Shirley is the second novel written by Charlotte Brontë, her first one was the most famous Jane Eyre.
As Charlotte Brontë said at the beginning of the story Shirley is not like Jane Eyre:
" If you think, from this prelude, that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you never were more mistaken. 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. "
The novel is settled in the Yorkshire, in the early Nineteenth century and it tells about the workers' protests against the industrialization, which brought poverty instead of prosperity.
One of the main character is Robert Moore, the owner of a mill; his workers are common people penalized by an historic contest that condemns them to poverty as the industrial machines have replaced part of their work.
Moore is a Belgian gentleman who belongs to a powerful commercial dynasty destroyed by the Napoleonic wars and by the English Government that stooped the exportations with the continent.
He wishes to rehabilitate his family's name through his textile industry.
Those who suffer from the results of the war, like Moore, demand peace and they insist on it with the energy of desperation.
Tradesmen, when they speak against war, always profess to hate it because it is a bloody and barbarous proceeding.
Reading the novel, we understand that the structural narration supports the industrial class in the person of Robert Moore and only at end of the story, the conflict is solved by Moore's generosity
Bur it is a clearly reactionary solution.
And even if Shirley can be considered a social novel, the writer also narrates a love story.
The first paragraphs are dedicated to the secondary character Caroline Helston.
She is the child of parents separated soon after her birth, in consequence of disagreement of disposition.
Caroline has never known her mother, as she was taken from her in infancy, and has not since seen her; her father dies comparatively young. Rumors have reached her ear of what that father's character was: he was not a good man, and that he was never kind to her.
Her uncle, the rector, had for some years been her sole guardian. He was not, as we are aware, much adapted, either by nature or habits, to have the charge of a young girl.
He had taken little trouble about her education; probably he would have taken none if she, finding herself neglected, had not grown anxious on her own account, and asked, every now and then, for a little attention, and for the means of acquiring such amount of knowledge as could not be dispensed with. Still, Caroline has a depressing feeling that she is inferior, that her attainments are fewer than are usually possessed by girls of her age and station; and very glad is she to avail herself of the kind offer made by her cousin.
She dreams to marry him, Robert Moore.
But sometimes she is afraid to speak to him, lest she should be too frank, lest she should seem forward - for she has more than once regretted bitterly overflowing, superfluous words, and fears she has said more than he expected her to say, and that he would disapprove what he might deem her indiscretion
She likes him, she would be an excellent wife to him, however she is quiet and timid with him - very docile, but not communicative.
Caroline Helstone is just eighteen years old, and at eighteen the true narrative of life is yet to be commenced. Before that time we sit
listening to a tale, a marvelous fiction, delightful sometimes and sad sometimes, almost always unreal. Before that time our world is heroic, its inhabitants half-divine or semi-demon; its scenes are dream- scenes; darker woods and stranger hills, brighter skies, more dangerous waters, sweeter flowers, more tempting fruits, wider plains, drearier deserts, sunnier fields than are found in nature, over- spread our enchanted globe.
At eighteen, hope smiles on us, and promises happiness tomorrow.
Love, when he comes wandering like a lost angel to our door, is at once admitted, welcomed, embraced. His quiver is not seen; if his arrows penetrate, their wound is like a thrill of new life. There are no fears of poison.
In short, at eighteen the school of experience is to be entered, and her humbling, crushing, grinding, but yet purifying and invigorating lessons are yet to be learned.
And Caroline doesn't know that Robert feels tender sentiments towards her, but he doesn't want to surrender to the flatteries of love. He is too busy with his work.
Caroline loves without being asked to love - a natural, sometimes an inevitable chance, but big with misery.
Robert, indeed, has sometimes seemed to be fond of her; but why? Now, what is she to do? To give way to her feelings, or to vanquish them? To pursue him, or to turn upon herself? If she is weak, she will try the first expedient - will lose his esteem and win his aversion; if she has sense, she will be her own governor, and resolve to subdue and bring under guidance the disturbed realm of her emotions. She will determine to look on life steadily, as it is; to begin to learn its severe truths seriously, and to study its knotty problems closely, conscientiously.
Caroline meditates in her own way on the subject; speculated on his feelings, on his life, on his fears, on his fate; to understand its perplexities, liabilities, duties, exactions.
Her earnest wish is to see things as they were, and not to be romantic. By dint of effort she contrived to get a glimpse of the light of truth here and there, and hops that scant ray might suffice to guide her.
"Different, indeed,' she concludes, "is Robert's mental condition to mine: I think only of him; he has no room, no leisure to think of me". The feeling called love is and has been for two years the predominant emotion of her heart: always there, always awake, always astir.
Then, too, her imagination is full of pictures; images of Moore; scenes where he and she had been together.
"I have to live, perhaps, till seventy years. As far as I know, I have good health: half a century of existence may lie before me. How am I to occupy it? What am I to do to fill the interval of time which spreads between me and the grave?' She reflects.
"I shall not be married, it appears, " she continues. "I suppose, as Robert does not care for me, I shall never have a husband to love, nor little children to take care of. Till lately I had reckoned securely on the duties and affections of wife and mother to occupy my existence. I consider, somehow, as a matter of course, that I am growing up to the ordinary destiny, and never troubled myself to seek any other; but now, I perceive plainly, I may have been mistaken. Probably I shall be an old maid. I shall live to see Robert married to someone else, some rich lady: I shall never marry. What was I created for, I wonder? Where is my place in the world?'"
"Your place is to do good to others, to be helpful whenever help is wanted. " That is right in some measure, and a very convenient doctrine for the people who hold it; but I perceive that certain sets of human beings are very apt to maintain that other sets should give up their lives to them and their service, and then they require them by praise: they call them devoted and virtuous. Is this enough? Is it to live? Does virtue lie in abnegation of self? I do not believe it. Undue humility makes tyranny; weak concession creates selfishness. " She thinks.
She is now precisely in that state, when, if her constitution has contained the seeds of consumption, decline, or slow fever, those diseases would have been rapidly developed, and would soon have carried her quietly from the world. People never die of love or grief alone; though some die of inherent maladies, which the tortures of those passions prematurely force into destructive action.
They are brought to a certain point of dilapidation; they are reduced to pallor, debility, and emaciation.
They live on; and though they cannot regain youth and gaiety, they may regain strength and serenity.
"Our power of being happy lies a good deal in ourselves, I believe ",remarks Caroline sagely.
"I would never marry. I should not like to find out that what I loved did not love me, that it was weary of me, and that whatever effort I might make to please would hereafter be worse than useless, since it was inevitably in its nature to change and become indifferent.
When I feel my company superfluous, I can comfortably fold my independence round me like a mantle, and drop my pride like a veil, and withdraw to solitude. If married, that could not be. "
When Caroline realizes that her dream are broken, Shirley and her true mother come on the stage.
Shirley Keeldar is a beautiful girl and a rich heiress.
She shows she had been sincere in saying she should be glad of Caroline's society.
The two girls are completely different one from another, like the day and the night.
As we can see, Caroline is a sweet and shy girl, always held back by the idea that people cannot want her, that she cannot amuse them.
Shirley is a happy and brilliant girl, who isn't afraid of prejudices.
Shirley's head runs on other things than money and position. She is glad to be independent as to property: by fits she is even elated at the notion of being lady of the manor. In Caroline, Miss Keeldar has first taken an interest because she is quiet, retiring, looked delicate, and seemed as if she needs someone to take care of her. Her predilection increases greatly when she
discovers that her own way of thinking and talking is understood and responds to by this new acquaintance.
Caroline's instinct of taste, too, is like her own: such books as Miss Keeldar has read with the most pleasure, are Miss Helstone's delight also. They can have the comfort of laughing together over works of false sentimentality and pompous pretension.
The minds of the two girls being toned in harmony, often chime very sweetly together.
Caroline is a Christian, but she believed, sometimes, that God has turned His face from her. At moments she is a Calvinist, and, sinking into the gulf of religious despair, she saw darkening over her the doom of reprobation.
"But if you are my mother, the world is all changed to me. Surely I can live - I should like to recover - - "she says to her mother.
'You must recover. You drew life and strength from my breast. Daughter! we have been long parted: I return now to cherish you again. " said her mother.
The human heart can suffer. It can hold more tears than the ocean holds waters. We never know how deep - how wide it is, till misery begins to unbind her clouds, and fill it with rushing blackness.
And at the end of the novel the clouds disappear and the sun shines again in the life of Caroline and Shirley.
This is a masterpiece. A revolutionary, feminist, intelligent, brave book. Please don't approach it as an easy-reading romantic novel, it deserves better. "I think I now see the judicious reader putting on his spectacles to look for the moral. It would be an insult to his sagacity to offer directions."...Continua
Charlotte Bronte is my least favourite of the Brontes. I really didn't care much for Jane Eyre and Villette was only a bit better. I thought Shirley would be the book of hers that I was most likely to like as it looked at "social issues" rather than simply being a romance and while I didn't like it as much as Ann or Emily's books. I definitely preferred it to her other works.
There is much less social commentary than I was hoping for. The mill, the plight of the poor were more side notes in the story that was basically, once again, just a romance. What I did like about this book was that there were two main women characters. They were both young and independent and had very interesting ideas about the rights and responsibilities of women. There were some really great discussions between them about what women should be allowed to do. There were also some sever dressing down of men who thought women were intellectually inferior to men. Unfortuantely, it all seemed to drag on a bit towards the end where the "romances" had to be settled. After the reveal of who Caroline's mum was there was never again a scene between the two of them. Rather scenes where they discussed things were discussed with others. It was quite dissapointing to have such distance at the end. Particularly as they started acting out of character and more in love and submissive than they had the rest of the book. The book felt much more mature than Jane Eyre even if it was only published two years later. The young girls not quite so naive, and when they were it was remarked upon by the author as something they would grow out of. It was dissapointing however that a book that spent so much time talking about how women could be independent and have a life outside of marriage just ended with both characters getting married. I would have much preferred one of them to remain single.
Overall though I did enjoy the book and it is definitely my favourite of Charlotte Bronte's books....Continua