Written in 1846, although not published during her lifetime, The Professor is a largely autobiographical account of Charlotte’s two years teaching in Belgium. Her attempt to narrate the story through a male character is at best a mixed success. There is, as with Villette, a degree of wish fulfillment, as the romance is successfully concluded with marriage, a child, and a comfortable country cottage. Reader, I married him. If this was all The Professor had to offer then its obscurity would be understandable, however well drawn the romance is. However, there are other elements that draw the attention.
One of the minor characters is Mr Hunsden (if he is given a first name, I missed it), an acquaintance and latterly friend of Mr Crimsworth, the eponymous professor. Despite being relatively prosperous, Hunsden is undoubtedly a radical. He describes England in terms which would surely have been shocking to Victorian England in its Imperious pomp
“A little, corrupt, venal, lord-and-king-cursed nation, full of mucky pride… and helpless pauperism; rotten with abuses, worm-eaten with prejudices. ….Come to England and see ….examine the footprints of our august aristocracy; see how they walk in blood, crushing hearts as they go. Just put your head in at English cottage doors; get a glimpse of famine crouched torpid in black hearthstones, of Disease lying bare on beds without coverlets, of Infamy wantoning viciously with Ignorance, though indeed Luxury is her favourite paramour, and princely halls are dearer to her than thatched hovels”. 175
This is purple but very effective prose which Dickens and other observers of Victorian England’s darker side would hesitate to use. The speech is dismissed by Frances Henri, the Swiss teacher and fiance of the Professor to whom it is addressed, and the theme is largely dropped.
In contrast the novel also has a vigorous anti-Catholic element. Frances is the spokesperson for this point of view:
“I know nothing of the arcana of the Roman Catholic religion, and I am not a bigot in matters of theology, but I suspect the root of all this precocious impurity, so obvious, so general in Popish countries, is to be found in the discipline, if not the docutrines, of the Church of Rome. …These girls belonged to what are called the respectable ranks of society. They had all been carefully brought up, yet was the mass of the mentally depraved.” (page 71)
“ I long to live once more among Protestants. They are more honest than Catholics. A Romish school is a building with porous walls, a hollow floor, a false ceiling. Every room in this house Monsieur has eye holes and ear holes, and what the house is the inhabitants are – very treacherous.” (page 106/7)
It is easy to forget in liberal, 21st century Britain how virulent anti-Catholicism was in this country for centuries – only 60 years earlier London had been torn apart by the Gordon riots (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Riots
) – Frances’s anti-Catholicism can presumably be read as a simple reflection of Charlotte’s own feelings.
Finally, there is room in the novel for Charlotte’s defence of her occupation as a novelist. She clearly felt the prejudice against women writers deeply, as she puts these words in the mouths of another female character:
“It appears to me that ambition, literary ambition especially, is not a feeling to be cherished in the mind of a woman. Would not Mlle Henri be much safer and happier if taught to believe that in the quiet discharge of scial duties consists her real vocation, than if stimulated to aspire after applause and publicity? She may never marry, scanty as are her resources, obscure as are her connections, uncertain as is her health (for I think her consumptive).” (page 111) How many times must she have heard these sentiments, or suspected them. The final parenthesis – “for I think her consumptive” is sadly chilling.