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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.

Traxy Thornfield

A Swedish introvert residing in Robin Hood Country (Nottingham, UK) with a husband and two cats. She's an eager participant in tabletop and play-by-post roleplaying, woodworking, photography and European travel. Will get a novel out one of these days, if she doesn't get too distracted along the way.

11 thoughts on “Shirley by Charlotte Brontë (1849)

  1. I enjoyed this post a lot-I still have to read Shirley and The Professor to finish up the Bronte Novels-maybe next year-

  2. Thank you, Mel! 🙂 I have to say I preferred “Shirley” over “The Professor”. The latter doesn’t even have interesting characters and it contains way too much French.

    Happy to say that I’ve now finished reading all the Brontë novels! And now I’m really fancying reading something completely different for a bit. Maybe the latest Wheel of Time book, which has been waiting for me since before Christmas. 🙂

  3. They do say that she based Shirley on her sister Emily, which is perhaps why there’s all these people who claim that Emily was a lesbian. I sh*t you not.

    I think Caroline was partly based on her sister Anne and on Ellen Nussey (can’t remember where I read that).

    The Yorkes are based on the Taylor family (her friend Mary Taylor went off to New Zealand to pursue the independence she couldn’t have in England at the time, and bitched about “Shirley” or “Villette”. Can’t remember which, but Mary, wow, bit of a cow. So was Harriet Martineau, come to that.

    Oh dear, yes! When she slags off the Irish, I do have to wonder if this was a case of she “doth protest too much.” Charlotte would’ve been, I suppose, paranoid about people discovering her humble Irish roots, being the grandaughter of an Irish peasant. It’s remarkable that Nicholls read that novel and still insisted on marrying her! Then again, I think she had specific models in mind for the dreadful curates, so Nicholls may well have recognised who the Irish character was and thought it rather amusing! In fact – I have a feeling the Irish character was based on the same bloke who may have inspired Tenant of Wildfell Hall, becuase the Brontes did know a woman married to a clergyman who ran away from her drunk and violent husband, who was Irish. I do wonder if this is eluded to in the “Winding Up” at the end of Shirley. Oh well, who knows, other than Charlotte, and she’s not going to tell us….

    (and yes, the book should’ve been called something other than Shirley – perhaps the locale it was set in? Maybe she was trying to get out of the habit of naming books after their main characters – hence Villette instead of Lucy Snowe).

    Oh and how much do I love the bit where Caroline “speaks her mind” to Mrs Yorke? Fantastic!!!!

  4. I laughed with your paragraph:

    “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.”

    The fact is that Mr. Macarthey was an accurate portrait of Mr Nicholl’s, so he must have been flattered that her opinion about him was at least positive, considering that he loved her long before then.

  5. I forgot to mention, most of this book was listened to as an audiobook. Some readers, again, were fantastic, but I think I preferred the readers who did Villette, atrocious French or not. At least those readers didn’t have someone who spoke very staccato sentences, like chopping them up into two or three words at a time. I just couldn’t concentrate on what was being said, because I was too distracted with HOW it was being said.

    Helen: Wikipedia said Caroline was based on Anne. I was looking at the article there yesterday in order to find out the original publication year. From what I’ve read, Emily was a bit of a tomboy and Shirley does have those qualities, so that might well be true. Whether or not Emily was a lesbian, I haven’t the foggiest. She might have been, or she might not. It wasn’t exactly an acceptable topic of conversation in those days, so I guess we’ll never know. At times, though, I did think Shirley and Caroline would have made a great couple (I’m sure I didn’t just imagine there was at least some measures of homoeroticism in there!), but even though Charlotte was a modern kinda gal, she wasn’t that modern.

    Thanks for the info on the Taylors – Mary does seem to have a certain bovine aspect to her. 😉

    I was thinking about the location as title, but which location? Stillborough is apparently the closest town, but they’re not actually there, I think. They’re in the parishes of Nunneley and Briarfield, so which one would suit best? And if she’d named it Fieldhead, that’s about the same as naming it “Shirley” anyway.

    Sounds very plausible. They do say “write what you know”, and they did. With Charlotte not telling us, surely that can be remedied? Just phone Derek Acorah! He’s always game for a possession or two! 😉

    ksotikoula: Oh, well, there we go, then! Thanks! Mr. Nicholls was a credit to his country! 🙂 Would’ve been sad if she really loathed the man she married, after all!

  6. I know that Caroline was at first inspired by Ellen Nussey, but as Anne’s health declined and finally died, her heroine started to look more like Anne, which explains why at the beginning of the book Caroline has hazel eyes and near the middle blue.

    I never thought Emily was a lesbian. How could they tell? Any woman that does not have a man lover is considered a lesbian?

    As for traces of homosexuality in Shirley and a single claim about Charlotte being herself (a book called “not a passing phase”), I have to say that people of the same sex in the old years used to sleep together due to lack of space or to provide warmth one to another. Charlotte Bronte used to sleep with Ellen Nussey each time one visited another and probably they were bed-fellows in school too. That doesn’t make them lesbians although many comment on Ellen’s opposition to Charlotte’s wedding (which would seem to say more about Ellen than Charlotte anyway). Moreover many women used to write each other passionate letters even after their marriage and had a freedom to touch and kiss one another, exactly because it would not occur to them that it could be considered a deviation. Of course among them, there should be some that were truly lesbians (so it is not a matter of CB’s being modern or not) but Charlotte’s sexual orientation seems very clear to me as she had her male seducing hero since 14 and she had 4 prepositions of marriage, 2 secret loves and a possible flirt. I guess her problem was more in the line of liking men too much. Lol!

    To conclude, my opinion is that we do fall in love with people of our own sex in terms of admiration, appreciation and a general wish of the other’s well-being without the need to have a sexual relationship with them (such I believe was the relationship CB and EN had). And it is ugly for people to put label on that.

    Charlotte Bronte did not loathed Mr Nicholls, but she did not love him either when she married him. She esteemed and trusted him and was grateful for his love and constancy to her, but in the end she truly got to love him.

  7. Appreciate your input, ksotikoula. Thanks! 🙂

    I didn’t spot that Caroline’s eyes changes colour. I saw in the Wikipedia article that CB was going to kill off Caroline but as Anne died, she decided not to. Maybe that’s why she had to have that Very Convenient Coincidence happen when Caroline was more or less on her death bed?

    Of course – any woman not being in want of a husband must obviously be a lesbian! Jumping to conclusions ftw! 😉 No, but that might be where the speculation came from with regards to Emily. Modern day people assuming that okay, so she’s not desperately trying to get married, that must mean she’s gay. While there are sure to be cases where this is true, it would not be ALL cases. Some people prefer to be single, just like other people prefer not to have children. There’s nothing strange or wrong with that, just personal preference. The love between Cathy and Heathcliff – that’s a strictly heterosexual relationship (then again, that means very little – not like we have to stick to writing about people of the same sexual orientation as ourselves).

    I wouldn’t question CB’s orientation one bit – I think Mssrs Rochester, Emanuel, and most certainly Héger are proof enough of that! 🙂 That CB esteemed rather than loved Nicholls when they married is what I’ve read too. One of those gradual buildups – which I think is good anyway. That means you get to know the person properly and love them for who they really are, rather than just being high on bodily chemicals and blind to every flaw so you don’t realise until it’s too late that actually, maybe getting married wasn’t such a good idea after all – like Tenant.

    With regards to being very close friends but without the sexual implications – that’s a discussion on its own. I agree wholeheartedly. Not just for same-sex friends, but for opposite sex friends as well. It’s been bugging me since I was about ten years old! At that age, I often walked home from school with a boy who lived in the same neighbourhood (or possibly “on the same estate”), and our classmates teased us a bit once, because they said we were a couple. We lived in the same neighbourhood… and we knew each other because we’re in the same class together. What, so we were supposed to walk the same way home every day and completely ignore each other just because I was a girl and he was a boy? It made a lot more sense to us to walk together and pass the time chatting. Similar thing in senior high / 6th form. My best friend was male and we were always seen together in school. Were we romantically involved? We denied this, which lead people to believe we were just shagging – which we also very much denied. Those rumours probably went on for about a year, but we just ignored them. We knew we were just friends of the very platonic sort, so we weren’t bothered. Just annoyed whenever it was brought up. In the second year, though, my friend made the discovery of his life – and made sure everyone everywhere knew about it (think “I’m the only gay in the village” type way)… and the status of our friendship was never brought up again.

    So, umm, that’s my rant for the day over, I think! 😉

  8. Ok we are a little of the topic here, but I just wanted to say that you are absolutely right about opposite sex friends too. I think it is mostly men that are afraid/tent not to recognize the fact that they could be friends with a woman. I spent most of my life near girls due to the subject of my studies and never really liked many of them (too competitive and bitchy) and now that I have come in contact with more men (friends of my boyfriend mostly) I find that I like them better. But sometimes I think that if I were single, they would be less open to me because they would suspect that I was trying to get in a relationship with them. Isn’t it weird how we tend to fit to the stereotypes of our sexes?

  9. There are various critics who’ve espoused the “Emily was a lesbian” theory – the most annoying is by Camille Paglia in Sexual Personae. It makes whopping assumptions based on very little (because very little is known of Emily). She is convinced that Heathcliff is based on a girl Emily knew at Law Hill, she calls this Heathcliff a “teen siren” (**gag**) and I seem to recall her saying that there’s aspects to Heathcliff’s character which seem more female than male, which is partly how she justifies her rather odd belief.

    In The Bronte Myth, Lucasta Miller discusses it and comes to the conclusion that, to be honest, we can’t know, and that also, gender behaviour was so proscribed back then (as if it isn’t now?) that just because Emily liked walking her dogs and Weightman called her “The Major”, doesn’t mean ‘she was a dyke’. Some critics have suggested that because Heathcliff and Catherine’s love is based on sameness then it has a homosexual air to it – but that seems a bit bizarre and to be honest, if you look at the Lacanian theory of Wuthering Heights, doesn’t stand up.

    Then again, in Shirley, we have a woman with masculine traits who has a passionate, loving friendship with another woman – so to our eyes that does sound a but dykey, though not necessarily for a Victorian readership. But if we think of Emily and Anne as being the sources for the characters, it’s a sisterly affection, rather than a homosexual affection.

    (I hadn’t noticed Caroline’s eyes changing colour – that’s quite amusing! Whoops! Surprised John Sutherland hasn’t felt the need to write about it!)

  10. PS: this is true – there isn’t a particularly solid location because they’re somewhat rural! Wonder why she didn’t call it Caroline, but I spose that’s because Shirley dominates the novel, once she turns up? Hmmm… connundrum… It’s interesting how naming novels has changed over time, how it was usually someone’s name or a place name: Tristram Shandy, Emma, Jane Eyre, Northanger Abbey. Then again, by Jane Austen we have Persuasion and Pride & Prejudice (not that Charlotte like Austen, but there you are). Could she not have come up with something a bit abstract, just a theme from the novel? Of course, Women Want Meaningful Employment – Raaaaggghhhh! probably wouldn’t have worked.

    I like it, though, how the governess is called Agnes Grey. Nice touch of intertextuality there!

  11. Helen: Yeah, that title probably wouldn’t have worked very well. 🙂

    ksotikoula: I think sometimes that men are less bothered about hanging out with women than women are, because they don’t read into things the way women do. It depends on the setting, of course (some women in male-dominated jobs really struggle to fit in), but if we just look at friendships, I think men can be a heck of a lot easier to hang out with than women. Women are too preoccupied with (like you say) being bitchy. Life’s short enough as it is, why bother playing mind-games and backstabbing people? I’m a straight-talking kinda gal, and my best friend once said (and I love her for it!) that I often say what I mean plainly and if you try and read things into it, your own thoughts and insecurities get in the way. “This is a lovely cake“ = “This is a lovely cake”, not “This is a decent enough cake but I make far better cakes than you” or “This cake is the worst I’ve ever tasted! Yuck!” As in, take what I say at face value and don’t try to read between the lines, because there’s nothing there. You’d be surprised how many people (read: women) have tremendous issues with me because of that and think I’m an arrogant tosser – especially since I also don’t talk a lot. Just because I’m quiet doesn’t mean I think I’m too superior to talk to you! 🙁 If I said I liked the cake, I just meant that I liked the cake! FFS!

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