Most of us are familiar with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, but Shirley is probably not high on everyone’s reading list. I urged my reading group to take it on, and they are still speaking to me. Originally published as a triple decker in 1849, Shirley is set in the early years of the nineteenth century, when mechanization of the textile industry led to the Luddite riots, a time when Napoleon had yet to be defeated. My copy of the work is the 1981 Oxford World’s Classics edition edited by Herbert Rosengarten and Margaret Smith. Smith’s introduction provides a useful context to the events of the novel and to some of Brontë’s concerns about it, particularly her concern that Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, which came out while Brontë was still working on Shirley, already dealt with some of the issues raised by Brontë in her own novel.
Certainly, in attempting a “social” or “condition of England” novel, Brontë is treading similar ground to Elizabeth Gaskell. She perhaps doesn’t do it quite as well as Gaskell. Ultimately, I find Shirley to be a somewhat fractured work. There are times when the narration falters, the narrative voice is insecure and the narrative focus divided. I find myself asking questions.
Is this a comic novel? There are moments when I laughed out loud, particularly in the opening chapter with its description of the young curates. The omniscient narrator has, for the most part, an ironic tone reminiscent perhaps more of Thackeray than of Fielding.
Is this a feminist novel? Certainly, the presentation of the place of women in society and the assessment of the options available to gentlewomen, (I use the term gentlewoman intentionally) especially if they are not rich, is candid and critical. The plight of the unmarried elderly lady is made particularly clear in Brontë’s treatment of Miss Ainley and Miss Mann. What an unmarried Caroline Helstone, the dependent niece of a cleric, has to look forward to and fear is very different from the prospect facing independently wealthy Shirley Keeldar, who is sometimes referred to in the novel simply as “the heiress.”
Although Shirley is courted for a time by a baronet, Brontë’s examination of social hierarchy doesn’t really stray far from the dilemmas of the middle classes. Despite the ironic title to Volume II’s Chapter VII, “which the genteel reader is recommended to skip, low persons being here introduced” (317), the situation of the labour force is not dealt with in any great detail or sympathy. I found myself comparing Brontë’s examination of the relationship between employer and employees with Gaskell’s treatment of industrial discontent in North and South. Gaskell is able to show the dispute from both sides. Brontë comes down quite heavily on the side of the mill owners, especially Robert Moore who is driven close to bankruptcy because of the joint pressures of the restrictions on trade due to the wars with France and the United States and the attack on his mill and the almost successful attempt on his life.
Context is also important. As she does in Jane Eyre, Brontë draws her characters and settings from life. Knowing that Caroline Helstone is probably based on Ellen Nussey, Anne Brontë, and Charlotte herself (Notes to pages 64-92, 656) is perhaps interesting but not essential to one’s appreciation of the novel. Having the political background and knowing something of the debates within Anglicanism both at the time of the novel’s setting and at the time of its writing makes the social criticism of the work more evident. In some ways, without this knowledge on the part of the reader, one is likely to miss Brontë’s irony, so a reader not particularly well-versed in nineteenth century history is likely to be dependent upon the end-notes.
Further, in some ways, Brontë’s reliance here and in Jane Eyre on, for want of a better word, fictionalizing a recognizable landscape and creating characters based on recognizable originals raises further questions, the answers to which I suspect are not really the province of this particular post. Just how “creative” is it to draw one’s characters so closely from life? It isn’t only Brontë who does this. Think about the characters in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time series, for example, or the recognizable personages in some of Evelyn Waugh’s novels. But I digress.
Also recognizable from Jane Eyre is Brontë’s interest in phrenology, the “science” of relating the shape of the skull to personality and her apparent distaste for a certain type of woman. Her description of the Sympson daughters “tall, with a Roman nose apiece,” recalls her description of Blanche Ingram in Jane Eyre. The Sympsons are not created sympathetically: “Principles and opinions they possessed which could not be mended” (454). In Shirley, too, Brontë relies on co-incidence and long-lost relatives to order her plot.
Then there is the question of just whose story is this: Caroline Helstone’s or the eponymous Shirley’s. Shirley does not appear until a third of the way through the book. Is Shirley simply a foil for Caroline or a catalyst for action? She seems too dominant a presence within the novel simply to be a vehicle to serve the plot. Certainly, if we are to regard the work as examining the various roles and expectations of women, we need Shirley to suggest the possibilities that come with independence. Shirley, being of age and financially secure, is capable, despite the disapproval of her former guardian Mr. Sympson, of far more autonomous action than the dependent but genteel Caroline.
Despite all these questions, however, I enjoyed re-reading Shirley. Even despite its traditional, comic resolution—and one has to admit that, given the set-up at the beginning of the book, one would be disappointed if one didn’t have the expected tidy end to the plot—the novel does raise some very valid social and political questions and create a recognizable portrait of an important period in English social history.
I would argue further that in the light of the social change being wrought today as a result of globalization, the loss of jobs to off-shore manufacturing, the decline in union membership, and the whole shift in the relationship between production and labour, as well as the shifts in relationship between classes and genders, Shirley still has quite a lot to say to contemporary readers, but, as Brontë’s narrator says in the last paragraph while addressing the reader who is “putting on his spectacles to look for the moral. . . . it would be an insult to . . .[the reader’s] sagacity to offer directions” (646).