Review: Shirley, Charlotte Brontë

According to the bookplate in my copy of Shirley, I purchased it in 1999.  I was going through my first serious Brooding about the Brontës session at the time following on from a school project and riding high on the fact that I had successfully read Wuthering HeightsAgnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall within a three month period.  These were grown up books.  How difficult could Shirley really be?  As it happened, I was defeated by the opening chapter about the curates and so the book was set down, not to be opened again for another nineteen years.  Widely regarded as Charlotte Brontë’s ‘sophomore slump’, Shirley is a tricky book to pin down and is the least known of Charlotte’s novels and possibly of the Brontë canon as a whole.  Despite its oddities, I found much to enjoy and appreciate – Shirley may be a strange creature, but an interesting one nonetheless.

An early hint around the novel’s issues is that it is so difficult to summarise.  It begins with a chapter on the behaviour of a group of curates, flits over to the mill where Robert Moore has just had his new machines destroyed by Luddites.  His sister Hortense has been teaching French to the local vicar’s niece Caroline Helstone, who loves Robert but due to the high debts run up within Robert’s mill, he cannot marry Caroline since she has no fortune.  Caroline becomes despondent and at the end of the novel’s first volume, she is introduced to local heiress and landowner Shirley Keeldar.  The problems at the mill and other local issues continue and tensions rise.

It is interesting to remember that Shirley represents a piece of historical fiction, part of the contemporary trend for placing novels forty of so years in the past.  Charlotte Brontë’s father Patrick was familiar with the Luddite uprisings, inspiring his long-term habit of keeping a loaded gun to hand, something which did him no favours since his securing of the weapon by discharging it each morning was misappropriated by Charlotte’s hagiographer Mrs Gaskell as evidence of his volcanic temper.  Charlotte grew up on the tales of the Luddites but judging by Shirley, her sympathy was very much with the mill-owners rather than the workers.  Despite living among the people of Haworth all her life, she makes no attempt to capture the voices of the lower classes, carrying out her research for the novel via newspapers and concentrating the action on the Moores and their circle.

Shirley had an unusually tortured composition process which explains yet more of the story’s quirks.  Firstly, Charlotte read Mrs Gaskell’s Mary Barton and became convinced that there was too much of an overlap between it and the then nameless novel that she had in draft.  While it is difficult to know how far Charlotte changed her plans following on from this, it may be one of the reasons why William Farren, the idealised working-class man, makes a brief appearance to plead his case to Robert Moore and then has his storyline abandoned.  His creator may have simply lost her nerve.

More tragically, while Charlotte was writing Shirley, her brother Branwell and two sisters Emily and Anne both died.  This not only caused obvious delays in terms of completion, but had knock-on effects for the plot.  Shirley Keeldar was apparently written to represent an idealised version of Emily Brontë, as Charlotte imagined she might have been had she been born to health and wealth.  Charlotte’s good friend Mary Taylor personally saw no resemblance but many of the anecdotes around Shirley are familiar from Brontë family legend.

Look at Ellen Nussey

Then there is Caroline Helstone, the lovely young girl who becomes dangerously ill with what appears to be a consumptive complaint.  With two thirds of the book written before the deaths of her siblings, it is believed that Charlotte intended for Caroline to die but following her bereavements, she no longer had the stomach to finish the job.  Oddly, there seems to be a split among biographers about who might have inspired the character – some state that she must be based on Anne Brontë with Charlotte wanting to preserve on paper the sister she could not save in life.  Other biographers claim Caroline to be modelled on Charlotte’s friend Ellen Nussey, although given that the primary source for this assertion would appear to be Ellen “Look At Me” Nussey herself, I can’t help but greet the idea with a certain amount of scepticism.  Charlotte said that Caroline had no original on this earth and given her open admission about Shirley’s derivation, that does hold some weight.  Caroline reads as an idealised virtuous young lady and has few distinguishing features that would mark a character drawn from life.

With Shirley only appearing at the end of the novel’s first volume, many readers feel Caroline to be the true main character.  Indeed, there were several proposed titles before Charlotte settled upon Shirley so she does not even seem to have been the original focus.  It is Caroline who is at the book’s heart, it is she who draws the characters together and her love for Robert Moore which is the story’s focus.  Most of the biographies I have read state that in not killing off Caroline, Charlotte’s novel loses its impact.  Myself, while it does appear jarring that she is able to make such a quick recovery, it would also have been unbearably depressing if Caroline really had wasted away and died after being rejected by Robert Moore.  The episode where her mother reappears miraculously to save her may be a little corny, but surely it is better than a death-by-broken-heart?

Thematically, Shirley is a strange creature – Charlotte seems to have had such high hopes for her book and it is full of ambitious didactic passages.  This was to be a State of the Nation novel – like Autumn only set in 1811.  Charlotte abandons the first person narrator of Jane Eyre and aims for omniscience instead, proclaiming boldly in the opening pages that she plans to write something as ‘unromantic as Monday morning’.  Yet somehow, she does not achieve a social commentary on factories and workers rights.  Perhaps the book would have been different without the existence of Mary Barton but yet Shirley has its most life when it turns away from the industrial disputes and looks towards the women.  Charlotte Brontë, as her biographer Juliet Barker observes, was an immensely feminine writer.  She enjoyed taking on the masculine persona, hence her enjoyment of her disguise as Currer Bell, but yet her writing is always at its strongest when it deals with the situation of women.  Shirley is a novel noted for its lack of unifying theme, but more than anything else it deals with the Woman Problem.

Through Caroline, we see the pathetic position of the woman without fortune.  We see her recognise that Robert cares for her and spend a happy evening imagining their whole lives together – she is only eighteen, it is such a recognisably female reaction – and then have to feel her blood-freezing silent heartbreak when the next day Robert rebuffs her.  Caroline understands immediately that Robert cannot afford to take on a penniless wife.  From there, she has to find an alternative path through her life.  At home in the vicarage with her callous uncle the vicar, Caroline lacks occupation, is stuck rebuffing the insulting advances of ignorant curates and is denied even the right to try to make her own living as a governess.  It is little wonder the poor girl becomes depressed!

Caroline’s passivity may seem frustrating – other surrounding characters certainly find her so – but she is a woman with next to no autonomy.  When her uncle disagrees with Robert, Caroline’s lessons with Hortense are brought to an end, further curtailing her movements.  It is impossible to avoid drawing parallels with Charlotte’s own life, similarly caught with an active mind and limited opportunities.  Charlotte too was a depressive which often manifested itself in episodes of hypochondria.  When she has Caroline mull over what her life will be if she accepts that marriage will never come her way, it is impossible to avoid the notion that this too must have occurred to Charlotte.  Caroline visits the noted spinsters of the parish and tries to judged how they have managed the single life – there is such a calm misery in how she tries to plan out her future without love, it is spell-binding to read.

The conundrum of gender relations runs through the whole of the book, almost as if Charlotte cannot let it drop even when she is trying to get on to other things.  Charlotte underlines though that it is the imbalance of power which is the cause of the unhappiness.  Shirley Keeldar is able to transcend many of Caroline Helstone’s difficulties by simple virtue of the fact that she has money.  I was unaware that before the novel’s publication, Shirley had been a boy’s name – for all that Charlotte’s second book is under-celebrated, it has had quite a second life in flipping the fortune of the name.  Shirley’s parents longed for a son and when they got a daughter instead, decided to call her by a man’s name that she might avoid womanly weakness.  Where Caroline has to be meek and well-behaved, Shirley takes no prisoners – if Emily Brontë was indeed anything like her, she must have been quite a woman to behold.

Shirley is a female with the attitude of a man, meaning that when men approach her as they would do a woman, they are in for a nasty surprise.  One of the more loathsome curates, Mr Donne, decides to go about wooing her but has no more notion of ‘how to set about the business than if he had been an image carved in wood: he had no idea of a taste to be pleased, a heart to be reached in courtship, his notion was, when he should have formally visited her a few times, to write a letter proposing marriage: then he calculated she would accept him for love of his office, they would be married, they he would be master of Fieldhead, and he should live very comfortably, have servants at his command, eat and drink of the best, and be a great man‘.  The icy contempt with which Charlotte as narrator describes the presumption of a man that a woman will meekly accede to any proposal that comes her way surely comes from personal experience.  While impoverished Caroline tries to hold on to her self-respect and to avoid the ignominy of being an assumed husband-hunter, Shirley has to contend with a revolving door of men vastly inferior to her intellectually who believe they have a right to her hand.

Shirley Keeldar, as a rich woman, can respond to these men in a way that Caroline Helstone, or indeed Charlotte Brontë, never could.  When Mr Donne scolds Shirley for owning a large dog and tells her it is more appropriate for a lady to own a pooch, Shirley ignores him imperiously and when Donne tries to further order her about her money, Shirley kicks him out of the house.  It is one of the most glorious moments of the novel.  Shirley reaches the height of her power however when Robert Moore proposes to her, he having assumed that her kindness to him in matters of business must indicate a partiality for him personally.  We witness the episode at a remove but Shirley’s wintry disgust at his grasping after her fortune and her cold disappointment that a sincere attempt at friendship should be so misinterpreted again reflects the problem of a woman trying to interact in a man’s world.  If even the ‘good’ men like Robert behave in this way, what chance does a woman have of ever finding a man she can respect?

Mary Taylor

This is perhaps the crux of the issue with how Shirley concludes.  The bond that Caroline finds with Shirley is clearly intended to be restorative.  The men around them are not inspiring.  When Robert confesses all to Mr Yorke, both men admit that even the purest love is necessarily a secondary consideration to matters of the wallet – good women will always be set aside for rich ones.  With this accepted, for Caroline and Shirley to conclude the novel with marriages feels disappointing.  Certainly, Charlotte’s feminist friend Mary Taylor took it as a betrayal.  She otherwise preferred Shirley to Jane Eyre since the latter was a ‘pretty thing’ that ‘lacked a moral’ but as a woman steadfast and single, she despised the notion that idea that marriage was the only path for women.  Caroline had a friend in Shirley who was more loyal than her husband Robert had proven.  Could Charlotte really find no way forward for her heroines other than a path to the altar?

The man who Shirley chooses is similarly unprepossessing.  Louis Moore is Robert Moore’s brother and tutor to Shirley’s cousin, having taught Shirley herself in the past.  It is at this point that the reader remembers that Charlotte Brontë had a Thing about teachers.  She fell in love with her own teacher Monsieur Heger when studying in Brussels and wrote some rather humiliating letters to him which did her reputation no favours.  The act of writing a essay for a teacher was erotic for Charlotte, and so reading Shirley’s ‘devoir’ for Louis is here.  The problem is that Louis feels like a character created for Shirley to fall in love with rather than being actually interesting in his own right.  He is dull.  And Shirley’s declaration that after their marriage, all decisions must be made by Louis … well, that’s just disappointing.  Maybe I just wanted Caroline and Shirley to get together.

Shirley does not have the same distinct voice which gives Jane Eyre so much of its power.  It is possible that Charlotte realised herself that this was a flaw since she returned to the first person with Villette.  This being said, we are hearing far more from Charlotte herself in this book since she represents the omniscient narrator.  This may be why Charlotte was so attached to the story – she had poured a lot of herself into it.  There are advantages and disadvantage to this as we also get all of the cattiness which was so evident in Charlotte’s correspondence and so absent from Mrs Gaskell’s Life.  Charlotte’s anti-Catholic prejudice and her odd feelings about the Flemish also shine on through.  Her portrait of Robert’s sister Hortense borders on the cruel but then the ability to speak French is clearly deemed an attractive quality.  Charlotte was a mess of contradictions.  Even the conversations between the characters often seem to represent views that sound suspiciously as if they be the author’s own.  Shirley’s speech on how men read women is one particular example:

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 misapprehend them, both for good and evil: their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend.  Then to hear them fall into extasies with each other’s creations, worshipping the heroine of such a poem – novel – drama, thinking it fine – divine! Fine an divine it may be, but often quite artificial – false as the rose in my best bonnet there.  If I spoke all I think on this point; if I gave my real opinion of some first-rate female characters in first-reate works, where should I be?  Dead under a cairn of avenging stones in half an hour.

Reading this shortly after the ‘Write Yourself Like A Male Author Would’ challenge on Twitter, I could not help but think that very little has changed.  Charlotte was settling some scores with Shirley – having been denied the opportunity to write a preface in response to a particular notice in The Quarterly Review, she instead put her words in the mouth of Mrs Pryor, Shirley’s erstwhile governess, who decries the contempt with which that class are generally treated by their employers, particularly the way that the impoverished middle classes are exploited.  Strangely, Mrs Pryor’s maiden name was Grey and first name Agnes, so Charlotte seems to have intended her as some kind of shout-out to Anne’s own governess heroine.  Passionate though the, it remains a non-sequitur within the novel.  Hopefully it made Charlotte feel slightly better.

Finishing Shirley felt like coming to the end of a lengthy hike across the Yorkshire countryside itself; hard work at times but some breath-taking scenery along the way.  I was reminded strongly of Mary Taylor’s novel Miss Miles which she started writing at a similar time to Charlotte’s Shirley but which did not get published until the 1890s.  Miss Miles has a more unified central thesis but Charlotte does have a neater turn of phrase.  For all that it is one of the lesser-read novels, Shirley is so incredibly Brontë – set in Yorkshire, full of tragedy, high drama and smouldering heroes.  More than anything though, I really wish that my adolescent self could have pushed on past the curates and read on to get to Shirley.  Miss Keeldar is one of the most fabulous females in Victorian fiction – how I wish I could have discovered her earlier!  This is not a tidy novel, in fact it is fairly chaotic, but if you embrace the mess, you get to see the thundering passion behind it which is what made me a Brontë fan in the first place.

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Shirley by Charlotte Brontë, Herbert Rosengarten, Margaret Smith
Published by Oxford University Press on July 9th 1998
Pages: 720
ISBN: 0192833782

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4 thoughts on “Review: Shirley, Charlotte Brontë

  1. given that the primary source for this assertion would appear to be Ellen “Look At Me” Nussey herself… ha!

    I recently reread Shirley and also found it a hot, tangled mess of contradiction, just as you describe. Great review, thanks!

  2. Thank you for this review!! I just finished reading “Shirley” this morning. It has some wonderful passages (including more than a few that made me laugh out loud), but it does fell like a bit of a mess. It helps to know that poor Charlotte was coping with all those losses when she wrote it; the novel feels to me as though it needed a firm editor’s hand and/or another draft, but I could well imagine not being up to a massive rewrite when dealing with everything she had to cope with.

    And I can’t agree more with this “And Shirley’s declaration that after their marriage, all decisions must be made by Louis … well, that’s just disappointing. Maybe I just wanted Caroline and Shirley to get together.”

    1. I think Shirley is a bit of a surprise after how well put-together Jane Eyre was. Someone who hasn’t read it asked me to describe it recently and I just said ‘Hmm’. Charlotte Bronte is a very talented writer and this was a book that made me think but … yes, you’re right. It’s a bit of a mess. I can see that the world wasn’t ready for a Caroline/Shirley happy-ever-after but I think it’s probably the only thing that would have saved this book – thank you for commenting 🙂

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