Shirley — A Tale of Lovers and Luddites

Upon hearing my assessment of Villette, the friend who (decades ago) first turned me on to Jane Eyre told me that Shirley is her second-favorite Bronte book. That ranking persuaded me to give it a read.

Published two years after Jane Eyre, Shirley shows many of Charlotte's hallmarks, including the matter-of-fact narration interspersed with starkly lovely depictions of environs or feelings; the strong female character who defies traditional society's expectations; the unexpected relation between some characters; and the man of action who spurs yearnings in a young woman unaccustomed to romance. While I found it less satisfying than Jane Eyre or Villette, Shirley's wondrous prose has brightened my past few months.

Unlike Jane Eyre and Villette, which are told through their protagonists' eyes, Shirley is written in the third person (by an omniscient narrator). It focuses on two young women: Caroline Helstone (age 18), an apparent orphan living with her minister uncle, and Shirley Keeldar (21), an heiress with a middling estate. We learn of their friendship, their hopes and fears, their loves (mill owner Robert Moore and his tutor brother Louis, respectively), and the external forces that influence all of those.

Where Charlotte framed the other two books I've reviewed as more-or-less contemporary tales, Shirley (published in 1849) is a period piece. Set in the 1811-12 timeframe, its events are colored by the Napoleonic Wars. That was also the early period of the Luddite rebellions against new technologies that put many laborers out of work; this rebellion plays a large role in the book.

Here is an overview of some of my most and least favorite aspects of Shirley. Some standout excerpts from the book can be found on this page.

Strengths. As usual, I'll begin by praising Bronte's wordsmithery. Her prose frequently made me shake my head in wonder or laugh out loud. (I'm sure some of her mid-19th-century humor eluded me, but the jokes I recognized were wonderfully whimsical.)

She was a sharp observer of relations between the classes. While most of the characters in Shirley occupy relatively elite stations, varying strata of aristocracy exist (and are generally acknowledged); meanwhile, some occupants of lower classes also appear. Class dynamics and social mores form much of the story's dramatic tension. In a time when one stuck to one's station and married for advantage rather than for love, these characters were revolutionary.

Bronte repeatedly uses the title character to take an admirably controversial stand for women. Scoffing at fulfilling social expectations of her gender, Shirley is, throughout most of the book, a prototypical "strong woman."

Characters' realistically depicted thoughts and emotions add richness to the narrative. A reader will often recognize him- or herself, or perhaps friends or acquaintances, in the characters' opinions and feelings.

Weaknesses. While there is much to love about Shirley, I didn't care for some aspects.

An obvious objection is that it takes too long for the "real" stories to take flight. We spend eons reading about a man, his mill, and the Luddites who oppose him. We also make the extended acquaintance of some young curates who are held up for repeated ridicule. However, we don't even hear Shirley's name until we're 30% of the way through this immense novel (my paperback edition was 600+ pages), by which point we may feel as if we've already read an entire book.

Other factors also made the story "drag." Bronte sometimes spent pages examining the attributes and tendencies of minor characters who then played little if any further role in the proceedings; those pages seemed like writing exercises rather than being devoted to the service of the story.

Another weak point is the lead women's inconsistency. Caroline is presented as a fairly bright, self-possessed young woman, a cut above what one would expect from a teenager; however, she becomes a lovestruck mess, spying on the man whose company she craves and weeping over his lack of attention to her. Furthermore, Shirley — that rock of feminist power — says she wants a "master" for her husband, a man whom she finds it "very possible to fear." That strikes me as being against her character.

Apart from the type of husband she desires, Shirley is, in general, presented as being virtually perfect; Bronte spends long paragraphs describing her in glowing tones (see Shirley quotations). I found that unrealistic and sometimes cloying.

In addition, as much as Bronte delights readers by exposing people's foibles, I felt she did that excessively here — too many characters who held, and cheerfully expressed, views that a modern reader would find heinous. Mr. Helstone and Mr. Sympson in particular, but quite a few others as well, supplied an endless stream of inanities that were initially amusing but became a bit tiresome.

None of these criticisms is great enough to detract from the book's overall worthiness. I simply found the shortcomings substantial enough to put Shirley in third place, behind Jane Eyre and Villette, in my ranking of Charlotte Bronte's amazing novels.