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.