In literature, it is so often difficult to find a balance between the ideal and the real. The division might also be described as the balance between classic storytelling and contemporary storytelling. Contemporary books, often more realistic, can tend to be so close to life that they are boring or are too base and graphic to make an enjoyable read. Inversely, the older style which embraced more idealism can seem too predictable or be resolved so perfectly that it cannot be taken seriously. I find that this balance is especially hard to achieve when it comes to stories centered around love relationships. However, I discovered the perfect blend of classic and contemporary in Charlotte Bronte’s The Professor. The professor is William Crimsworth, a gentleman cut off from his relations and means of support in England, who becomes a teacher in Belgium to earn his living. Frances Henri, whose only relation is her sickly aunt, teaches lace mending at the same school, but becomes William’s student in a desire to improve her English and broaden her opportunities. The plot is very simple and takes no unexpected twists, but the relationship between William Crimsworth and Frances Henri is beautifully done.
Their relationship seems to embrace all of the good concepts of both historic courtships and modern engagements. They are realistic about each other’s shortcomings, yet charmingly choose to focus on one another’s best points. For example, William acknowledges that his fiancé is not the greatest of beauties, yet he is attracted to “the graces of her person” still and enjoys her beauty. In fact, at one point, he cannot contain himself and pulls her into his lap to first declare his love. He does, however, exercise control in waiting until she has confessed her own love and promised to marry him before he asks if he can kiss her. In fact, he frequently begs kisses from her even after their marriage. Aside from this physical attraction, he is an intellectual sort and makes clear that Frances’ mind is not only what first attracted him to her, but also the bond that holds him to her the strongest. This sweet holistic blend of loving both mind and body of a sweetheart is another characteristic I rarely find. Many old books treat true love as an ethereal, intellectual substance which shuns the carnal desires of flesh and is content with a mere look or spoken word from a lover. On the flip side, many new books focus on the physical, sexual drive that unites a couple’s bodies while minimizing the meeting of minds.
The couple also commands my admiration because they can communicate without trying to dominate each other. Each desires to yield to the other and so they work through situations together. One important discussion they have is if Frances should continue her new position as teacher in an English school after they are married. Frances expresses a very modern opinion of desiring to be working and making profit even though they could be supported on just William’s salary. William, on the other hand, speaks of how precious the idea is to him of “becoming the providence of what he loves- feeding and clothing it, as God does the lilies of the field” and requests of her that he be allowed to give her rest from the hard work she has been doing to support herself. In a more modern or feministic story, Frances would have asserted herself and William would have been humbled. Instead, Frances acknowledges his superiority and gently persuades him that people who work together, even suffer together, esteem each other more highly than those who only interact for the purpose of pleasure or comfort. And so William yields for the sake of her happiness and agrees with her that she should continue working.
Later on in their marriage, Frances shows an entrepreneurial side and suggests that she begin her own school. William takes her suggestion seriously and supports her in it. Even though the school is her endeavor, she insists on his teaching at her school at least an hour daily. Why? Because she wanted him to be a part of what was significant in her life and because she wanted him to know how her day was filled so that what was important to her could be important to him as well. He was not allowed to fall out of touch with her school and he was always applied to when anything difficult arose in the school. As William words it, “it was her pleasure, her joy to make me still the master in all things”.
And so, unexpectedly, in a lesser known work of one of the Bronte sisters, I find the perfect model of a couple that I have always been looking for in literature and never quite finding. Here is a couple that complements each other and defers to one another in love, even in the modern context of a working family. A couple where the man is decidedly masculine in providing for his family and leading his wife and the woman is sweetly feminine, industrious as the woman described in Proverbs 31, yet deferring to her husband and looking to his support. What was their secret? Perhaps William is right when he says, “Frances was then a good and dear wife to me, because I was to her a good, just, and faithful husband”.