Charlotte Brontë begins her 1849 novel Shirley by stating that “Of late years an abundant shower of curates has fallen upon the north of England.” Her unnamed third-person narrator goes on to say that this book would be set in an earlier time when “that affluent rain had not descended.” That may very well be so, but this book certainly suffers from a surfeit of curates. As charming as the narrative voice is and as interesting as the issues are, the abundance of curates and the absence of the title character for the first third or so of the book nearly does the novel in.

The novel, set in Yorkshire in 1811, during the time of the Napoleonic War, has more of an overt social conscience than Brontë’s other novels that I’ve read (Jane Eyre and Villette). In fact, it reminds me more of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel North and South as both books tell a love story set against a backdrop of labor unrest. I liked both books, but Gaskell’s feels more disciplined and well put together. Shirley feels sloppier, which keeps this pretty good novel from being truly great.

The first several chapters of the book focus on the conflict between mill owners and laborers. Advances in manufacturing have enabled owners to manufacture cloth more efficiently, so they need fewer workers. The workers, in protest, have taken to destroying the machinery and attacking mill owners and managers. Brontë, like Gaskell, depicts both sides of this dispute with compassion, acknowledging that both make valid points.

It would not do to stop the progress of invention, to damage science by discouraging its improvements; the war could not be terminated; efficient relief could not be raised. There was no help then; so the unemployed underwent their destiny—ate the bread and drank the waters of affliction.

Misery generates hate. These sufferers hated the machines which they believed took the bread from them; they hated the buildings which contained those machines; they hated the manufacturers who owned those buildings.

Brontë’s hero, Robert Gérard Moore, is one such manufacturer; and as a foreigner, he becomes the target of much of the hatred. Attacks on his factory and on his men leave him at risk of bankruptcy. However, his cousin, Caroline Hellstone, remains devoted to him through it all, even after her uncle and guardian falls out with him over the war.

These opening chapters are filled with politics and social commentary that covers the state of the church, industrialization, class conflict, the war in Europe, attitudes toward foreigners. It’s all rather interesting to a Victorian geek like me, but it’s not a great story, and it sometimes tends toward the preachy. I love the Victorian device in which the narrator breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly (as Bronte famously does in Jane Eyre), but it can be overused, and I think Brontë tends toward overuse here. I generally found the little asides from the narrator to be charming, but I imagine a lot of readers would find them irritating. And I think the narrator’s commentary contributes to making the early chapters feel like political commentary without a strong human story at its heart.

When Caroline Hellstone takes center stage, the story becomes more human. Caroline is an orphan, she’s intelligent, kind, and sad. She loves Robert Moore but fears he will never love her in return, and he is a man of mixed signals. Her agony and tendency to melodrama felt so real to me. But real as she is, she’s not enough to carry a novel. After a while, her understandable fretting would get wearying. Enter Shirley Keeldar, near savior of the novel. Shirley, another orphan, is rich, independent, and sassy. When a curate or any other man gets out of line, she puts him right in his place. She quickly becomes a close friend of Caroline and a sparring partner for Robert and all the other men in the parish. Her voice is the voice of strong, vibrant womanhood; and she brings a strong feminist attitude to the novel. There are even some feminist readings of scripture included.

Once Shirley enters the book, it becomes more focused on one societal issue—the role of women and marriage—and the interpersonal conflict among the characters gets more interesting. I honestly had no clear idea who would marry and what would happen. The trouble is, the other social issues get dropped almost entirely, only to be picked up again to serve the romantic storyline. So the laborers and the curates are virtually forgotten, then they’re awkwardly tacked on.

There’s a lot about the ending that’s awkward. It was just all too convenient. I’m sure you could say the same about Jane Eyre, but the whiff of divine intervention rescues the ending of that novel in my mind. In Shirley, it’s almost as if Brontë realized she needed to wrap things up, so she just removed obstacles and put the necessary pieces into place with a snap of the finger, even though some of the most intractable obstacles had been there for years. There’s also a bizarre bit of narrative that is taken from a character’s journal, but it reads more like a first-person novel than a journal entry. All narrative, no introspection. So why the switch to first person?

I don’t want to leave readers with the impression that I didn’t enjoy this book. I did, very much. I loved Shirley as a character, and I thought parts of the novel were really funny. (The early scenes with Hortense are a scream.) I’m a sucker for novels of this period, so I’m an easy audience for the Brontës, Eliot, Gaskell, and company. But I totally understand why Shirley is not considered one of the top novels of its era.

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18 Responses to Shirley

  1. Amanda says:

    I have to admit, the only Charlotte Bronte novel I’ve ever made it through was Jane Eyre. I got halfway through Vilette before I finally gave up, and only a quarter through this one.

    • Teresa says:

      Jane Eyre is definitely easier to love than this one or Vilette. I think it’s her most famous book for a good reason! I read Vilette so long ago that I don’t remember much about it, but I do think I liked it more than I did this.

  2. Alex says:

    This and The Professor are the only novels by the three Brontes I’ve never read. I’m saving then :) I’ve heard similar thoughts about Shirley not being “a classic” and its preachiness. Glad to think you still thought it worth while.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m a ridiculously easy sell when it comes to Victorian novels. I just love the writing style. I now only have The Professor and Agnes Grey yet to read.

  3. Chelsea says:

    Jane Eyre is the only Charlotte Bronte I’ve ever been lucky enough to read, although I did attempt Villette a few years ago! You’ve made Shirley sound like a delightful character and one I wish there was more of in Victorian fiction. Thanks for the great review!

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve found a fair few spunky women in Victorian lit. Maggie Tulliver in Mill on the Floss is another good one and Margaret Hale in North and South. But it’s always a pleasure to meet more!

  4. Jenny says:

    Interesting. You use the word “sloppy” — did the book just feel hasty, unstructured, un-thought-out? Or was it more that the structure was implausible? I’ll probably get to this eventually (never enough Bronte!) so I’m glad to hear your thoughts. I also sympathize with you on certain books by these authors being greater than others.

    • Teresa says:

      It felt to me like it hadn’t been thought out. Major themes and ideas were sometimes just dropped and then shoehorned back in. We learn about important events second-hand. Stuff like that. It’s still a Bronte and worth reading, but I can see why it’s considered a lesser Bronte.

  5. Susan E says:

    I’ve got this on my TBR list so am glad to hear some good things about it. Apparently, Charlotte Bronte told Mrs. Gaskell that the character of Shirley was based in some ways on her sister Emily and what she might have been like in different circumstances.

    • Teresa says:

      I read that same thing about Emily–and that Caroline is based on Anne. Both Emily and Anne as well as Branwell apparently died during the writing of this novel, so it was a particularly difficult time.

  6. rebeccareid says:

    oh, how disappointing sounding. I am totally a Victorian geek, though, so I suspect I’ll enjoy the labour unrest issues. I am still looking forward to this one, but I’ll try hard not to compare it to other, better books, because it sounds like such comparisons are easy to do — and make this one more frustrating!

    • Teresa says:

      The labor stuff is interesting, but then it’s dropped only to be picked up again in an unsatisfactory way. It’s frustrating, but overall I found a lot to like in the book. Hope you find it even more enjoyable!

  7. bookssnob says:

    I was distinctly underwhelmed by Shirley, though once you have slogged through the first bit, wondering when Shirley is actually going to show up, it does get a lot better. I found it a rather pointless novel in many respects – I don’t remember exactly why, but I think I found it rather contrived and preachy and more of a coathanger to place Bronte’s politics on than the romantic novel she tries to shoehorn the plot into being.

    • Teresa says:

      I agree with your criticisms, but I wouldn’t call it a pointless book, maybe an ineffective one. I felt like she couldn’t quite make up her mind as to whether this was primarily an issues novel or a romance. It could of course be both, like North and South, but it to me always felt like it swung between being one or the other instead of meshing the two together.

  8. I’m puzzled – the narrator breaking the fourth wall in Jane Eyre is Jane Eyre, right? Jane is writing her memoir, addressing a theoretical reader, whoever that might be.

    Who is breaking the fourth wall here? Who is the narrator?

    Part of my question is – how is any of this a Victorian device? Cervantes, Fielding, Sterne, etc. constantly address the reader.

    • Teresa says:

      The narrator here is definitely not a character in the book, like Jane Eyre is. He/she seems to be more of a disinterested observer who has actually interacted with some of the characters, long after the events of the novel. (There’s a bit toward the end where the narrator writes of having met some of the people involved.)

      And you’re quite right to say that addressing the reader directly is not exclusively a Victorian device. I just meant that it’s relatively common in Victorian fiction, as opposed to contemporary fiction.

  9. It is a book of three parts and one I have always found difficult to read. Shirley is supposed to be based on Emily who I have always found the tiresome one of the three sisters so did not have much sympathy with her. But poor Charlotte, during the writing of this she lost Branwell, Anne and Emily so hardly suprising that it is lacking in focus. I am amazed she managed to finish it at all

    • Teresa says:

      I liked Shirley as a character, but I’m not sure I can picture her writing Wuthering Heights either!

      And yes, it’s amazing that Charlotte got this written at all given everything that was happening in her life. And parts of it really are quite good.

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