Book Review: The Professor by Charlotte Bronte

The Professor was Charlotte Bronte’s first book, written in 1845-6 but not published until 1857, two years after her death, and ten years after the publication of her most famous work, Jane Eyre. Although a new review of a well-known classic serves little purpose, it is interesting to put on record one’s views from a modern perspective. From the beginning of The Professor it is clear that the young Charlotte Bronte had an astonishing fluency and breath of vocabulary but she writes with a charming naivety and from a seemingly narrow breath of experience.

The principal character is a young man, William Crimsworth, and one must wonder immediately if the young female writer can create a realistic male mind. The author was obviously more successful with a female heroine in Jane Eyre. Though a heterosexual, William Crimsworth, has a particularly sanitised view of members of the fair sex. How much this is due to the conventions of the period and how much to the author’s inevitable lack of insight is impossible to say.

All the important characters in The Professor are described in detail with regard to physical appearance and demeanour but attention is paid to the interpretation of head shape by the pseudoscience of phrenology, which was popular in the period immediately before the book was written but has since been discredited. Miss Bronte’s tendency to discern nationality from head shape is also hard to accept in the modern world. However, this is not a harsh criticism, as all authors run the risk of their scientific knowledge being superseded in later years.

Some of the characters seem to be of such extreme nature as to be hard to believe. Could anyone be quite so unfeeling and cruel as William’s brother, Edward, or quite so detached, ill-mannered and omniscient as Mr Hunsden? Extreme caricatures can enhance the drama and intrigue, take Sherlock Holmes for instance, but there can be perhaps too many in one novel. Miss Bronte’s female characters, Frances Henri and Zoraide Reuter, are completely believable and can be taken on trust as the creations of a female mind.

William Crimsworth earns his living as an English teacher and although today he would need a TEFL certificate he appears to be well qualified for the job and successful in its execution. William speaks fluent French, and as much of the dialogue is reported in that language, Miss Bronte seems to expect her readers to have at least a sound basic knowledge. Presumably, her sophisticated aristocratic Victorian readers could cope with this amount of French, but many modern readers might find this substantial use of a foreign language annoying. However, it is remarkable how little the English language has changed in almost one hundred and seventy years and The Professor will continue to be read and enjoyed long after this, and most other reviews, are forgotten.