A friend alerted me to the Austen/Bronte-themed podcast Bonnets At Dawn, which recently featured the creator of the marvelously strange web series Black Girl in a Big Dress and referenced a fascinating LitHub article from a few months back, Reading Jane Eyre While Black. Around that time I’d been reading “Villette” and was struck by how much she seemed to deplore Catholics, too. Which does not excuse her handling of poor Bertha Rochester, but does help us set it in a wider context.
By a strange coincidence, I learned of the Bonnets At Dawn podcast at the same time I was reading “The Professor,” the only Bronte novel I’ve not read before. This, as fans know, was sent out along with “Agnes Grey” and “Wuthering Heights” after the sisters had self-published a volume of poetry . AG and WH finally found a publishing home after many failed submissions, but nobody wanted “The Professor.” Charlotte, showing admirable resilience, turned around and wrote “Jane Eyre,” which immediately became a literary sensation while her sisters’ novels were still languishing in pre-publication. But even after “Jane Eyre” had made her a rock star in mid-19th century Britain, Charlotte Bronte could not get “The Professor” published; it did not see daylight until 1857, after her death, though she reworked many of the themes and ideas into “Villette.” I had never wanted to read “The Professor” before because I figured it had to be pretty terrible. Although I still thought so, this time I was curious. What, exactly, was so bad about it?
I’m only at the 35 percent mark, but whoa Nellie.
It’s now clear to me that if anyone should be upset with Charlotte Bronte, it’s not black people, not Catholics, but Belgians. Better known for Tintin, moules-frites, Hercule Poirot, and their particularly cruel colonial adventures in the Congo, here they come in for a withering blast of ethnically loaded scorn at the hands of Charlotte’s first-person narrator, William Crimsworth, who’s moved to Brussels and found work as a teacher.
Also, I can’t help thinking, Charlotte Bronte probably never should have been allowed to work in a classroom.
It did not require very keen observation to detect the character of the youth of Brabant, but it needed a certain degree of tact to adopt one’s measures to their capacity. Their intellectual faculties were generally weak, their animal propensities strong; thus there was at once an impotence and a kind of inert force in their natures; they were dull, but they were also singularly stubborn, heavy as lead and, like lead, most difficult to move. Such being the case, it would have been truly absurd to exact from them much in the way of mental exertion; having short memories, dense intelligence, feeble reflective powers, they recoiled with repugnance from any occupation that demanded close study or deep thought. Had the abhorred effort been extorted from them by injudicious and arbitrary measures on the part of the Professor, they would have resisted as obstinately, as clamorously, as desperate swine; and though not brave singly, they were relentless acting EN MASSE.
I understood that before my arrival in M. Pelet’s establishment, the combined insubordination of the pupils had effected the dismissal of more than one English master. It was necessary then to exact only the most moderate application from natures so little qualified to apply—to assist, in every practicable way, understandings so opaque and contracted—to be ever gentle, considerate, yielding even, to a certain point, with dispositions so irrationally perverse; but, having reached that culminating point of indulgence, you must fix your foot, plant it, root it in rock—become immutable as the towers of Ste. Gudule; for a step—but half a step farther, and you would plunge headlong into the gulf of imbecility; there lodged, you would speedily receive proofs of Flemish gratitude and magnanimity in showers of Brabant saliva and handfuls of Low Country mud. You might smooth to the utmost the path of learning, remove every pebble from the track; but then you must finally insist with decision on the pupil taking your arm and allowing himself to be led quietly along the prepared road. When I had brought down my lesson to the lowest level of my dullest pupil’s capacity—when I had shown myself the mildest, the most tolerant of masters—a word of impertinence, a movement of disobedience, changed me at once into a despot. I offered then but one alternative—submission and acknowledgment of error, or ignominious expulsion. This system answered, and my influence, by degrees, became established on a firm basis. “The boy is father to the man,” it is said; and so I often thought when looked at my boys and remembered the political history of their ancestors. Pelet’s school was merely an epitome of the Belgian nation.