Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley was a bit of a rough read for me. I liked it in places, but in others it felt slow and unfocused. It had an entirely different feel than Jane Eyre and Villette; it was less intense, less gripping. Shirley herself didn’t appear for a good 150 pages (out of the 600 or so pages in my edition), and when she did appear, she livened things up quite a lot, but even afterward the novel’s pacing still felt off. What is most interesting about the novel is the issues it deals with, especially the “woman question” and issues of industrialization, but it’s not a book to read for an exciting plot.
The novel’s opening is odd — and thereby sets the tone for the rest of the novel. It describes three rather foolish curates who are spending the evening drinking and talking and teasing each other. These three characters turn out to be minor, though; they appear later in the novel, but only occasionally. Soon they get interrupted and one of them is sent on a mission that is much closer to the novel’s central plot — a mill owner is under threat of violence because local workers fear that his new machinery, just about to be delivered, will take away their jobs. The curate is supposed to help guard the mill. This opening is typical of how the entire novel tends to work — things happen, but the build-up to the action takes a while and it follows such a winding path that I was left feeling bewildered about what I was supposed to be paying attention to.
In addition to the mill owner, Robert Moore, we soon meet Caroline Helstone, a young woman in love with Robert. When Caroline’s guardian — her uncle — becomes angry with Robert and forbids Caroline to see him anymore, she feels she no longer has any interest in life and her health begins to decline. This sounds kind of pathetic, but Caroline’s life is very lonely and it feels purposeless. Her uncle is distant and unsympathetic, and she longs for the ability men have to get a job and to do some productive work. The only possibility she knows is available for women is to be a governess, and she tries to become one, although everyone around her refuses to help.
It’s at this point that Shirley arrives. She is Caroline’s age, roughly, and is an energetic, lively young heiress. Her presence livens up the neighborhood, and it also livens up the book. She is a welcome and much-needed friend for Caroline, but unfortunately, Caroline suspects that there is a romance about to begin between Shirley and Robert, and she becomes jealous and her health fades even further.
At this point I’ll stop describing the plot; unfortunately the back cover of my edition (Penguin) mentions some details that come up very late in the book and spoil a good bit of what suspense there is. It’s bad enough when an introductory essay gives away the plot, but much worse when the back cover does — because who can resist reading the back cover?
At any rate, part of the interest of the novel comes from how this love triangle will work itself out, and also of great interest is Shirley herself. She is regularly described in masculine terms; “Shirley” was a man’s name, first of all, and she likes to make a joke that she is a gentleman:
Business! Really the word makes me conscious I am indeed no longer a girl, but quite a woman and something more. I am an esquire: Shirley Keeldar, Esquire, ought to be my style and title. They gave me a man’s name; I hold a man’s position: it is enough to inspire me with a touch of manhood … You must choose me for your churchwarden, Mr. Helstone, the next time you elect new ones; they ought to make me a magistrate and a captain of yeomanry: Tony Lumpkin’s mother was a colonel, and his aunt a justice of the peace — why shouldn’t I be?
Caroline is much more retiring and ladylike than Shirley, but the two agree that women’s options in life are woefully limited and they chafe against the male characters who refuse to take them seriously because of their gender.
The other issue the novel takes up is technology and industrialization, and this is largely Robert’s story; he is in debt and is struggling to make his mill profitable enough to clear his name, but there are several obstacles against him, including the threat of violence from Luddite protesters and the fact that England is at war, which is disrupting commerce. Shirley isn’t anti-industrialization; Robert’s struggles are portrayed sympathetically, and the technological changes seem inevitable. What matters, ultimately, is whether Robert’s heart is in the right place; he has some lessons about charity and generosity he needs to learn.
I’m glad I read this novel because I was curious about what it was like, and I’d like to read all the Brontë novels eventually (I’ve read Jane Eyre, Villette, Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and now Shirley, which leaves me The Professor and Agnes Grey, unless I am missing something), but in spite of some of the interesting issues it deals with, it’s my least favorite so far.