Shirley by Charlotte Brontë (1849)

Book review: Shirley by Charlotte Brontë (Wordsworth Classics, 1993 [1849])

shirleyCharlotte Brontë was a natural stort-teller with a gift for creating memorable characters and for evoking atmosphere. The novel is set among the cloth mills of the author’s native Yorkshire and she succeeds brilliantly in creating the full drama of the latter part of the Napoleonic Wars when labour-saving machinery was smashed by desperate, unemployed workers.

Rich in historical detail, Shirley is a human as well as a social novel with a perpetual relevance in its exploration of humanity’s efforts to reconcile personal and economic aspirations with social justice and harmony.

Who is Shirley? Surely, it’s the name of the main character of the story. Maybe it follows her life around the cloth mills mentioned on the back? Yeah, you’d think that, wouldn’t you? Wrong! It takes half-way through chapter 11 (page 147 in my book) until Shirley is even mentioned. So okay, it takes a third into the book until the main character is introduced, fair enough (of sorts). Wrong! Shirley still isn’t the main character. Neither is her former governess, the Moore brothers (and the Moore sister!), Caroline Helstone, or even one of those oft-mentioned parsons and curates.

So what the hell is it about? It’s about all of them, and none. It’s like a soap opera, or maybe rather one of those real-life documentaries. It doesn’t really have a plot, it just is. It tells several people’s stories and is more of “a day in the life of” than event A happens, causes event B to happen, leading to event C, D and E, then there’s a plot twist and then they live happily ever after. More like event A happens, and event B (not related), then event C and D and E, which alludes to event B, and then F and finally G. Except it does actually have a plot twist or two, although the latter one turns out to be a false alarm. The first one is one of those extremely convenient coincidences. At least there’s just the one in this book, and it’s not too far-fetched, unlike the fair few in Jane Eyre, which beggar belief.

It’s a story about love (although jaysus did it take them long to finally get anywhere!), it’s a story about the old clashing with the new (the mill riots), and it’s a story which has a fair few things reminding me of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South: Helstone, a mill whose name ends with “-lborough”, they’re in “t’ North” and hey, there’s even a guy called Armitage, for good measure! Not to mention Charlotte Brontë was actually born in a town called Thornton, and Elizabeth Gaskell was a friend of hers. I see a pattern.

It’s a charming story about times long past, and it’s well told, but a bit unengaging – simply because it’s just telling about how a bunch of people go about their daily lives, as opposed to, for instance, focusing on a story about a handsome mill-owner who finds a nice young lass to fall in love with, but oh the struggles they have to go through to get there. Like, you know, North & South. It’s just a bit too scattered.

That said, hats off to Charlotte Brontë for being controversial for her time and for creating characters that stick with you. Her casual racism and French-flaunting is still there, of course – wouldn’t be the same without it – because the Moores are half-Belgian. “What!” you cry, “a Belgian in a Charlotte Brontë novel? Surely not!” Oh yes, she had quite the obsession for that country. I’m surprised she actually made Adèle French, because Jane Eyre doesn’t keep going on about the place. It does keep going on about things in French, of course. Luckily, there’s not too much of it in Shirley. Hooray!

The thing that bothered me most about her casual racism isn’t the generic slating of people from continental Europe – I’ve become accustomed to it – but rather the stereotypical Paddy, Mr. Malone. He drinks a lot, he swears and he likes to fight with a shilley … shilleah … a stick. He’s described in very unsympathetic terms throughout. Way to slate the Irish, Brontë! In the final chapter, however, there’s another curate, Mr. Macarthey, and “this gentleman did as much credit to his country as Malone had done it discredit”. Too little too late. I wonder how she rated her own hubby, Arthur Bell Nicholls, who was Irish, if memory serves me correctly.

On the plus side, Shirley Keeldar – now there’s a feminist statement! She’s independent and has some very modern views, which I’m guessing were completely off the wall for the time it was written and published – not to mention set. This is supposed to be portraying 1812, so yes, it’s really a big no-no for a girl to be as bold and feisty as she is. She doesn’t conform to society’s rules and when her uncle tries to get her to marry, she’ll have none of it. She’ll pick a suitor herself, thank you very much, and she’ll pick one she can love and respect, not just someone who has a fancy title. It might not be as shocking today, because we have come a long way in 200 years, but it’s a good reminder that things used to be different. Back in the day, we couldn’t cast a vote and we were basically just a burden to our families before we could finally be married off. No, I like Shirley Keeldar as a character. She’s probably the best thing about the book.

It’s not a reason for naming it after her, though. Not when the meeker and more traditional Caroline Helstone takes up just as much space. It gives the wrong impression. It’s not a novel centered around a character called Shirley, she’s just one of the ensemble. I’m not sure exactly which title would’ve fitted best, but even Shirley & Caroline would have been a more accurate title.

A decent book, which I’m guessing there are lots of essays about with regards to feminism. Go Charlotte Brontë! Solidarity, sistah!

3 out of 5 cotton mill riots.

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