11 May 2008
…about a quarter of the way through – and the narrator, William Crimsworth, is just about to leave England behind. So far there’s an old-fashioned feel to the narrative conventions: Chapter 1 is a letter to an old friend, and there’s some business about why he’ll continue in a more conventional way – as though the young Charlotte Bronte feels the need to convince the reader of the ‘truth’ of the narrative. Anne Bronte did something similar in Agnes Grey, writing as though for the benefit of those who might have similar dilemmas to hers. Of course, in that case the whole thing was even more tortured.
What do I think of it? The main character is unconvincing. He’s honest and a bit self-righteous; he’s done the right thing by refusing the living offered by his appalling uncles, and sought something honest: ‘trade’ – as though that were some kind of job in itself. He meets his estranged brother Edward, who can provide him with job, and most of these early chapters are taken up in providing a contrast between the stereotype of the male tyrant – Edward – and the determinedly un-macho narrator. Who is patient, careful, diligent, honest, clean-living…. It’s hard to forget that this is an ideal of manhood invented by a woman: he’s certainly in touch with his feminine side. He even looks like the portrait of his mother hanging on his brother’s wall. Also there’s the not-quite friend, Hunsden, who occasionally speaks to William about what he’s seeking to do in life. He’s as unconvincing as the other two men in the novel so far, and seems to be there to clarify or confirm what the narrator is already thinking. And he’s indirectly responsible for losing William his job after a few months – which is exactly what he’s wanted anyway.
Maybe the Belgian section will be more compelling. Maybe he’ll meet a woman who is less like his beautiful but shallow sister-in-law (what he hates, naturally, is her lack of intelligence) and more like his clever, resourceful Mum. Who sounds exactly like the clever and resourceful mother of Agnes Grey, except this one’s dead.
…just over half-way through. After not very long in Brussels, Crimsworth meets a possible soulmate: Mlle Reuter, the directrice of the girls’ school next door. She sounds like a description of Charlotte Bronte herself: small, not pretty, sharp, self-contained. But – like all the first encounters in this novel – his early conversations with her are described as though they’re games of strategy. She tries, but fails, to get past his defences…. And then she does, and it looks as though Crimsworth is in love. (You always know when Crimsworth is excited because he goes into a kind of literary hyperdrive. At first I thought this was simply Bronte’s own style, unrefined by practice. Now I’m hoping it’s her way of telling us to take care with this narrator: he doesn’t always get it right.) Luckily for him – i.e. through a shameless novelistic device – he is able to see the real woman before it’s too late. He overhears her in deep conversation with his own boss – to whom, Reader, she’s engaged – and they are each as duplicitous as the other. Well, thank goodness for open windows and strolls in the garden at midnight.
So it’s back to work – not that he’s been too besotted to work, of course, being British – and he carries on being the firm but fair professeur in both the schools. His methods are the opposite of Agnes Grey’s in that contemporaneous novel – no smiles till Christmas, and not then either – and they work a treat: his lessons are exemplary, discipline is perfectly maintained, Crimsworth’s self-assured complacency is frankly unbearable. As are his prejudices. I don’t know how seriously we’re to take these: he describes the Belgians in terms which sound racist to modern ears, the French aren’t much better (although for different reasons), and as for Catholicism…. It’s the root of everything pernicious he encounters: it’s ok to be a liar and hypocrite because ‘the father confessor’ will absolve you of everything anyway. Who’s speaking? Charlotte Bronte, daughter of the parsonage? Or William Crimsworth, twat?
So what’s a poor, short-sighted English boy to do? Keep his head down and his nose squeaky-clean, of course – which is fine, because (being English) these are what he does naturally anyway. Crimsworth constantly lets us know he’s a Good boy. Ho-hum. So, when he puts his glasses on at last and looks at the young sewing teacher who attends his English lessons… well, nothing much at first. But the more he speaks to her the more she presses all the right (as in fine, upstanding) buttons. She’s hard-working, practical, honest, modest – and her writing shows imagination and judgment. She even hates Catholics. Blimey.
Once she starts to realise he’s impressed with her work, she blooms. Crimsworth feels more buttons being pressed, notices her eyes, her hair, her figure…. What can possibly go wrong? Apart, that is, from the fact that we’re only half-way through and the happy Protestants are surrounded by treachery and deceit…. Mlle Reuter, I bet, has hardly started – and, being Catholic, why would a mere engagement stop her going after Mr Cool, Mr I can see through your Continental ways?
…so there’s less than a quarter of the novel to go. And, this being the novel it is, in which obstacles occasionally shoved into Crimsworth’s path are overcome within a chapter or two – we’re expecting the final obstacle to lurch into view any minute now, and for Crimsworth to rise above it with his usual upstanding British aplomb.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Since I last wrote… Mlle la directrice does what she can to nip off the developing romance. Mainly she lies and cheats, like the liar and cheat she is. (Yawn.) She’s sacked the sewing teacher – pretending she hasn’t, of course – and Crimsworth doesn’t know where she lives. For a month he searches for her, but he eventually decides he’ll never find her. Oh no, what a crisis. But then he finds her. Well, thank goodness for that. But how will the sewing teacher live now? Another crisis… but she’s good at the lacework she does, customers get to like her, and she gets a better job than before. Phew. But then the biggest crisis of all comes along. The directrice only seems to have had one motive to keep the lovers apart: so that she can have an affair with Crimsworth once she’s married his boss. Money and sex – what more could a Continental girl ask for? Crimsworth can see through her sordid foreign scheme, of course, so he resigns both from her school and from her fiancé’s – where the evil one will soon be living. Another crisis: he’s now without a job, and he’s far too principled to carry on courting his little pupil, as he creepily calls the grown woman he once taught. (She likes to call him Master, but we’ll draw a veil over that.) Fortunately he once heroically saved the life of a boy who was drowning, and the boy’s father said he would never forget it. But he’s out of town, aargh…. Don’t worry, he comes back and after a few disappointments a plum job falls into Crimsworth’s lap, owing mainly to a good word put in by the grateful father. It pays to be selfless in this novel.
And that’s where I am. They’re set up with good jobs, the (half English) former sewing teacher wants to move to England, they love each other…. But at the end of Chapter 22 they haven’t been in contact for some time, and we wonder what the final crisis is going to be. Has he somehow lost her again? She’s a governess now, and maybe she’s gone away with the family. And will the crisis have anything to do with Hunsden, just passing through Belgium on his way to Germany? He’s given Crim the portrait of his mother, which he bought at Edward’s bankruptcy sale. (Tyranny punished, hooray.) Not that Crim appreciates the gift: Hunsden is so mocking in the note that comes with the picture Crim takes a kind of righteous umbrage. Is this Crimsworth being unreliable? Are we supposed to see that he misjudges Hunsden? Maybe Hunsden, whom Crim will suspect of something dastardly, will be the one to bring him and his little pupil together? Well, I’ll know soon. Nothing takes too long in this novel.
To the end
I was wrong. And right. Wrong to expect a final crisis, right to expect that virtue and industry would be rewarded. There is the tiniest hint of a crisis – Crim has a week-long attack of what he calls Hypochondria, which he personifies in Queen Mab terms as some kind of night-time assailant. But no amount of purple imagery can hide the fact that all’s well really, and some time during (I think) Chapter 23, master and pupil get hitched.
Instead of happy ever afters, we get a potted history of their lives for the next ten or fifteen years. In which virtue and industry continue to be rewarded, master and pupil continue to refer to one another in that creepy way, a school is founded and is successful, a child (whose existence Bronte pointlessly hides for a teasing few pages) comes along, the school is retired from and a house in England is bought…. Et cetera. Hunsden is their neighbour, and of course the Crimsworths love him, and he gets on famously with their boy. As Crim writes the final sentences he’s called out by said Hunsden and said boy and… who is Bronte trying to kid? Us? Or herself?