My second book selection for the All About the Brontes Challenge was Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley.
Set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, Shirley begins with a controversy concerning the arrival of modern machinery destined for Hollow’s Mill. Robert Moore, foreign-born mill-owner and speculator has declared that he will introduce machines in his mill despite the protests of the local mill-workers, who fear the machines will signal the end of their trade. Moore has a battle set before him and refuses to give way.
His cousin, Caroline Helstone, feels the want of occupation that comes from being a woman and a dependant. Raised by her uncle, the Reverend Matthewson Helstone, Caroline lacks for nothing but the love of a parent and the satisfaction of independence. In love with Robert, Caroline keeps her feelings guarded and wishes to one day earn his regard.
Everything seems ordinary and serene until the day that Miss Shirley Keeldar arrives in the neighborhood to claim her place as owner of Fieldhead. Shirley teases and riles the neighborhood with her independent, boyish manner. An easy and genial friendship blossoms between her and Caroline, who finds in Shirley the confidant and friend that she had been missing, and finds in Shirley’s governess, Mrs. Pryor, the mother she always longed for. But even the wealthy Shirley is not as happy as she seems; she longs for the equal that her heart has chosen and must overcome the impediments hindering their union.
It is difficult to describe Shirley; it is unlike Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but there is something of each them in the story. Social issues concerning the lives of women, advancements in manufacturing, charity, and war abound in the novel, but these set the background, not the action of the tale. If I had to draw a comparison, I would compare Shirley to Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, particularly in its treatment of the relationship between workers and mill owners, and the effect of pride in a relationship between members of different social classes. Given Gaskell’s relationship with Charlotte Bronte, I can understand why their work shares these themes.
I was most fascinated by the relationship between Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar. Dissimilar in appearance and temperament, these two women compliment each other perfectly and seem to grow in each other’s presence. Spirited Shirley and pensive Caroline are definitely what one would call “kindred spirits”. The conversations between these two characters on their position as women are some of the most thought-provoking discussions that I have read in Victorian literature.
These are some of my favorite passages:
On the changeability of men:
I should not like to find out that what I loved did not love em, that is ws weary of me, and that whatever effort I might make to please would hereafter be worse than useless, since it was inevitable in its nature to change and become indifferent. That discovery once made, what should I long for? To go away – to remove from a presence where my society gave no pleasure.
But you could not if you were married.
No, I could not, – there it is. I could never be my own mistress more. A terrible thought! – it suffocates me. (p. 204)
On men’s views on women:
If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women: they do not read them in a true light: they misaprehend them, both for good and evil: their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend. (p. 333)
On the state of being a woman:
The brothers of these sisters are every one in business of in professions; they have something to do: their sisters have no earthly employment, but household work and sewing; no earthly pleasure, but an unprofitable visiting; and no hope, in all their life to come of anything better. (p. 370)
I enjoyed reading Shirley, though it was very different from the other works I have read by the Brontes. The narrative meanders, unfolding slowly and revealing the situations that arise in small town society during a period of change. The Introduction describes Shirley as a novel of conflict and it certainly is; it is not a neat package, but a hodgepodge of lives, voices, and thoughts.
Quotes are taken from the Penguin Classics edition of Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, 2006.