I’ve found myself rereading the novels of the Brontё sisters over the last year or so. I reread Jane Eyre & Wuthering Heights nearly every year but the other novels not so often. I read Villette again last year & The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as well but this is the first time I’ve read Shirley in years. I’ve only ever read Agnes Grey & The Professor once so I feel I need to read them again as well.
Shirley is a historical novel, set at the time of the Napoleonic Wars in early 19th century England. Shirley Keeldar is an orphaned heiress who has returned to her family estate, Fieldhead, after years of living with her guardian & his family. She was given the name Shirley in the expectation that she would be a boy as it was originally a boy’s name (Shirley Temple has changed the way we think of the name. In 1849 when Shirley was published, readers would have been surprised to find a heroine called Shirley). Shirley is beautiful, spirited, wilful but essentially a kind, loving girl. She is determined to look after her estate & her tenants. However, she returns to a community in disorder.
The war with France has been devastating for the local cloth manufacturers. There have been riots by workmen laid off due to the introduction of new machinery in the factories that will mean less hand labour is needed. Robert Gérard Moore, a half-Flemish, half-English mill-owner, has boldly introduced the new frames to his factory. His methods have been a little brusque, a little unfeeling to the fears of his workers who have been laid off. Moore is determined to press on with the innovations as quickly as possible. The consequence is that the first delivery of new machinery is attacked & destroyed by a gang of frame-breakers determined to stop progress at any cost. Shirley champions Robert & loans him money to keep his factory afloat as restrictive laws limit the market for his cloth. Robert is handsome & Shirley is beautiful & rich. Rumours are soon about that they intend to marry.
Caroline Helstone is a quiet young woman, niece to the Rev Helstone, a cold, distant man whose unkindness is said to have driven his wife to an early grave. Caroline’s childhood was unhappy. Her father was a drunkard & her mother left him & Caroline & hasn’t been heard of for years. Caroline is a distant cousin of Robert Moore & his sister, Hortense, & spends her days at their house, The Hollow, improving her French & her sewing. Caroline is in love with Robert but his thoughts are on his business & his future. The rest of her time is spent as a helper at Sunday School & acting as her uncle’s hostess at tedious social occasions.
When Shirley arrives at Fieldhead, she & Caroline become friends. Caroline’s uncle forbids her to see the Moores after he quarrels with Robert & Caroline gradually pines away with unrequited love & a sense of hopelessness as she has no purpose in life. Practically uneducated, unwilling to think of marrying anyone but Robert, who seems to be in love with Shirley, Caroline sinks into a dangerous illness.
Shirley is a fascinating but not wholly successful novel. The first two volumes (my OUP edition is divided into the original three volumes) are wonderful. From the opening chapters with the attack on the factory machinery to the story of Caroline’s love for Robert & her frustrated lack of purpose & the arrival of Shirley who rejuvenates everyone around her, the story is gripping. The chapters about Caroline’s illness are incredibly moving, especially with the knowledge that Charlotte was writing these chapters just after the death of Anne, her last remaining sibling. The chapter about the old maids of the village, Miss Ainley & Miss Mann, is full of all the withering scorn Charlotte was capable of. Charlotte knew the likely fate of unwanted women all too well in a society that was content to have undereducated women languishing for want of useful work. Caroline can see her fate in that of the old maids & it leaves her demoralised & depressed.
The attack on Moore’s mill is exciting & full of tension as is the attack on Moore himself that leaves him close to death. The portraits of the Yorke family (based on Charlotte’s friend Mary Taylor’s family) & the three curates, Donne, Malone & Sweeting (based on curates Charlotte had known at Haworth. Apparently when Arthur Nicholls, Charlotte’s future husband, first read Shirley, his landlady heard him shout with laughter & stamp his feet as he read the opening chapters) are truly felt & observed. Charlotte based Caroline & Shirley on her sisters, Anne & Emily, using wish fulfillment as well as her memories in her portraits. She said that Shirley was Emily as she would have been if she’d had wealth & she uses the true episode where Emily cauterised a bite on her arm from a dog suspected of rabies & gives it to Shirley. The historical background is based on extensive research into the newspapers of the time as well as her father’s recollections.
It’s the third volume that falls off in interest & credibility. Robert’s brother, Louis, has been tutor in the family of Shirley’s guardians, the Sympsons. When the Sympsons visit Fieldhead, Caroline is surprised that Shirley hadn’t mentioned knowing Louis. Unfortunately Louis is not an interesting character & his journal entries demonstrate all the difficulty Charlotte had when trying to write from a male perspective. Seeing Shirley change from the vibrant young woman of the first two volumes to someone looking for a master & content to be ruled by another is a real anticlimax. Shirley does say that she felt she had to defer to Louis so that he wouldn’t be embarrassed by their difference in fortune & status, but I wasn’t convinced. Their courtship is stilted & drawn-out & the part played by young Martin Yorke & Henry Sympson very awkward.
Even with my reservations about the relationship between Louis & Shirley, I enjoyed revisiting Shirley very much. Charlotte promised her readers “Something real, cool, and solid, lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning“, and after the romance & mystery of Jane Eyre, that’s what they got. All Charlotte’s strengths as a writer are here – the strong female characters, the domestic details, the true relationships between uncle & niece, mother & daughter, friends & lovers. If I don’t love Shirley as I love Jane Eyre, I can certainly enjoy revisiting some of the most vivid characters ever created by one of my favourite authors.