|Portrait by J. H. Thompson|
First novels can be hit-and-miss, even those of “great authors.” Nathaniel Hawthorne was so ashamed of Fanshawe he wanted all copies burnt. Jane Austen’s Love and Friendship, written in her teens, did not (unsurprisingly) carry the depth and drama of her later, famous novels. Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, is arguably one of the weaker of the four. While some talented authors debut a masterpiece, it’s as equally likely that their first book is not their best. All of this goes to show that 1) no one is born a great novelist, and 2) it is worthwhile to keep trying, even if your first writing is highly flawed.
The Professor was Charlotte Bronte’s first novel but not published until after her death. It has a very similar plot to Villette (1853), and it’s best read as a first draft of that superior novel. Unfortunately, this is still insufficient for enjoying the book, because it’s just not a great story. It took me several tries over many years to start and continue reading it, and I’ll be completely honest: if it weren’t for me trying to read all the Bronte novels (with just Anne’s Tenant remaining), I don’t think I would have finished The Professor.
Our male protagonist (Bronte’s only one) is William Crimsworth, a young Englishman just recently finished with his education. He attempts to work for his industrious brother (think Gaskells’s John Thornton, except meaner), which doesn’t pan out, so he goes into the world to seek his fortunes independently. He ends up teaching English at two schools in Brussels, one of which is a girl’s school. He falls awkwardly into a love rectangle involving the directors of both schools and one of the students (who is also a teacher, to make it slightly less weird). Some conflict ensues.
The story is highly uneven and overall uneventful, not a winning combination. For fans of Villette, there is some interest in seeing the precursors for better characters: William and Frances are like Lucy and Paul, Zoraïde is clearly an early version of Madame Beck, and the minor character Hunsden is not unlike Rochester in his charisma and abrupt manners. However, you’re left wishing you were re-reading Villette instead, with all its intrigue, mystery, and surrealism. The Professor, by contrast, is very careful and stolid and utterly boring.
In addition to the lackluster plot, Crimsworth is a rather irritating narrator. One doesn’t feel quite comfortable in his romance with his female student, and apart from that, his prejudice against Catholicism and various nationalities is rampant throughout the book. (There is some of this in Villette, though less, if I remember correctly.) It really shows how even within one race of people, there can be many deep divisions.
In the end, I can only recommend The Professor to Bronte completionists. It is probably for the best that it was rejected by publishers, because Jane Eyre came next, bringing with it a dynamic female narrator that was to carry forward to Villette, the refined novelization of Charlotte’s own experience in Brussels. Those of us trying to write our own stories can look at this as an example of why not to give up, and also of how our characters, given enough time, will evolve and mature just as we do.