About Me

My photo
I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 22 August 2016

"Shirley" by Charlotte Bronte

Written in 1848 but set in 1811 ish. The Napoleonic Wars are being fought in Portugal and Spain and the 'Orders in Council' mean that Robert Gerard Moore, a Belgian manufacturer of cotton goods who has a mill in Yorkshire, can't sell his goods. As he teeters on the edge of bankruptcy he installs machines so he can use child labour, throwing men out of work. The unemployed manage to break one of his deliveries of machines and he has one of the ringleaders sentenced to transportation. Tensions rise.

Meanwhile his cousin, Miss Caroline Helstone, who lives with her parson Uncle at the rectory following the death of her profligate father (who had been raising her on his own after her mother his wife left him) has fallen in love with Robert. He reciprocates her feelings but realises that he needs to marry a rich woman if he is going to avoid bankruptcy.

We are nearly a third of the way into the book before we meet the eponymous heroine, Shirley Keeldar. She has returned to Yorkshire having just come of age and come into possession of her inheritance, which includes the mill which Robert leases. Soon she is lending him money to keep him solvent and the penniless Caroline perceives a blossoming romance. Meanwhile Robert and Caroline's Uncle, the vicar, fall out over politics and they are forbidden from meeting. Will Caroline lose the love of her life to Shirley? Will she become an old maid? Will she find her mother? Will the rioters assassinate Robert? Will he go bankrupt?

In many ways this is a surprisingly modern book with its dual themes of industrial change causing hardship and woman's struggle against the constraints imposed upon them by men.

Shirley is a wonderfully strong woman character. Right from her first appearance she assumes the character of a man, having a man's name (this was the first appearance of the name Shirley as a first name and Bronte explains that it was a family name bestowed upon her by her parents because they hoped for a boy) demanding to be seen as magistrate, churchwarden, captain of yeomanry and squire; stating how much she loves trade and considering a partnership with Robert Moore the mill owner. She is a stark contrast to demure Caroline, suggesting that the difference in their characters (Shirley is active, Caroline passive) is down to their money rather than their genders. They are perfectly reflected by the men: the headstrong mill owner Robert who rides around the country defying and prosecuting rioters (he is always in motion, like his mill: there is a lovely scene of him in his counting house with a quill pen; he "stripped away the feathered top in a brief spasm of finger-fury") and his brother Louis, a tutor, undergoing "the very arduous and very modest career of a teacher" (p 48),  penniless, subservient to and constrained by the family of Shirley's cousin.

Other characters also come symmetrically. Caroline's uncle is a dominant vicar who leads his parishioners on a parade which charges the protesting non-conformists in a nice mirror of the next chapter when rioting workers attack Robert's mill; Mr Helstone is thus contrasted beautifully with the ineffectual Revd Hall. However, Hall is a sweet saint while privately at home Helstone is a heartless man who ignored his wife once he had won her till she withered away and is cold to his niece.

The structure of the book is a little strange. It starts in media res with  Revd Helstone, "keen as a kite" (p 9), summoning his curate, the belligerent Irishman Malone, to the mill where an attack is feared. Malone drinks Moore's spirits while the rioters ambush the delivery of his machines and destroy them; Moore and Helstone have to ride to the rescue of the shanghaied delivery men to find they have already been rescued by the Jacobinical local landowner Mr Yorke who offers hospitality only to order Moore and Helstone out of his house following a political disagreement. Exciting stuff. But then the pace slows as Caroline is introduced and we become aware of the lover sprouting between Moore and herself. He walks her home but knows he cannot propose because he needs to marry an heiress. He will control himself: "the frenzy [of love] is quite temporary. I know it very well. I have had it before. It will be gone tomorrow." (p 73)

Then  finally Shirley arrives, to befriend Caroline but at the same time to threaten her relationship with Moore. This is a time of sadness when all other potential suitors are seen as idiots through Caroline's eyes (we will later experience Shirley's disdain of men she does not respect or does not love). Mr Helstone tells Caroline the matrimony is a trap; that people suffer and (perhaps naively) she asks whether he was unhappy with her aunt (he was, at least she was unhappy with him) and, in a classic avoid the question political defence he tells he "it is vulgar and puerile to confound generals with particulars. In every case there is the rule and there are the exceptions. Your questions are stupid and babyish. Ring the bell, if you have done breakfast." (p 77) (That last sentence being a master class in adding authenticity to the 'author's message!). She visits an old maid who is ugly and therefore has been forced to do good all her life and pities her. Somewhat later Caroline is told that love "is very bitter. It is said to be strong - strong as death! Most of the cheats of existence are strong. As to their sweetness, nothing is so transitory; its date is a moment, the twinkling of an eye. The sting remains for ever. It may perish with the dawn of eternity, but it tortures through time into its deepest night."(p 284)

This meanders on. Just over half way through the book comes the big riot culminating in an armed attack on the mill. And then at around the two thirds mark the mystery of Caroline's mother is solved whilst Caroline lies seriously ill. This is a low point: the resolution is pure melodrama: "you are mine - my daughter - my own child." With that out of the way the fourth party in the love quadrangle can be introduced. Louis Moore, the tutor brother of Robert, appears just before Caroline gets sick, but he only moves to centre stage afterwards. Although he is subservient and mild, Bronte uses Shirley's dog to show that Louis has some depth; aside from Shirley, the dog only follows Louis.

Now we are nearly at the three-quarters mark and at last Shirley starts getting marriage offers. She refuse the first but will she refuse them all? Is she holding out for Moore? And finally we are into the last part of the book which resolves around the problem that penniless men cannot honourably propose to wealthier women whilst at the same time women cannot propose to men. Moore himself, having disappeared on business to London for a huge chunk of the book, on hold while other issues are being resolved, returns after 83% of the book has gone, full of plans to be a better person, only to be shot and sent wounded to bed for the next forty pages. Finally, at the 90% mark, matrimonial matters can finally be resolved.

Bronte is surprisingly left wing. She criticises Moore, likened to Coriolanus, because "he did not sufficiently care when the new inventions threw the old workpeople out of employ. He never asked himself where those to whom he no longer paid weekly wages found daily bread" (p 22) (although she appreciates the financial pressures he is under; if he doesn't modernise he will lose his competitive edge and go out of business and all the workpeople will be unemployed) and towards the end of the book we discover that he is resolved to mend his ways and become a better employer. Helstone fulminates against the employers and demands "vigorous government interference, strict magisterial vigilance; when necessary, prompt military coercion" but Mr Yorke in the next paragraph wonders "whether this interference, vigilance, and coercion would feed those who were hungry, give work to those who wanted work" (pp 40 - 41). She sympathises with the children who work at Moore's mill, running through snow-storms to work, fined for being late, allowed half an hour for breakfast at eight o'clock. Caroline says "I cannot help thinking it unjust to include all poor workingpeople under the general and insulting name of 'the mob', and continually to think of them and treat them haughtily. ... it would be better for you to be loved by your workpeople than to be hated by them" (p 70 ... p 71) She also criticises the mercantile class: "All men, taken singly, are more or less selfish, and taken in bodies, they are intensely so ... the mercantile classes illustrate it strikingly. These classes certainly think too exclusively of making money." (p 127) "Whoever is not in trade is accused of eating the bread of idleness, of passing a useless existence." (p 128) Furthermore: "certain sets of human beings are very apt to maintain that other sets should give up their lives to them and their service." (p 133) "For those who are not hungry, it is easy to palaver about the degradation of charity." (p 200)

She also pushes the feminist angle, most notably in the almost tomboyish character of Shirley (who is, however, longing for a man strong enough to rule her). Of one suitor she says, memorably, "We were born in the same year; consequently he is still a boy, while I am a woman - ten years his senior to all intents and purposes" (p 460) And even the girls are feminists: When little Jessy is told "it becomes all children, especially girls, to be silent in the presence of their elders" she enquires "Why have we tongues then? ... And why especially girls?" (p 118)

There are moments when you feel that Bronte would have been better with a good editor. The Yorke's have five children and each of their characters is dissected. But, for the point of view of the plot, only Martin is necessary. The others add a little colour perhaps, some clever lines, but the purpose of Mark seems to be to enable Bronte to give the dictionary definition of 'sentimental'! This was a low point in the book.

I have mentioned my pet hate before in this blog and I will mention it again. Bronte uses a lot of untranslated French. My edition had fantastic end notes but you lose the flow when you keep flicking back and forth.

There are some brilliant quotes:

  • Shirley does have perhaps my favourite chapter heading of all time (18): "Which the genteel reader is recommended to skip, low persons being here introduced."
  • The rectory is described as "a windowed grave" (p 299); a nun is described as "mist-pale" (p 386)
  • Bronte offers contraceptive advice: "I would advise all young ladies ... to study the characters of such children as they chance to meet with before they have marry and have any of their own." (p 310)
  • When Caroline gets ill it may be because "some sweet, poisoned breeze, redolent of honey-dew and miasma, had passed into her lungs and veins" (p 312)


This was a long book. The plotting is difficult and the pace extraordinarily uneven; two of the four main characters are introduced surprisingly late in the proceedings, one is removed from the scene for a long time. It veers between a love story and a comment on social conditions. The sub-plot of Caroline's mother is superfluous and allows the book to descend into melodrama. But Shirley is a wonderful heroine and generally the characterisations are strong; in this respect I thought the book superior to Jane Eyre in which, apart from Jane, many of the supporting cast are little better than types. This would be a brilliant book if it were pruned.

August 2016; 482 pages

No comments:

Post a Comment