BBC Radio 7, 16-23 August 2009
This tale of William Crimsworth's education, both social and moral, appeared
initially to be a precursor of Charles Dickens' Hard Times, as it showed the eponymous hero trying to come to terms
with life in a northern industrial city. In Tracey Neale's production for the Woman's Hour drama slot, we were made
well aware of the snobbery pervading English life, as Crimsworth went to work in his cousin Edwin's factory, and discovered
to his cost that Edwin resented his education, manners and self-possession, all of which were deemed unsuitable for working-class
life. The contrast was stark: William (Paul Venables) possessed breeding but no money, Edwin was a self-made industrialist.
With little or no prospect of improving his lot, William believed that suffering was to be endured at the hands of a relative
who resembled "a plant growing in darkness out of the shiny walls of a well."
Eventually help arrived in the form of William's close friend Hunsdon, who arranged
for the young man to quit the factory for good and begin working at a girls' college in Belgium. At this point Neale's production
shifted into its second movement - rather than focusing on class-distinctions, it looked instead at national stereotypes
by contrasting the uptight Englishman with the agreeably flirtatious maitresse of the school, Mlle. Reuter (Niamh
Cusack), who seemed perfectly willing to string William along without reciprocating his amorous advances. Inevitably this
led to a moment of self-discovery: although believing himself to be in love with Mlle. Reuter, William found out that she
was about to marry Pelle, the owner of the boys' school adjoining the girls' school. This climax underlined the irony of Bronte's
title: William might be treated as a professor, but emotionally he was nothing more than an infant.
The third movement of Neale's production saw William gradually falling for one of
his pupils, Mlle. Hein - an ugly duckling with no career prospects whom Reuter had engaged as a (not very proficient) needlework
instructor. Hein had developed (by dint of William's efforts) into a capable student with a quick brain. However, as
luck would have it, Reuter became jealous of the younger woman, and saw to it that Hein was banished from the school. William
experienced the same kind of suffering as he had earlier on from his cousin Edwin: jealous of his various accomplishments,
Reuter tried to ruin his life. However Paul Venables' William was no longer the callow youth he had been in England
- not only did he seek out Mlle. Hein, but he married her on the spot in spite of criticism from Hunsdon (who saw the marriage
as a social faux pas).
The production's final act saw the young couple establishing themselves back
in England. While this was in many ways attributable to a convenient plot-contrivance (as William unexpectedly came into a fortune), we also understood how the two of them were prepared
to work all hours to realize their dream of prosperity. Like Edwin, they became a self-made couple, but retained their generosity
of spirit. Education was not something just to be acquired in school, but rather a process of lifelong learning that they
could pass on to their son Victor. In these financially straitened times, where education seems to depend so much on forging
partnerships with industry (especially in the tertiary sector), we would do well to heed this message.