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Absorbing first novel,
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This review is from: The Professor (Kindle Edition)
I really enjoyed this early novel by Charlotte Bronte and, perhaps strangely, it gave me a fuller appreciation of her greatness as a novelist than ever before. Bronte deals with some important issues which must have been preoccupations of hers, such as denomination and religion, class, nationality, and feminism. I'd say its underlying theme is the nature of human freedom.
The Professor, Brontės first novel, was not published until after her sadly early death. I find it intriguing that,in an era when there were many restrictions placed upon women, she imagines what greater freedom would be like by choosing to write in the first person as William Crimsworth, an aristocratic but friendless young man. He is vulnerable - like Jane Eyre,he's an orphan and, as Lucy Snowe was to do in Villette, he leaves an England which seems to offer him little and builds a new life in Brussels. Perhaps Charlotte Bronte felt better able to explore the issues of male and female power through writing as a man; in any case, boring but worthy Crimsworth seems her ideal man, treating his wife - if not quite as an equal - then at least as someone worthy of freedom and respect.
William has received little love, respect or help from his biological family and, though he works hard and outwardly challenges no-one, he is unwilling to submit to the kind of control and exploitation his relatives offer him. Helped by the enigmatic Hunsden, he manages to get a job as a teacher in a Belgian school. There, he is attracted to the strong-minded headmistress of the next-door girls' school and later to a junior teacher and pupil of his, Frances Henri. In these two relationships, Bronte is able to explore issues of domination and submission and of the nature of female power as Crimsworth struggles through difficulties to eventual independence and happiness.
Charlotte Bronte herself taught in Belgium at one time and we see her uncomplimentary impressions of Belgian Catholicism (authoritarian and removing people's power to think for themselves) and of that country's young people (also uncomplimentary). The book is an argument for the freedom of women to have careers and earn their own living, even after marriage, which was pretty forward-thinking at the time. She shows that success can come through hard work and determination, even when one has no secure place in a family or a community.
William Crimsworth, the professor, is an emotionally deprived, unloved person who still does his best to do what is right, following his conscience just as Jane Eyre was to do in a later book. He seems an odd mixture of pride and humility, of domination and kindness - but then, that really is what human nature is like. He does as he is told by those who have power over him, because it is in his interests to protect himself, but he dislikes authoritarianism, whether from the Catholic church or from employers. He is striving towards self-respect and personal freedom. His love-interest, Frances, has similar contradictions - outwardly, towards society, she is conventionally submissive but inwardly, she is ardently feminist, longing for the same personal autonomy. I spent most of my life among women who were told by a religious system that they should be quiet and submissive - and who conformed outwardly, but had those same inner resentments and longings; so I feel quite a lot of sympathy for Frances. The same pressures have turned Mlle Reuter, the headmistress, into a manipulative hypocrite. It is her route to power when she is denied the direct power men can have.
This early novel shows many of the strengths that were to make Bronte a great novelist. Its themes are not as fully developed as in her later novels, but they are present and they provoke thought. The book is less wordy than Jane Eyre and is well-structured, although one wishes some characters were more developed and that we knew more of their story. The final chapter is really about Crimsworth's happy and ideal existence; it seems packed full of events and ideas which I would have enjoyed having more fully explained, but its aim seems to be to expound Charlotte Bronte's own ideals and aspiration.
The style of writing demands a certain level of education, since quite a bit of the dialogue is in French, with no translation offered. My O-level French (now extremely rusty) coped most of the time, but I'm not sure why Bronte thought it was a good idea. She does say at one point that the French loses something in translation, but of course it loses quite a lot more if you don't understand it! Nevertheless, the book is quite surprisingly absorbing and the characters interestingly complex. Her talent was being developed and I was glad to have the chance to view the process.