Monday, March 13, 2017

'Shirley' by Charlotte Bronte

Following the tremendous popular success of Jane Eyre, which earned her lifelong notoriety as a moral revolutionary, Charlotte Brontë vowed to write a sweeping social chronicle that focused on "something real and unromantic as Monday morning." Set in the industrializing England of the Napoleonic wars and Luddite revolts of 1811-12, Shirley (1849) is the story of two contrasting heroines. One is the shy Caroline Helstone, who is trapped in the oppressive atmosphere of a Yorkshire rectory and whose bare life symbolizes the plight of single women in the nineteenth century. The other is the vivacious Shirley Keeldar, who inherits a local estate and whose wealth liberates her from convention.


This is my romance choice for the 2017 Back to the Classics challenge.

Charlotte Bronte sure knew how to write a sizzling romance. There were two love stories in this novel, but you might wonder how it stands up against her more famous classic, Jane Eyre. I found my opinions fluctuating, and I'll explain why.

First a quick summary. The backdrop is the Industrial Revolution, nowhere more turbulent than in Yorkshire. Factory owners were buying newly invented machinery to save production costs, but the workers who lost their jobs were starving, angry, and resentful. The story is about Shirley Keeldar, an heiress worth thousands of pounds, and her best friend Caroline Helstone, the local minister's niece, and how they end up marrying a pair of brothers. Robert Moore is the stern young boss of a cloth mill, and his younger sibling Louis is the humble tutor of Shirley's teenage cousin.

A lot of the story was bogged down with all the ways Caroline pines her heart out for Robert, when he starts giving her the cold shoulder treatment. She resigns herself to spinsterhood, her health wastes away, she cries at the drop of a hat, and you can't help asking, 'Is Robert even worth all this?' Although I found him quite likable, he was a cold, calculating Chauvinist. He's a good-looking guy who makes cutting remarks about plain women. Not good taste in any generation. He's also the nineteenth century counterpart of those entrepreneur types who have no room in their hearts for anything but their business. He can squelch his own emotions in a flash, yet Caroline almost kills herself over him.

'Truly I ought not to have been born,' she reflects at one point. 'They should have smothered me at first cry.' Yes, she's really and truly dropping quotes comparing herself to Job because Robert doesn't love her! I wanted someone to tell her to get a grip! Maybe I wouldn't have been so impatient if her mopey ways didn't carry on for page after page after page. She's got to be one of the most needy, self-pitying, sooky characters I've come across.

I stuck with the story for Shirley's sake (who wasn't even introduced until page 190, even though she's the title character). She was a breath of fresh air compared to Caroline. Shirley seemed so appealing, yet it was more than just self-confidence and a cheerful disposition. She's so easily impressed with simple things, which others overlook. A good book, a twilight sky and a fresh breeze are all it takes to make 'earth an Eden, life a poem.' You wouldn't find Shirley contemplating suicide over any man.

The two girls are often compared with each other, although Charlotte Bronte made it clear that she wasn't setting one up as 'better' than the other. Caroline is a graceful pencil sketch while Shirley is a vivid painting. Caroline is quiet as the beauty of a ground-loving hedge flower, while Shirley is an exotic tropical flower. Caroline is a snow-white dove while Shirley is a gem-tinted bird of paradise.

When I was younger, I would have made up my mind I was going to be a Shirley. But I hate to admit history has shown me to be more of a Caroline in many respects. Although she grates on my nerves chronically, I get her. I'd be the one who'd sit up, too agitated to sleep, or who can't let go of a rogue thought, or who'd be least likely to bounce back from offence or disappointment. Now that I'm older, the story had me wondering if I have to face the fact that I'm a Caroline, whether I like it or not. Is it even possible to be a Shirley just because I want to be? When it comes to personality, are we forced to accept what we're given, or is there room for change?

I do think we can temper our knee-jerk reactions, and that's where strong fictional characters are like great friends. Deciding to recall an example like Shirley may at least help us to think things through, and modify our responses.

Her love interest wasn't introduced until page 401. The story sure picked up pace when he showed up. We have high hopes of him, because Shirley threw out the challenge early on. 'Nothing ever charms me more than when I meet my superior... what frets me is that when I try to esteem, I'm baffled.' (She's not anywhere near as big-headed as that quote makes her sound.) So Louis has a huge task ahead of him, but proves himself equal to it. I loved him. In fact, he's such a modest Prince Charming type that little birds literally swoop down from the sky when they see him coming, (I kid you not), but it's written in such a way that we just nod and believe it.

Charlotte Bronte had an ironic sense of humour. Do you want to know one of my favourite parts of the book? After Robert gets shot by a rebel protester, he's put under the care of the hard faced, cantankerous Mrs Horsfall while he recuperates, and there's not a thing he can do about it. Ha, take that, Mr Male Chauvinist! It appealed to my sense of justice.

The abundance of feminist sentiments expressed through the novel greatly surprised me. It's not just that I didn't realise Charlotte Bronte had been so outspoken for women's liberation, but the novel was published in 1849. Her opinions seem so up to date, yet standards hadn't changed greatly even one hundred years later, by the 1950s. It seems she was way ahead of her time, yet in some ways, this book contradicts itself. Why would an author who wanted to usher in social change invent a sappy character like Caroline, who allowed Robert so much power over every aspect of her life?

I can't help coming back to Caroline and Robert. I think what irritated me most is that he's depicted as the bad, heartless guy, because he chose to smother his feelings for Caroline. But what if he genuinely hadn't loved her? Caroline would have still done her pathetic, dying swan thing. Would Charlotte Bronte still expect us to blame Robert when she fell apart at the seams? That would hardly be fair. It was Caroline's own choice to have a total breakdown. No man should be held responsible for the complete well-being and happiness of any woman, no matter what his true feelings were. It's just too big a burden to put on his shoulders.  

Overall, there's plenty of great passion, Charlotte Bronte's descriptions are lyrical and second to none, and the last two hundred pages were my favourite, but you do have to get through a huge slump in the middle, which sometimes feels more like a black hole. Jane Eyre has far more movement all through it. Shirley is too stagnant in patches, yet maybe if you like plenty of in depth character analysis, you won't mind being trapped in that black hole.

Quotes from the book

To admire the great, reverence the good, and be joyous with the genial was very much the bent of Shirley's soul.

Louis Moore was used to a quiet life. Having a large world of his own in his own head and heart, he tolerated confinement to a small, still corner of the real world very patiently.

Louis (to the dog): The autumn sun shines as pleasantly on us as on the fairest and richest. This garden is none of ours, but we enjoy its greenness and perfume, don't we?

Joe Scott: Adam was not deceived but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.
Shirley: More shame to Adam, to sin with his eyes open.

Mrs Yorke: Every sister with an eligible brother is considered most kind by her spinster friends. (I wonder if Charlotte Bronte was aware of Jane Austen's famous first sentence of Pride and Prejudice, or if the similarity was a complete coincidence.)

Here I am at the Bronte Parsonage Museum at Haworth, during my holiday to England aged 20. At one point, Shirley remarks that she's impervious to cold. That impresses me a lot, since I've always remembered Haworth as one of the most freezing places I've ever visited on the face of the earth. 

If you want to compare them, here's my review of Jane Eyre.


  1. Shirley wasn't as popular as Jane Eyre. Most fans of Jane Eyre didn't like it at all. Many people believe that one of the major differences between the books stems from Charlotte's attempt to fix all the things her critics accused her of doing wrong in Jane Eyre. Also, there was the personal turmoil she was going through with the deaths of her siblings. Both Branwell (her only brother) and Emily died while she was writing it. Anne died the same year it was released.

    1. Hi Lynne,
      Yeah, I knew about their deaths too. You've got to feel sorry for Charlotte. What a blow to have all three siblings die within such a small space of time, and what a time to be hard at work on a novel.
      There must be a lesson in there, about listening to critics and trying to take everything on board. The parts I liked about Shirley, I really liked.

    2. Yes, I've always used Shirley as my watchword when I'm looking at things I'm criticised for in my writing. Sure, you should try and correct things if you feel the criticism is valid but don't go toofar.

    3. Do you know what criticism she received from Jane Eyre that she was trying to fix? I'd be interested to know.

    4. It's hard to remember off the top of my head ... and spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn't read it!!!

      I know she was criticised because it was considered immoral that Mr Rochester ended up marrying her when he tried to commit bigamy by marrying her while he was still married. I think some critics felt that the romance of it was over the top and that it would have been better for Jane to go away as a missionary than what actually happened. I think this led her to try and write a novel that had all those elements virtually non-existent and Shirley was her attempt to stay away from that kind of thing.

    5. Wow, Shirley was tamer in the romance department, that's for sure. But isn't it interesting that the aspects which made those nineteenth century critics complain are probably those which appeal most to so many twenty-first century readers?

      I'll re-read Villette some day too. Haven't read it since my teens and hardly remember a thing :)

    6. Villette was a bit long, in my opinion, and suffered from an extreme change of direction in the middle of it. I thought it picked up towards the end but the ending itself was atrocious.

    7. Mostly I remember a whole lot of French. I don't remember much else about that book, but I remember thinking The Professor was boring 😊

  2. Thanks for your review, Paula. 'Shirley' is one of the few books I put aside after reading the first few chapters. Now that I've read your review, I think I'll make another attempt at reading it. My husband and I also visited the Bronte Parsonage and stayed at Haworth a few days to absorb the atmosphere of the great writers' birthplace.

    1. Hi Hazel,
      There is a lot of good material in Shirley, for sure. It was spring time when I visited Haworth with my parents, and far colder than ever Aussie winter ever! The town has a really fascinating, melancholic feeling, I thought, as if they're still exerting their influence. It must have been awesome to spend a few days there.

    2. I'd love to go there! One day I will. :-)

    3. It was 1990 when I was there, such a long time ago now, but I imagine Haworth is one of those places that never changes 😊

  3. I actually related a lot to Caroline's pining over Robert, yes a guy isn't worth it, but I think for her it comes down more to having something to live for her? Robert is who she loves and also a means of escape in a way? She lives a very isolated/cold life with her Uncle and even though she has friends and an especially close one with Shirley, she doesn't seem to have anyone shes particularly close to except Robert. She gets better when her mother reappears and she feels she has someone to live for....

    1. Haha, I was probably a bit hard on her 😂 All that you say is true, but she seemed to be the one character who just irritated me the more I read. Lucky for her he did reciprocate her feelings, because if he didn't, she would have been in a real state all her life. Although as you say, hopefully her mother's wisdom might have helped her recover.

  4. This actually sounds pretty fascinating to me! I'm more interested than before to read it now. Thank you for sharing your remarks. :-)

    No idea if I'll prefer it to Jane Eyre, but I do like the sound of it. x

    1. Hi Jillian, I'll be very interested to find out if you do 😊 The historical content of course, is brilliant. My overall favourite of Charlotte's is Villette.