Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Professor by Charlotte Bronte

Rereading The Professor after all these years was fascinating, but I have been dawdling for three weeks now over this post and still feel uninspired. My first issue is that I have to somehow relate it all back to Jane Austen, as I declared I would upon accepting the All About the Brontes Challenge. Secondly, I don't want to engage in the rather boring exercise of critiquing a text that is blatantly stamped with all the hallmarks of "a first attempt", despite the authoress' protests to the contrary in her preface. Where does this leave me? After assuring you that this tale of a young man making his way in the world, finally finding his path at a Belgium boarding school, is very worthwhile reading in spite of its foibles (or, perhaps, because of them), I propose to write about some archaic nonsense, which I shall impose upon my reading and thereby color it . What kind of archaic nonsense did I have in mind? Have you ever heard of the noble Science of Physiognomy?

In brief, and according to Wikipedia, physiognomy "is the assessment of a person's character or personality from their outer appearance, especially the face." In essence, facial features are said to be measures of intelligence, kindness, stupidity, and madness. It belongs to the same school of thought as phrenology, but physiognomy has the added distinction of being highly subscribed to by the artists of the time. Its influence is easy to see in Victorian literature, writers often describing their characters' "physiognomies" in depth. The Brontes are no exception; indeed, Charlotte is the darling of feminist literary theorists exploring the implications of the physiognomy of madwomen. In The Professor, William Crimsworth judges everyone based upon such notions, from his estranged brother's wife ...
I sought her eye, desirous to read there the intelligence which I could not discern in her face or hear in her conversation; it was merry, rather small; by turns I saw vivacity, vanity, coquetry, look out through its irid, but I watched in vain for a glimpse of a soul.
... to the entire Flemish race (of whom I beg will take no offense at the following quote) ...
Flamands they certainly were, and both had the true Flamand physiognomy, where intellectual inferiority is marked in lines none can mistake; still they were men, and, in the main, honest men; and I could not see why their being aboriginals of the flat, dull soil should serve as a pretext for treating them with perpetual severity and contempt.
The novel even catalogs his students, in almost epic style, based upon such observances of their appearance and characters. Physiognomy is so much an assumption that we must conclude that, for Charlotte, it was a truth, as incontestable as God.

Here's where Jane, with a mischievous smile, chimes in with a witty set down, for well she knows that while "one [might have] all the goodness" another might have "all the appearance of it." Austen pays not the slightest heed to physiognomy, which was only just coming into prevalence during her lifetime. In fact, she emphatically warns us how deceptive appearances can be in the form of charming rascal after charming rascal: Willoughby, Wickham, Crawford, Churchill, and Elliot. The entire plots of Pride & Prejudice and Emma are based upon how one should never make assumptions based upon appearance. Austen barely even provides a basic description of her heroines' looks, drawing only the vaguest pictures of what these ladies look like (to the convenience of modern cinema).

On that note, I abruptly wrap up my musings on physiognomy and leave you with one last quote from and thought on The Professor, having absolutely no relevance to the previous subject. I find it remarkable that Charlotte Bronte, the orchestrator of all Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester's violent emotions, wrote the following:
Novelists should never allow themselves to weary of the study of real life. If they observed this duty conscientiously, they would give us fewer pictures chequered with vivid contrasts of light and shade; they would seldom elevate their heroes and heroines to the heights of rapture - still seldomer sink them to the depths of despair; for if we rarely savour the acrid bitterness of hopeless anguish ...
Though this is the policy she employed in writing The Professor, we'll see how well she adheres to it in Villette, my favorite Bronte novel and the one which I am reading next.

Read my review of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

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