; a little, old-fashioned silver spoon was deposited in each saucer; and a pair of silver tongs, equally old-fashioned, were laid on the sugar-basin, from the cupboard too was produced a tiny silver cream-ewer, not larger than an egg-shell.
Charming, isn't it? Rather like a doll-house, methinks. Frances asks William, "Is this like England, monsieur?" "Like the England of a hundred years ago," he replies. In Belgium you see a mini-England of days gone by, as everything is at least 100 years old. Crimsworth says "If I had a home in England, I believe it would recall it." Strange, perhaps to place a half-English girl in Belgium, but then Charlotte shows her own preferences for familiarity with her home country. While there she only befriended a few English people, and William is just like that. Why should a realistic novelist (she aimed to be so) create a tiny fantasy-space of Olde England? Apart from purposes of narrative it makes a home for William, and it is also an escape into a place he never had. In home he was unhappy because he was isolated and unworldly in an industrial landscape, in Frances' lodgings he gets to experience the nostalgia he has never had, things of 100 years ago. I suspect he is old-fashioned, and this antiquity is a longing for old, less industrial times. Charlotte was fond of Walter Scott's novels and didn't really like Victorian novels so you see the point. It represents a Romantic ideal in a bleak city. Even in Frances' rooms you are brought into an inner world (sadly inaccessible to most of us unused to classical English literature) of Milton and Sir Walter Scott. These are epics of grand passions, unexpected in a little room in Brussels. I can almost hear Charlotte trying to tell us, it is not great people of great spheres who are the heroes, it is great-minded people of small spheres who matter in her story.

It is also in Frances' lodgings that Crimsworth is resolved to marry her: indeed, it is where he proposes to her. Fans of romantic stories, listen. Their master-pupil relationship develops, William taking the stern lead as master (if you are a feminist, you won't like this). He visits her a second time, and overhears her reciting poetry by Walter Scott, and then a French poem. The poem itself conjures impressionistic images. It is about this girl called Jane, the student of an unnamed teacher. The teacher is sympathetic towards her, letting her take a break when she is pale with overwork, and yet she loves the sound of his voice. She works hard to win the school prize, becoming his favourite. Eventually she has to leave and he is dismayed at being parted. In today's context this would be paedophilia but the clean Victorians wouldn't have found this much scandalous. Courting was much chaster then. Anyway Jane is probably in her late teens. I swear I could see shaded trees and grass, 19th century buildings and hedges, in my mind's eye, as I read this. It was startlingly vivid, without using many words. This school setting is the basis of Frances' idea of a relationship: a master teaching his pupil, as William teaches her (she is 19 though), and as Charlotte envisioned her lessons with Monsieur Heger, her French teacher in Brussels. It is not all dominance though : Crimsworth advises Frances to retire from work, as he can earn enough money for them, but she insists on teaching, as it will allow her independence, instead of sitting at home doing nothing but housework. Charlotte was adamant on professions for single women to employ their faculties, and this stance by Frances is a radical one, as those days a married woman who could afford it would not work. It is the prelude to Charlotte's more independent heroines later on, more subtle, perhaps less moving but still striking.
Mesdames Reuter and Pelet taking tea together

I have omitted to mention another important thing. Crimsworth says that a small income goes a long way in Brussels, where prudence is valued, and there is no need to be ostentatious and have a wonderful lifestyle, unlike England, where people were more superficial. The Victorians, being a new superpower especially in trade has the typical nouveau riche who would buy things and indulge themselves for no good reason. They were prudent compared to us now, but for their era they were considered ostentatious. Being a cold, reserved country which paid attention to superficialities contrasts with the warmer, less formal Belgium where Crimsworth finds himself and his true love. But Frances wishes to go to England to work, because she admires it as a superpower. Again Charlotte compares both countries. England is shown to be tyrannous  to the working classes, a factory super-power clouded with smoke and soot.

They marry and start a successful school, and after that return to England, where they reside near Hunsden in a gentlemanly existence.  Here Charlotte shows her longing to be practical instead of romantic (something that never worked out): Hunsden is leagued with the practical manufacturers rather than the French political theorists and intellectuals. He lives in his old manor house, retired from trade, as he has enough money. This is another feature of the Victorians: those of old families would not work in trade if they had the money. Among the younger sons professions were chosen but trade wasn't really the most gentlemanly pursuit. This time, however, England is portrayed in a favourable light.

Could The Professor have been written had it been set in England? I don't think so.  Charlotte's juvenilia had been set in an imaginary country, Angria, with English characters, but as The Professor aimed for realism, she had to write what she knew, or else not do it convincingly. She lacked inspiration for plot, and it was only after Wuthering Heights' publication that Jane Eyre was written. Unlike Emily, Charlotte was not a full-fledged Gothic melodramatist. The novel is remarkable for analysis rather than plot, and a sojourn overseas is still a plot, something she couldn't have managed in an English setting. The foreignness of the Belgians would not be there, even the disdain for Catholicism would be absent. Much as I deplore the anti-Catholicism in her books it is integral to her position as a writer. It explains her sense of foreignness and solitude in Belgium: it is her way of explaining why, try as she might, she could never fit in. So she had to push the others into a group - in this case, the Catholics. I don't know if you've noticed, but she had a tendency to group people, into the fashionable set, the idle classes, the Catholics, the unthinking and unfeeling populace, whether they are upper, middle or lower class. The middle class on the whole fare the best in her estimation, the upper classes deemed proud and wasteful and the lower classes insolent and unthinking. Charlotte Bronte is essentially a middle-class writer for the Romantic figure, an interesting play because traditionally Romantic figures were upper-class or a noble labourer.

It is a brave attempt to compare two countries she lived in. Much as I prefer Villette and Jane Eyre, there is a slight power in The Professor - a realistic description, a socio-commentary that shows the young Charlotte Brontë's concerns with the wider world - something she had problems with in her later literary ventures, which has caused readers to think she was somewhat unaware of contemporary events.

You may find the illustrations by Edmund Dulac here


  1. Such a wonderful post, Caroline! I love your blog. Thank you for participating in the challenge.

    I hadn't heard of Miss Mulock's and must go look into her novels as most of my favorite authors are Victorians (love Gaskell, A.Bronte, & Eliot).

  2. Hi Katherine, thanks for popping by! I love the Victorians too (Bronte, Gaskell, Trollope, Eliot). I haven't read much Mulock, but so far I think her best is Olive.