Surely I Had to End My Year of Brontë Reading By Re-Reading Shirley

Warning: I try not to spoil Shirley too much here, but no guarantees.

I touched on my personal history with the Brontës a little bit with my post on Jane Eyre. The only novel by any Brontë I had read before this year was Shirley. I read it in my junior seminar English class along with Coriolanus and Paradise Lost (both of which play a sizable role in Shirley), plus scads of articles. Not to get too dorky about it, but when I think about my reading life, I hear Galadriel give the opening monologue to The Fellowship of the Ring: “And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend, legend became myth. And for two-and-a-half thousand years, the ring passed out of all knowledge.” Er, well, in my case, for two-and-a-half years my retention became pretty hazy. But it feels like it could have been thousands of years sometimes.

I ended my year (or six months, anyway) of Brontë reading by re-reading Shirley. I am terrible at keeping to schedules and I was very busy this holiday season, so I found myself up until four in the morning on New Years Eve re-reading it. I knew I wasn’t giving the text the time it deserved. I feel pretty guilty about this, truth be told. As a lover of literature, I hate to turn reading into a numbers game, but I have to acknowledge that given the fact that I work two jobs, try to freelance on the side, write for two blogs, and volunteer for three organizations…well…that number of books read by anybody might have been 0 if I hadn’t made it a numbers game.

I wish I could take time to explore criticism of Shirley, or at least read (re-read I guess; it’s all marked up) the Introduction. The fact is that Shirley is the least popular today and the least looked-at by critics—or at least it was in 1974, when my little brick of a Penguin edition was first published. I hope things have changed. (Academics? Shed some light?)

Shirley is probably the most complex of Brontë’s novels and it’s also the most imperfect. Jane Eyre and Villette give Charles Dickens a run for his money with their intricate plotting. But these are the stories of individuals; they are told from the perspectives of single young women who spend more time alone than in society. Shirley is much more akin to the “social problem novels” of Brontë’s friend and first biographer Elizabeth Gaskell (in fact, North and South and Shirley have pretty similar plots in my opinion/to my recollection). And although I find that Villette and The Professor were much more realist than I expected, Shirley says on the very first page:

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 consciounsess that they must rise and betake themselves thereto. (39)

I think we’re supposed to take the narrator’s characterization with a giant grain of salt, of course, because there is plenty of melodrama. Shirley takes place in Napoleonic England, around 1812, during a time of war, famine, poverty, and political unrest. The little corner of Yorkshire that serves as the setting sees a constant struggle between the half-Belgian mill owner—Rober Gérard Moore—and his workers, many of whom are starving due to a food shortage and economic stagnation created by the government (I don’t pretend to understand exactly how the Orders of the Council work, but my Napoleonic history is pretty paltry). There is a riot. One of the characters is shot later on.

There is a huge social world apparent in Shirley, and Brontë’s omniscient narrator presents the perspectives of many of the characters, even one’s diary entries. It’s a little bit of a mess, but it’s so intriguing. Still, there are moments where I felt as though Brontë had bit off a little more than she could chew—it takes a really long time to get to the emotional center of Shirley: the story of Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar.

Caroline is resigned and repressed: she lives under the care of her severe uncle and is lovesick for Robert Moore. Caroline struggles with herself constantly: she want to be really employed but doesn’t have a lot of employment options as a woman, she tries to accept her inevitable spinsterhood but doesn’t want to. She actually starts to waste away: there’s a lot of talk of her bloom disappearing. I remember really loving Shirley, but when I re-started it, I found myself bored at the long, meandering beginning. It turned out that what I was missing was the emotional charge I get from reading Brontë heroines. Take this beautiful passage:

Yet I must speak truth; these efforts brought her neither health of body nor continued peace of mind: with them all, she wasted, grew more joyless and more wan; with them all, her memory kept harping on the name of Robert Moore; an elegy over the past still rung constantly in her ear; a funereal inward cry haunted and harassed her: the heaviness of a broken spirit, and of pining and palsying faculties, settled slow on her buoyant youth. Winter seemed conquering her spring: the mind’s soil and its treasures were freezing gradually to barren stagnation. (199)

And take this one:

What I have just said are Caroline’s ideas of the pair: she felt what has just been described. In thus feeling, she tried not to suffer; but suffered sharply, nevertheless. She suffered, indeed, miserably: a few minutes before, her famished heart had tasted a drop and crumb of nourishment, that, if freely given, would have brought back abundance of life where life was failing; but the generous feast was snatched from her, spread before another, and she remained but a bystander at the banquet. (254)

As I burned through Shirley, I had thoughts like, Blergh augh ugh my feeeeeeeeelingssssssss when I came across these passages. Along with all the other Brontë novels I’ve read (maybe not The Professor so much), moments like these are what I live for. They’d seem almost too flowery if they weren’t so true.

It’s a huge relief when Shirley arrives—not just for Caroline’s sake, but because Shirley is awesome. Shirley Keeldar is a wealthy heiress who grew up in the area. Where Caroline is analytical, Shirley is wildly passionate. While Caroline’s lack of money has her chained to her social position, Shirley can use her wealth to try to affect change in their community. There’s a lot to be said about Shirley and gender: Shirley has a man’s name (yes, Virginia, until Shirley, men were called “Shirley” almost exclusively), and often refers to herself using male pronouns and as Captain Keeldar—she takes up and sheds this aspect of herself as she pleases.

One thing that strikes the modern reader about Charlotte Brontë’s novels (and Anne’s, too, really) is that the main characters are pretty feminist—whether or not that was the intention, or whether there is even a word for feminism I don’t know (help me, academics!). Shirley is always talking about the women of the community: there are the old spinsters, the women who provide medical treatments, there is Shirley’s governess, Mrs. Pryor, Caroline’s want of employment, Shirley’s ability to do business dealings with the men. Shirley goes on long, feminist tears and argues with men when they try to characterize women as inferior. Shirley has this whole feminist mythology at work in her vast imagination. Here’s a little taste from when she denounces Milton:

“I say, there were giants on the earth in those days: giants that strove to scale heaven. The first woman’s breast that heaved with life on this world yielded the daring which could contend with Omnipotence: the strength which could bear a thousand years of bondage, – the vitality which could feed that vulture death through uncounted ages, – the unexhausted life and uncorrupted excellence, sisters to immortality, which, after millenniums of crimes, struggles, and woes, could conceive and bring forth a Messiah. The first woman was heaven-born: vast was the heart whence gushed the well-spring of the blood of nations; and grand the undegenerate head where rested the consort-crown of creation.” (315)

Awesome, yes? I think so.

When I first read Shirley for class, I remember talking so much about all the doubles. I have notes about “double-consciousness,” though I don’t remember what I was on about those many years ago (Shirley vs. Caroline, probably). Still, there are double heroines, and double plot lines as the reader follows the lives of both Caroline and Shirley (and their respective love interests). I remember really feeling strongly that this novel also had a little bit of double plot structure going on: it begins as a social problem novel, but there’s also a kind of marriage plot going on. I remember reading elsewhere that a lot of the social problem novels don’t really advocate ways to solve the social problems they bring up, and Shirley is certainly no different.

I don’t know—I know these posts have gone off the rails from analysis to ramblings, but there’s so much to say and no way to say it all. Shirley is just one of those novels that make me want to go to grad school.


3 thoughts on “Surely I Had to End My Year of Brontë Reading By Re-Reading Shirley

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