Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry, and reverie? Do you expect passion, and stimulus, and melodrama? Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool, and solid lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake with the consciousness that they must rise and betake themselves thereto.
I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to decide to read Shirley. I have read all of the other novels by the Brontë sisters (Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as a teenager and Agnes Grey, Villette, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and The Professor in more recent years) but for some reason haven’t felt motivated to read Shirley – until a few weeks ago when, looking at the remaining titles on my Classics Club list, I decided I couldn’t leave it to languish unread on my shelf any longer.
Shirley (published in 1849) is set in Briarfield, a small Yorkshire community in which a mill is the major employer. The year is 1811 and England’s economy is suffering from the effects of the Napoleonic Wars. Robert Moore, owner of the mill, is struggling financially and, as the novel opens, he is preparing to take delivery of some new machinery which will enable him to lay off some of his employees. Needless to say, the millworkers are enraged by this and set out to destroy the machines; uprisings like these would take place all over the country and become known as the Luddite Riots.
Against this political and social backdrop, the stories of two very different young women are played out. One is the local clergyman’s niece, Caroline Helstone, a quiet girl of eighteen. Caroline is in love with Robert Moore but he is reluctant to return her feelings due to her lack of money and position. The other is the title character, Shirley Keeldar, a beautiful young heiress. Shirley is a strong and spirited person with independent wealth – and although Caroline likes her very much, she becomes convinced that her new friend is going to marry Robert.
The title of the novel is Shirley, but this is as much Caroline’s story as Shirley’s (in fact, Shirley herself doesn’t appear until Chapter Eleven). I found them both interesting characters; there are many differences in personality, situation and outlook on life, but as the two become close friends we see a bond developing between them as they discover shared values and interests. They are described in the novel as ‘a graceful pencil sketch compared with a vivid painting’. After finishing the book I learned that Charlotte Brontë is thought to have based the character of Caroline on her sister Anne, and Shirley on Emily (she would lose both of her sisters to tuberculosis during the writing of the novel).
Another interesting fact about Shirley is that before the book was published, Shirley was usually a male name rather than a female one:
…she had no Christian name but Shirley: her parents, who had wished to have a son, finding that, after eight years of marriage, Providence had granted them only a daughter, bestowed on her the same masculine family cognomen they would have bestowed on a boy, if with a boy they had been blessed.
I can’t say that I loved this book – maybe because, as Brontë hinted in the opening lines (quoted at the beginning of this post) it lacked passion and I never felt that I had been truly drawn into the stories of Shirley and Caroline the way I had been drawn into Jane Eyre’s or Lucy Snowe’s. This was a slow read for me and at times quite a dry one, but I did find a lot to like and appreciate, from the relationships between the main characters to the historical background. Even though this hasn’t become a favourite, I’m pleased to have now read all of the Brontë sisters’ novels.