(I read much less elegantly/yellow-ly)

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Professor by Charlotte Brontë: a Review

Alrighty, The Professor. Not exactly the most promising start to the Brontë readthrough, but fortunately it was very, very short, and after we get through this review we'll be setting sail for calmer, more female-narrator-y and less oddly-bigoted waters. Slight spoilers ahead, and goodness knows you don't want a single delightful moment of this novel spoiled for you!
I jest.
Our hero (yeah..."hero"),William Crimsworth, is a speshull, sensitive snowflake decides to make his way in life by teaching English in Belgium. Hence, the title. So far so good. But, but:
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The thing about William is that he's a horrible person. His characterization either aged terribly or was just a failure to begin with, because he is a sexist, racist, overbearing, uptight ass. For one thing, I don't know why he would think in a million years that his career choice would make him anything other than miserable, as he feels and expresses strongly from the get-go that Belgium is a vulgar place populated by vulgar hordes of vulgar Belgians. (Who knew Charlotte Brontë was anti-Belgium?  I  thought she was pretty much about introspective proto-feminism and tiny heroines. How very, very wrong I was.)

When not complaining about a situation he created for himself and could easily have avoided altogether, he spends the vast majority of his time observing the "figures" and "physiognomies" of his students. Who are young teenage girls, mind you. Although they're "well-formed," our impressionable friend William is repulsed by their Flemish vulgarity - which is of course made apparent by their inferior physiognomies. (This word is used far, far too often.) William spends the entire novel talking either like this:

"Dancing began; I should have liked well enough to be introduced to some pleasing and intelligent girl, and to have freedom and opportunity to show that I could both feel and communicate the pleasure of social intercourse." 

or like this:

"[A student] is of middle size, stiffly made, body long, legs short, bust much developed but not compactly moulded (???)...her hair, so glossy with gum and grease, is not such as one feels tempted to pass the hand over, much less run the fingers through...age not above fifteen but as full-grown as a stout young Englishwoman of twenty... below her were seated a band of very vulgar, inferior-looking Flamandes, including two or three examples of that deformity of person and imbecility of intellect whose frequency in the Low Countries would seem to furnish proof that the climate is such as to induce degeneracy of the human mind and body."

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But then! He meets a girl who he can actually tolerate because she is not a Debased Flemish Slattern, and they fall in love as he teaches her English. However, by that point I already hate him with the burning power of a thousand imploding stars and I don't CARE if his kindred spirit can write flowery poetry in English. Seriously.

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Plus the falling-in-love process is made totally inexplicable by William's maintenance of this mega-rude, standoffish demeanor which is also just plain stupid given that, as previously mentioned, until he meets this girl, his time not spent checking out his students is spent bemoaning the fact that he can find nobody to sympathize with his refined, delicate soul or whatever. So naturally once he finds someone he actually feels is fit to associate with him, he acts like a total nincompoop ARGH I CAN'T EVEN WITH THIS CHARACTER.
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All this nonsense somehow manages to be repulsive and boring at once. On the bright side, there is a bit of potential present - it is yet tiny and trembling and cowering in the shadows cast by the bloated, bigoted grossness of William's idiocy, but as we know it will soon flourish. And I really love this quote:

“Human beings -- human children especially -- seldom deny themselves the pleasure of exercising a power which they are conscious of possessing, even though that power consist only in a capacity to
make others wretched.”

Jane Eyre, here I come!


  1. Zebulous,

    "The Professor" sounds like an author's attempt at creating a character with a problem that is overcome in the course of the story but unfortunately the problem is so irritating that one does not care if it is ovecome or not. Later, theis author realized various ways of having the protagonist problematic but still sympathetic. Or so it would seem.

    Sincerely Yours,
    Cuthbert Spurious

    1. Hi Cuthbert,
      Thanks so much for your comment! I definitely, definitely agree - it looks like Charlotte set out to write a simple moral tale with a flawed but ultimately upstanding protagonist. For me at least, the "flawed" part of his characterization proved too heavy-handed, eclipsing any other aspects of his personality. Clearly, Charlotte could make amazingly powerful use of the first-person narrative, and if writing The Professor helped get her there then I'm glad she wrote it!
      Best wishes,

  2. Zebulous,

    I had to delete a comment due to a typo, but then forgot to correct the typo before re-publishing the comment. I have decided to avoid a second deletion which may result in a major power outage on the East coast.

    With profuse apologies and eager anticipation of your understanding,
    Cuthbert Spurious

    1. No worries! On behalf of the East coast I thank you for your noble actions. :)