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Charlotte Bronte's Foreign Bodies: Slavery and Sexuality in The Professor Carl Plasa As we look back at the cultural archive, we begin to read it not univocally but contrapuntally, with a simultaneous awareness both of the metropolitan history that is narrated and of those other histories against which (and together with which) the dominating discourse acts. Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (59) The opening chapter of Charlotte Bronte's first novel, The Professor (completed in 1846 but published only posthumously in 1857), features a "copy of a letter, sent [..Ja year since" by William Crimsworth, the novel's first-person narrator and central protagonist, to Charles, "an old school-acquaintance" (5) whom he had known at Eton. While the letter is designed to furnish Charles with an account of its writer's post-Etonian existence, such a purpose remains unrealized. As Crimsworth explains at the end of the chapter, his missive meets with no reply because its desired recipient is at home no longer: To this letter I never got an answer—before my old friend received it, he had accepted a government appointment in one of the colonies, and was already on his way to the scene of his official labours. What has become of him since I know not. (14) JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory 30.1 (Winter 2000): 1-28. Copyright © 2000 by JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory. 2 JNT Charles's silent withdrawal to an unspecified colonial margin provides Crimsworth with the opportunity to take up where the letter leaves off, regaling "the public at large" with the autobiography—in the shape of the novel itself—originally begun for the "private benefit" (14) of his mysteriously estranged correspondent. The story of his professional and personal fortunes that Crimsworth recounts has three distinct phases. The first sees him moving from the south of England to the north, where he is employed as "second clerk" in the Yorkshire textile mill owned by the entrepreneurial Edward, his elder brother and "managefs] the foreign correspondence of the House" (18). Dissatisfied with the task of "copying and translating business-letters" and feeling victimized, in particular, by the "Antipathy" (30) his employer/brother demonstrates toward him, Crimsworth invokes the translator's prerogative, converts his linguistic mobility into geographic form, and travels to Belgium. Here he teaches English as a foreign language, first to male and then female students in boarding-schools run by Monsieur Pelet and Zoraïde Reuter, respectively. It is here, also, through a combination of endeavour and chance, that he eventually secures his financial independence. In the novel's brief final stage, Crimsworth returns to England, accompanied by his Anglo-Swiss wife and former pupil, Frances Evans Henri and their refractory young son, Victor. For many critics, the epistolary manoeuvre with which Brontë begins The Professor is both artificial and clumsy. It is, they argue, the sign of an early gaucherie on the part of a would-be novelist perilously aspiring— like Charles and Crimsworth in their own spheres—to secure a professional status within the male-dominated literary establishment of mid nineteenth-century England. Yet as Brontë informs the reader in the "Preface " to The Professor, the faults of her "little book" should not be excused on the basis of a "first attempt [. . J as the pen which wrote it had been previously worn down a good deal in a practice of some years" (3). The principal allusion here is to the vast and sprawling body of Bronte's Anglian writings, produced in collaboration with her brother, Branwell, between 1829 and 1839 and situated in a phantasmagoric colonial space "carved," in the words of Juliet Barker, "out of the interior of Africa" {Juvenilia 270). It is thus apparent that the divergence of career between Charles and Crimsworth with which The Professor begins at the same time enacts a certain shift, inaugurated by The Professor itself, in Bronte's Charlotte Bronte's Foreign Bodies 3 own fictional trajectory: like Crimsworth, her novels will remain, for the rest of her career, securely located within English and/or continental borders . Yet if colonialism is excluded as a literal presence in Bronte's post-Anglian fiction—no longer setting the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9248
Print ISSN
1549-0815
Pages
pp. 1-28
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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