Charlotte Brontë is mostly known today as the author of Jane Eyre, the battle of one passionate young woman against the cramping conventions of nineteenth century society. In Shirley, the same author tells the story of two heroines, Shirley and Caroline, fighting the same sort of battles against a background of industrial revolution, poor harvests and the economic privations of the Napoleonic wars, all played out in the Yorkshire dales. It was published in the usual format for the period, three volumes issued at intervals; and if there is a disadvantage to that format it is that it encouraged authors to write enough to fill three volumes. Just maybe Shirley suffers a little, by contemporary standards, from this.
The book opens with a humorous and uncomplimentary picture of three curates who seem willing to abuse the respect with which society treated even the most junior members of the cloth; but, being set in Yorkshire, it moves swiftly on to consider manufacturers of cloth who are up against hard times. Set in 1811-12, it is the time of mechanisation in the mills; the industrial revolution that would, in time, make good wool cloth affordable for the many rather than the rich few but which, at the time, inflicted hardship, grinding poverty and even starvation on workers displaced by these machines; before the economy (to use a phrase in present day use) was rebalanced. With Europe at war and the government’s ‘Orders in Council’ preventing exports to the Americas, the outlook for both manufacturers and their workers was bleak.
You might at first be forgiven for imagining that the book should have been called “Caroline” rather than “Shirley” since we read through many early chapters dealing with Caroline Helstone, abandoned child of an abused governess, who lives with her uncle, a Church of England Rector with a narrow, High Tory attitude to life and to women’s place in it. She is friendly with an Anglo-Belgian family, the Moores, and especially Hortense Moore, the spinster sister of handsome Robert Gérard Moore, the tenant of Hollow’s Mill. Hortense teaches Caroline French and she enjoys her frequent visits there and the occasional time spent with Robert whom she finds very handsome if rather remote since he is taken up with the problems of finding money to invest in machinery, and fighting off the local Luddites who want to destroy his machines and his mill.
In due course, about one third of the way through the book, we meet an exceptional young woman, the heiress Shirley Keeldar who is the proprietrix of the Fieldhead estate and landlord of Hollow’s Mill. Unmarried, with no surviving parents, she can style herself ‘Captain’ Keeldar since she is both lord and lady of her particular manor. She has independent means, an independent caste of mind, and does not take kindly to the conventions that encourage almost any man to think himself her social and mental superior. She is related to the Sympsons of Sympson Grove who come for an extended visit with the aim of seeing her married off. This is Brontë’s ironic description of the Mr and Mrs Sympson, her uncle and aunt:
Mr Sympson proved to be a man of spotless respectability, worrying temper, pious principles, and worldly views; his lady was a very good woman, patient, kind, well-bred. She had been brought up on a narrow system of views – starved on a few prejudices: a mere handful of bitter herbs; a few preferences, soaked till their natural flavour was extracted, and with no seasoning added in the cooking; some excellent principles, made up in a stiff raised-crust of bigotry, difficult to digest: far too submissive was she to complain of this diet, or to ask for a crumb beyond it.
The daughters fare no better under the barbs of her descriptions but there is a very gentle young son, Henry, a cripple, whose tutor turns out to be Louis Moore, younger brother of Robert. Over the course of the Sympson’s extended stay, Shirley turns down several offers of marriage, culminating in passing up a baronet who writes a little poetry and has a great deal of wealth and position. This incenses Mr Sympson who firmly believes Shirley is outraging convention by not meekly accepting eligible suitors and his authority on the subject. We begin to wonder if Shirley’s affections are really for Louis and, as we read his diary, his feelings for her become plain.
After the unsuccessful Luddite attack on the mill, Robert Moore successfully tracks down the ringleaders and we learn they have been sentenced to transportation. He has to be away from Yorkshire for many months and Caroline, who in her own quiet way has fallen deeply in love with him, feels she has lost him and all but succumbs to a fever. In the one somewhat Dickensian coincidence in the book, it is her discovery that she is being nursed by her own mother that revives Caroline’s spirits and saves her life. The hardness of Robert Moore’s character alters dramatically after a near-successful attempt on his life in revenge for his pursuit of the Luddites. As he is nursed back to health, he becomes a gentler, more rounded character. Caroline visits his sick bed and it is obvious they have a mutual attraction.
The whole of the book deals with the issues, dear to Charlotte Brontë, of the battle between conventional reason, i.e. the status quo, and the freedom, especially for women, to feel passionately and to make their own decisions. This is another way of contrasting imagination of the range of possibility with the reality of a rigid, convention-bound society. There are some significant passages and chapters that debate these issues. Rather than a romance such as Jane Eyre, it really ought to be seen as another ‘condition of England’ novel, like the works of Mrs Gaskell. Brontë herself felt that Gaskell’s Mary Barton anticipated some of her arguments. It is also the case, as literary critics Andrew and Judith Hook argue convincingly, that the characters of Shirley and Caroline reflect very much Charlotte’s sisters Emily and Anne. In many passages of lively dialogue interspersed throughout the book, the speakers knock spots of each other very effectively.
But what, I hear you ask, about the end of the book? [Spoiler alert! Skip the rest of this blog.]
Well; to adapt Charlotte’s own authorial interjection in Jane Eyre, Reader; they married them! But it is worth reading through to the end of the book to find out just how this all comes about.