These two classic novels, together with Brontë's well-known Jane Eyre and Villette, comprise a magnificent oeuvre, each one a singular achievement of characterization, human understanding, and narrative elegance and drama.
Shirley is the story of a complicated friendship between two very different women: shy and socially constrained Caroline, the poor niece of a tyrannical clergyman; and the independent heiress Shirley, who has both the resources and the spirit to defy convention. The romantic entanglements of the two women with a local mill owner and his penniless brother pit the claims of passion against the boundaries of class and society.
The Professor—the first novel Brontë completed, the last to be published—is both a disturbing love story and the coming-of-age tale of a self-made man. At its center is William Crimsworth, who has come to Brussels to work as an instructor in a school for girls. When he becomes entangled with Zoräide Reuter, a charismatic and brilliantly intellectual woman, the fervor of her feelings threatens both her own engagement and William's chance of finding true love.
FROM THE INTRODUCTION
The Professor and Shirley have always suffered from being the stable-mates of Jane Eyre and Villette. In its time Jane Eyre’s realism and honesty meant it was widely regarded as a ‘dangerous book’, while Villette, as George Eliot wrote, was ‘almost preternatural in its power’. Today Jane Eyre is still one of the most popular novels in the English language, while Villette maintains its position as an extraordinary portrait of the feminine psyche. Beside such race-horses, The Professor, a gentle love story set in a school in Brussels, and Shirley, a novel of industrial strife in Yorkshire during the Napoleonic Wars, might look a little humdrum. Yet to those fascinated by the obscure clergyman’s daughter who astounded the Victorian establishment, they make essential reading. Their heroines anticipate the revolutionary nature of their more celebrated sisters and the books boldly explore the themes of Jane Eyre and Villette, particularly the question of how women can find happiness in a society inimical to their needs. Not only are they highly enjoyable – Shirley is richly comic, while Mrs Gaskell described Frances Henri as ‘the most charming woman [she] ever drew’ – they also demonstrate that work-in-progress, the ongoing development of Charlotte Brontë as a writer.
Written in 1846, after the novelist returned from that single visit abroad which was to have such an effect upon her creative powers, The Professor was not to be published in her lifetime. Charlotte had spent two years in Brussels, from 1842 to 1844, being taught by a gifted literature professor, M. Constantin Heger. His wife ran the school in the Rue Isabelle where both Charlotte and Emily Brontë boarded as special students. Their aim was to brush up their French so that they might set up a boarding school of their own in their father’s parsonage at Haworth, inWest Yorkshire. At a time when there were few jobs for women, opening a school for girls seemed a good solution to the problem of earning a living for the highly sensitive Brontës whose means were small. They had tried governessing and detested the social condescension it entailed. Emily, who disliked parting from her natural habitat, loathed the Heger school and left after a year. Charlotte, who had conceived what would become a passionate crush on the charismatic M. Heger, the only gifted teacher she had ever encountered, stayed for another year, inspired by his influence. Then she too left, having become practically ill from the intensity of her feelings. But the school plans were blighted by her brother Branwell’s presence at home. Now a disgraced ex-tutor, he was rapidly descending into fatal alcoholism. Matters were further complicated when his adulterous relationship with his employer’s wife, Mrs Robinson, forced Charlotte to confront the nature of her own feelings for M. Heger with whom she had attempted to carry on a correspondence, which his wife, at least, felt went beyond the bounds of ordinary friendship.
It has been argued that Charlotte Brontë’s famous yearning letters to M. Heger were themselves a form of literary creation. By 1845 when Heger’s silence made it obvious there was to be no reply, the effect was to throw Charlotte back onto real artistic endeavour. Once again she began writing a book, but this time she was determined it should be published. Although being a professional writer had been a serious ambition since she was a young girl, it also seemed the only reasonably genteel way of earning a living left to her. Obsessed by literature from a very early age – she had even written to the Poet Laureate Robert Southey for an opinion of her work when she was twenty-one – Charlotte had already written at least ten novels; they were experiments of precocious brilliance in voice and style. Despite being told by Southey that ‘literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life and it ought not to be’, she had never really abandoned her ambition. There is evidence that Charlotte even showed some of her writing to M. Heger. He too appears to have believed that writing was an inappropriate career for the female sex.
An isolated parsonage on the edge of the Yorkshire moors was not a promising situation from which to find a London publisher. Nevertheless the outwardly shy, but inwardly steely Charlotte Brontë had the sort of drive that meant she would not give up. Because she and her sisters believed, as Charlotte put it, 'that authoresses are likely to be looked on with prejudice', they adopted the noms de plume of Acton, Ellis and Currer Bell. They were not 'positively masculine' which they felt would have been dishonest, but they were not feminine either. By 1846 Charlotte had published her and her sisters' poems, and hoped to publish The Professor, a novel which she deliberately intended to be satisfyingly realistic. It was to have the sort of everyday quality which she felt to be lacking in the current crop of literary offerings. As Charlotte wrote, 'I said to myself that my hero should work his way through life as I had seen real living men work theirs – that he should never get a shilling he had not earned – that no sudden turns should lift him in a moment to wealth and high station'. And certainly there are no sudden turns for her hero, the scholarly young William Crimsworth, born to an uneasy union between an aristocratic lady and a businessman.
Having rejected his short-tempered aristocratic relations because he does not want a career in the Church or what would be in effect an arranged marriage, Crimsworth moves to Yorkshire to work for his cold-hearted manufacturer brother. But things do not go much better in Yorkshire. Sacked for no fault of his own from his job as foreign correspondence clerk, he leaves for Brussels to become a teacher. There he finds happiness at last with a virtuous, sympathetic and impoverished young lacemaker, Frances Henri, to whom he teaches English. The character of Frances Henri has more than a hint of Jane Eyre. The book also includes a first portrait of Charlotte's Yorkshire friend Mary Taylor's father as the kindly republican, French-speaking factory owner York Hunsden who reappears in Shirley as Hiram Yorke. It is Mr Hunsden who gets William Crimsworth to Brussels just as it was Mr Taylor and his family who encouraged Charlotte to go to there. As York Hunsden's name suggests, he is a repository of the Yorkshire qualities, for good or bad, which Charlotte, the child of two transplanted Celts, found so distinctive.
So far, so everyday. In fact things were not quite as everyday as they seemed. After reading Jane Eyre the critic G. H. Lewes had told Currer Bell she must watch out for melodrama, and to 'adhere to the real'. In response she revealed, 'When I first began to write, so impressed was I with the truth of the principles you advocate, that I determined to take Nature and Truth as my sole guides...I restrained imagination, eschewed romance, repressed excitement; over-bright colouring, too, I avoided, and sought to produce something which should be soft, grave and true.' But this was not strictly accurate. For all Charlotte's later dedication to realism, in fact her first writing, the writing she had practised with her then beloved brother Branwell since her teens, was quite the opposite. Until her late twenties when she left for Brussels, she and Branwell lived in an imaginary, sensual pseudo-Byronic world they invented and wrote about obsessively. As is well known, Charlotte and her siblings were left motherless at the age of six. From then on they ran wild. The four little Brontë sisters briefly attended a harsh and badly run school at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire whose neglect caused two of them to die of tuberculosis. That was the last attempt at formal schooling for Charlotte until she was almost fifteen.
It was not for another six years that she went to school again, Miss Wooler's establishment at Roe Head. But the expense meant it could only last for three terms, though she would return as a teacher a few years later. At Miss Wooler's Charlotte made lifelong friends with ordinary girls of her own age who had nothing of her brother's febrile and excitable nature. In contrast to Branwell they were soothing and kind, offering the timorous Charlotte good sense and simplicity as well as the contacts for subsequent posts as a governess. Nevertheless Charlotte Brontë spent the many years between these short glimpses of normality submerged in the imaginary kingdom known as Angria. A very isolated childhood in the wilds of Yorkshire, the tragic early deaths of her mother and siblings, buried in the churchyard at the end of their garden, and a highly sensitive, artistic nature meant that to her and Branwell the private world books offered was overwhelmingly attractive. Writing and reading became a compulsive way of life which made up for their lack of human contact.
And in the novels about Angria, which grew out of a group of toy soldiers their father brought back as a present one winter's evening, Charlotte and Branwell could be anyone they liked. Initially very influenced by Sir Walter Scott, later by Byron, they lived and breathed an imaginary existence. From soldiery it moved on to intense amatory intrigue, between their two main protagonists the Duke of Zamorna (Charlotte's) and the Duke of Northangerland (Branwell's), and passionate unorthodox heroines (Charlotte's). But they also took pleasure in assuming the personas of all the writers and bookmen of the day, details of whose way of life the ambitious pair gleaned from literary journals and magazines such as Blackwood's.
By the time Charlotte left for Brussels she had written a great many novels which Mrs Gaskell would deplore (though she did not read most of them) as 'the wildest and most incoherent things...They give one the idea of creative power carried to the verge of insanity'. Like many women of her time whose actions were limited by poverty and circumstance, the main part of Charlotte Brontë's life was passed with only her siblings and father for company. In a later age she would have gone to university; in 1837 there were few chances of escape. But by the time she wrote The Professor Charlotte's once happy collaboration with Branwell had come to seem like a dangerous addiction. For some time before she left for Brussels Charlotte had been aware that the life of constant 'making out', her other name for describing the imaginary world she and Branwell inhabited, had become dangerous for her sanity.
Her great friend Mary Taylor, the original of Rose Yorke in Shirley, would scold her about the imaginary world of which Charlotte had given her a carefully edited version: 'The whole family used to ''make out'' histories and invent characters and events. I told them they were like potatoes growing in a cellar. She said, sadly, ''Yes I know we are!'' ' but it was almost impossible for her to abandon it. Nevertheless it was something that she was determined to do. The well-known piece Charlotte wrote at twenty-three, generally called 'The Farewell to Angria', documents her attempt to break away from the Byronic world. In lyrical prose she describes the need 'to quit for awhile that burning clime where we have sojourned too long - its skies aflame - the glow of sunset is always upon it - the mind would cease from excitement and turn now to a cooler region where the day breaks cold and sober, and the coming day for a time at least is subdued by clouds'.
And yet despite the resolutions which would be the impetus behind The Professor, all kinds of signs suggest Charlotte found it very hard to escape the magnates of what would be described as the 'infernal world'. There is evidence that they still filled her mind in Brussels, and she solved the problem of parting from her characters by continuing to scribble away at a manuscript in which the Angrians are simply transported wholesale to Yorkshire. Even the opening of the 'grave and true' Professor contains a letter from William Crimsworth to one of the most well-known Angrian characters, a witty man about town, named Charles Townshend.
Living so much in her imaginary world, the most ordinary exchanges assumed extraordinary dimensions for Charlotte. Virginia Woolf 's father, Leslie Stephen, was at first perplexed by what he considered to be the prosaic nature of her raw materials. After various sallies in critical essays in which he cuttingly compares Mr Rochester's way of talking to an overwrought lady governess, or grumbles that Rochester is an 'Aeolus of the duckpond',he finally had to surrender and confess his admiration. He concluded, memorably, that 'Miss Brontë's marvellous effects are obtained by the process which enables an ''intense and glowing mind'' to see everything through its own atmosphere. The ugliest and most trivial objects seem, like objects heated by the sun, to radiate back the glow of passion with which she has regarded them.' And there in a nutshell is the paradox of Charlotte Brontë.
In some way M. Heger was allowed to infiltrate into this imaginary world and become a part of it. Although her return from Brussels and Branwell's behaviour clarified her moral sense it was almost impossible for Charlotte to escape her obsessional nature. Yet that in the end would be the secret of her power. The logical Charlotte accepted that the relationship with M. Heger was over, but the writer Charlotte seems to have found solace by writing a dream of what might have been.