Necessary to happiness

Charlotte Brontë (restored detail from the Pillar Portrait by Branwell Brontë)

Inverted Commas 12: Necessary change

“Is change necessary to happiness?”

A few choice quotes from Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (1849), requiring minimal commentary from me.

“Stick to the needle—learn shirt-making and gown-making, and pie-crust-making, and you’ll be a clever woman some day. Go to bed now; I’m busy with a pamphlet here.”

So speaks the Reverend Matthewson Helstone to his niece Caroline.

“I feel there is something wrong somewhere. I believe women should have more to do—better chances of interesting and profitable occupation than they possess now.”

Thus Caroline; and again, later, she expresses this belief:

Fathers should “seek for them an interest and an occupation which shall raise them above the flirt, the manoeuvrer, the mischief-making tale-bearer.”

From a conversation between Caroline and her friend Shirley, this cri de coeur:

“But are we not men’s equals, or are we not?”

Caroline again:

“I am making no money—earning nothing. […] I should like an occupation; and if I were a boy, it would not be so difficult to find one.”

Shirley is mostly set during 1812 though it of course reflects much that still applied in the late 1840s.

But has that necessary change of which she writes happened yet, even now?

I think we have more than an inkling of the answer to that.

10 thoughts on “Necessary to happiness

    1. I found Shirley rather slow-moving and diffuse to start with, Colin, though with touches of humour; but it’s full of surprises, including these, as you say, prescient opinions. Extraordinary they were written as long ago as 170 years ago but depressing that you can still hear the same nonsense about a woman’s place expressed today.

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        1. I suspect she wasn’t a lone voice then, Colin: the late chapter I’m currently reading is entitled ‘The first Blue Stocking’, a reference to contemporary independent-minded female thinkers and writers first described as such in the late 18th century.

          A Blue Stockings Society was actually founded in the 1750s, its aim being female education and mutual co-operation. In fact, I note that the year before Shirley is set there appeared M. P., or The Blue Stocking (1811), a comic opera by Irish writer Thomas Moore.

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            1. I knew the phrase and what it signified but not its origins, thanks now to Miss Brontë. I can never understand the philistinism of those who claim never to read books — specifically, novels — of which, sadly, there are far too many and who disproportionately are in positions of power.

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  1. Oh, I think things have changed a lot, here in the west at least. Even in my youth, nearly half a century ago now, girls were beginning to have careers rather than jobs, and now we think nothing of women going into all sorts of fields that were once considered strictly male preserves. Some way to go still, but I like occasionally to celebrate how far we’ve come… 😀

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    1. I too would like to think that in general male attitudes to women have substantially changed for the better, but all too often (as with the climate crisis, humans on the moon, Europe, vaccinating and evolution) daily events ram home the fact that there are far too many dangerous antedeluvians who think contrariwise.

      Yes, we should and must celebrate any shift away from lazy thinking or irrational beliefs, but I’m not overly optimistic that reason or even basic human compassion will sway such opinions.

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  2. Shirley is one of the remaining Brontë works I’ve yet to read. I’m encouraged by these quotes – regardless of how much may have changed or remains still to change, to know that Charlotte was highlighting the lot of women gives this book a whole new purpose for me.

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    1. She does highlight the lot of women, Sandra, but — as I discuss in my forthcoming review — she limits her grumbles to single women’s prospects: when it comes to being married females can revert to the traditional homemaking role. But aside from this there is a lot else to consider, so bear with me!

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