Thursday, 9 August 2012

William Crimsworth, or Understanding the Narrator of The Professor

I have never really liked the narrator of The Professor, but Charlotte Brontë was right to say it contains more depth than Jane Eyre. And unlike soppy rakish Mr Rochester (I told my grandmother the main fault of Jane Eyre was Mr Rochester and she said how insensitive I was) or the withdrawn pallid Louis Moore, William Crimsworth is fully flawed. This is because he is not the mate of the protagonist, he is the protagonist. As to Charlotte's inexperience with male characters, I'll come to that later. But he is still better than those sops.

Crimsworth's problem, the way I see it, is like a preliminary to Jane Eyre, and unlike Lucy Snowe he is very forthright (just like a man! or maybe not, as they are supposed to be more concealed about their feelings). He cannot inspire liking. Just look at the way Hunsden tells him the X - belles sneer at him when he mentions Crimsworth's name to them. Hunsden refers to them as hothouse grapes, sour to Crimsworth because he can't have them. Crimsworth despises the shallow girls, but Hunsden rightly points out not all of them are shallow, and some are sensible and agreeable to talk to. Crimsworth is the problem (if Hunsden thinks so, why then does he seek Crimsworth's society and friendship? Charlotte, do be consistent.)  Crimsworth however does have his own type of fruit - Frances, who can accept him as he is. It is a matter of taste and chemistry. They are kindred souls, as Hunsden would believe.

Charlotte makes him so repulsive I can only suppose she deliberately made him unheroic and unlikeable - and by doing so she has uncovered for us her loyal fans her motivations behind Lucy Snowe's unhappiness. Only Lucy Snowe is a nicer person.  You don't have to like Fanny Price to appreciate her, the same goes for Crimsworth. Remember in the beginning of the novel he sends a letter to an old friend, a cynic and his only schoolfriend? The fact the letter never reaches him shows his isolation.

Crimsworth also takes pains to tell us despite his success his circle of intimate acquaintances is small as ever - I nearly snorted, because company loves success. But it shows you Charlotte's intentions. No one can ever understand Crimsworth (except Frances, and Hunsden to a cynical degree). Is he meant to be Byronic? Perhaps. His refusal to commit adultery with Madame Pelet-Reuter, however, is Victorianised. The fact that despite success he is still very much aloof shows you there is something deeper in his faults - this couldn't be cured, as Charlotte wanted to say. Cruder than Villette, but still. I liked the book when I was 15, not so much now, but if you want to understand Lucy Snowe's creation, read The Professor.

Hunsden jeeringly implies that Crimsworth chooses Frances as a wife is because she is not too high for him, and within his reach. Hunsden himself doesn't favour her type. This is like a prequel to the natural selection debate. I doubt Charlotte thought of natural selection, (that only came about in 1859), but the similar Victorian environment that inspired Darwin no doubt inspired her as well. Crimsworth can't cope with a brighter, more sparkling woman - the quiet, impassioned Frances suits him better. She is not, moreover, sought by other men. That Crimsworth gets such a "lowly" price (according to the world's estimation anyway) is yet another way of telling his flaws. His mastery over Frances is the mastery of a man over a weak woman, because he can't handle a stronger one. Of course it's not just the inferiority complex thing, because he is not merely master of her mind and person, but he has made himself master of her heart.

Oh, and speaking of mastery. One of the reasons he loves Frances is that he is her master. Though anyone who has read the book would know that. Any other woman would be beyond his control.

I also like that for a plain heroine, Frances isn't physically repulsive. Crimsworth is physically attracted to her, though her intelligence is still the main influence on his preference.  Which is a fact of life Charlotte wanted to show, something she didn't quite succeed with Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe.  There must be at least some physical factor or the man will not fall in love. It is that igniting spark. Though Frances is plain and hasn't harmonious or regular features (I suppose), she has some good features, like good skin, delicate proportions, etc. I can almost imagine this girl, not beautiful and yet not vulgar, rather ladylike.

I never quite understood the strange attraction between Hunsden and Crimsworth. Crimsworth only really befriends him after he becomes a successful schoolmaster, before that, he shuns him (I don't like him at all). Hunsden loves to domineer over Crimsworth, who can't take it till he becomes his own person.  So what is the purpose of Hunsden? To release Crimsworth, get him a job, and just as important, show to us Crimsworth's faults, which he can't say as he's the narrator and therefore biassed. And yet the fact Hunsden likes Crimsworth, and that Frances loves him tells you Crimsworth is not entirely a bad person. He may be harsh and insensitive and prejudiced, but he is not cruel, shallow or unfaithful. Charlotte has cleverly said it for us: an essentially honourable person who isn't universally liked (or even liked on an average basis) despite his virtues. Why she chose to have the industrial bit in the beginning, discard it in the end, and merge it with the aristocratic conflict, we do not know. But we can guess. It's not merely a question of backward aristocracy and emerging industrialist, there's a third class, and it is the middle-class intellectual. Whether Charlotte intended this I don't know, but it's possible.

That the novel ends on a sad note (Victor having to go to Eton where he will be tortured. By the way why did Charlotte choose a French name for her hero's son? Victor wasn't a mainstream English name then). Not a typical ending, but Charlotte deliberately wanted a realistic story for her heroes. Their temperament is such that ill-equips them for life's joys and merriment.  Like his melancholic parents, sunny days will not be Victor's privilege. I am convinced here Charlotte was championing (or rather depicting) the underdog. No softening of harshness, no pleasing beauty, and yet no real condemnation of this unsympathetic narrator. She asks us to take him as he is. And it is this that distinguishes The Professor from Jane Eyre and Shirley.

1 comment:

  1. :) Very well said "Caroline Helstone"... hehehe xP
    [sorry for necro-ing this, but I just fished this(your work) and found it really cool and interesting]