Charlotte Brontë: Shirley
Penguin Popular Classics 1994 (1849)
Charlotte Brontë’s follow-up to Jane Eyre turns out to be a curious affair, one in which I found enjoyment and boredom in equal measure. It’s a work that tries to have its cake and eat it and, as a result, fails to completely satisfy. But that’s not to say it’s not worth the effort — on the contrary.
Shirley was first published with the subtitle A Tale, and this I think was to distinguish it from Jane Eyre which had billed itself as An Autobiography. This third person approach proves to be a poisoned chalice (The Professor and Villette were first person narratives, like Jane Eyre) when the omniscient storyteller, unable to maintain a straight face, constantly and self-consciously undermines her ‘tale’ with humorous authorial asides.
But then I think the forced levity may be in reaction to a year of tragedy — her two sisters and her brother all died between September 1848 and May 1849 — and the humour may have been a way to distance herself from the enforced solitude she must then have felt. This dissembling I fancy is a key to unlocking the Chinese boxes which makes up the novel’s construction.
The first dissembling comes in the shape of the author herself, still masquerading under the seemingly male name of Currer Bell in the belief that this will allow her readers to be less dismissive of her work. This dissembling extends to the title character, the significance of whose name is frequently lost now that Shirley is accepted as a girl’s name; because, of course, Shirley being a placename (the author may have heard of a village of that name in Derbyshire, for example) and subsequently a family surname, a male from the landed gentry would then customarily have been baptised with a name such as this.
It’s hard for us to imagine the shock early readers of the novel would have had to discover that a lead character was not a man, as first expected, but a woman of substance whose parents “had wished to have a son” but found that after eight years of marriage Providence had decided instead that a daughter was good enough for them.
Two more examples of obvious dissembling: the first lead character we’re offered isn’t in fact Shirley Keeldar but Caroline Helstone. A young girl who lives in a Yorkshire rectory, who contemplates becoming a governess as the only way to get some financial independence as a single female: surely we may suspect this is a closet reference to the author herself whose circumstances were not far different? Her name even suggests a link as Caroline is, via the name Charles, related to Charlotte, just as Helstone may allude to Helston in Cornwall, near Penzance where the author’s mother hailed from.
Secondly there is the enigmatic figure of Mrs Pryor who is more than she claims she is: at one stage she even sports the name Agnes Grey which, you might remember, was the title of one of Anne Brontë’s two published novels.
The whole of the novel is one big tease, we soon realise. It opens with an elaborate joke about curates:
Of late years, an abundant shower of curates has fallen upon the north of England: they lie very thick on the hills.
We’re then told not to expect “anything like a romance”:
Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry, and reverie? Do you expect passion, and stimulus, and melodrama? Calm your expectations […] Something real, cool, and solid, lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning […]
It’s all pish, of course, for Shirley is undeniably a romance, despite the author’s protestations, a romance that’s focused almost entirely on these two women while set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars in Europe, economic uncertainty in Britain and social unrest in the industrial heart of England. The reader, she avers at the very end of the novel, will look in vain for a moral, so beloved by a Victorian readership. In fact, the frequency of references to fairies and fairytales in the text gives a good indication that, despite its intricate narrative strands, Shirley is at its core as traditional a tale as Beauty and the Beast or Sleeping Beauty.
We’re invited by some critics to think that this novel is, in some ways, suffused with Charlotte’s feelings towards her deceased sisters, Emily and Anne. In Chapter XIV there is a passage in which Caroline tells Shirley about the sisterly feelings these two only children may have towards each other:
Shirley, I never had a sister—you never had a sister, but it flashes on me at this moment how sisters feel towards each other. Affection twined with their life, which no shock of feeling can uproot, which little quarrels only trample an instant that it may spring more freshly when the pressure is removed…
Yet, despite the occasional discussion such as this there is little that suggests to me that the novel is a portrait of Charlotte’s sisters. A few commentators have pointed to other possible models, such as the independent-minded Anne Lister of Shibden Hall — a contemporary of some notoriety from their neighbourhood whom the Brontë sisters would have been aware of, who had a lesbian relationship with Ann Walker — though of course there is no suggestion of such a relationship in these pages, with both females having males as their love interests. Phooey I say to this tale being as romantic as Monday mornings, unless Charlotte’s experience of the week’s start were other than she stated!
The action is centred on the parish of Briarfield, near the fictional industrial town of Stilbro’. The manor house of Fieldhead is said to be modelled on the Tudor-period Oakwell Hall, Birstall, though the equally old Shibden Hall near Halifax may possibly have made a contribution. Settings in a realistic landscape do much to anchor a story in both plausibility and a sense of authenticity. But without sympathetic characters such assiduous research may count for little. Shirley and Caroline prove to be admirable creations, feisty but sensitive, intellectual but well-intentioned; when they are weak-willed our sympathy may waver, but they are infinitely better-drawn individuals than the lead males, though luckily a varied cast of parishioners and visitors more than makes up for what I feel are the deficiencies of these stereotypical lanthorn-jawed Romantic heroes.
There is a great deal more that can be observed about this — pardon the pun! — curate’s egg of a novel, much more than can be contained in a short review. In many ways this reminds me of an Austen romance, Emma for example, in which the activities taking place in a parish or three are our main concern; at other times the author seems to be leading us by the nose, as in for instance a few of the diary entries by the tutor Louis Moore, which are full of the most god-awful purple prose that I can imagine when compared to the authorial no-nonsense Yorkshire voice.
It’s all, I’m sure, designed to leaven this period piece contained within the limited time slot of “eighteen-hundred-eleven-twelve”. Shirley turns out to be one of those unpreposessing doorstop novels that you discover repays interest tenfold the more you invest in it.
There will be one or two follow-up posts to this review: I enjoyed Shirley so much that, despite its slow start, I’d like to share some more insights, though these will inevitably entail some spoilers.
9/20 of my 20 Books of Summer: I’m not going to reach my target, am I?
On the other hand, I have read
19 books so far, so I may well complete twenty titles in all by September 3rd — just not the twenty I originally listed!