Charlotte has a laugh

A romantic ruin by Emily Brontë

[…] At eighteen the true narrative of life is yet to be commenced. Before that time we sit listening to a tale, a marvellous 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 […]

At that time—at eighteen, drawing near the confines of illusive, void dreams, Elf-land lies behind us, the shores of Reality rise in front.
— Chapter VII

I’ve mentioned before now about humour in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (here) and I want to expand a bit on that in this post, but I also wish to draw attention to a curious feature in this novel that I’m not aware of being discussed elsewhere (though I’m happy to be corrected on that): fairies.

The adult novels of the Brontë sisters are not, as far as I know, associated with either humour or faërie, so you may understand why these two features stuck out like the proverbial thumbs in what is otherwise a romantic but realist historical novel, set before Charlotte was even born.

I hope to persuade you that, despite some appearances to the contrary, Shirley (1849) has much about it of the fairytale, and contains more laughs than expected even though Charlotte recounts all with a straight face: the passage of 170 years hasn’t hidden all its impish secrets.

The Elf, by W Goscombe John (1912)

Let me start with some examples of humour. The opening chapter (‘Levitical’) gives a comic description of three rowdy young curates from the neighbouring parishes of Whinbury, Nunneley and Briarfield: they eat their landladies out of house and home, while in Chapter VII their gauche ‘carousing’ before tea at the Briarfield rectory causes embarrassment, and the final chapter (‘The Winding-up’) gives us a final glimpse of the curates, one of whom has the author prophesying to him,

Were I to give the catastrophe of your life and conversation, the public would sweep off in shrieking hysterics, and there would be a wild cry for sal-volatile [smelling salts] and burnt feathers. ‘Impossible!’ would be pronounced here: ‘untrue!’ would be responded there. ‘Inartistic!’ would be solemnly decided.

The author may cleverly be pre-empting criticism of this, her second published novel, after some carping criticism of Jane Eyre but I also detect a twinkle in her mind’s eye.

Then there are the chapter headings. In amongst prosaic ones such as ‘The Waggons’, ‘Old Maids’, ‘A Summer Night’ and the biblical ‘The Valley of the Shadow of Death’ are examples like these:

XIV. Shirley seeks to be saved by works.

XVIII. Which the genteel reader is recommended to skip, low persons being here introduced.

XXXIV. Wherein matters make some progress, but not much.

Charlotte also characterises the traditional Yorkshire sense of humour thus:

There is nothing the lower orders like better than a little downright good-humoured rating. Flattery they scorn very much: honest abuse they enjoy. They call it speaking plainly, and take a sincere delight in being the objects thereof.

I challenge you to work out if she is laughing with ordinary Yorkshire folk or at them, whether she is taking pride in blunt speaking or criticising its inherent insensitivity.

I shan’t labour the point: if you need to explain a joke it’s no longer funny, and that applies to the novel. It’s only necessary to read Shirley itself while being on the alert for when she’s pushing your buttons or pulling your leg, all while slightly raising an eyebrow.

Now, faërie. The Brontë siblings were rabid readers of anything they could get their hands on, and that included fairytales. What survives of their juvenilia has many examples of the influence of traditional tales there, and Shirley too is full of references to supernatural creatures and their lore.

In Chapter XIII Caroline Helstone describes spotting mill-owner Robert Moore walking with Shirley Keeldar after sunset: ‘What you call your shadow [in the moonlight] was a shape with a white forehead and dark curls, and a sparkling necklace round its neck; but I only caught a glimpse of you and that fairy shadow…’ Robert rejoins:

‘It appears you walk invisible. I noticed a ring on your hand this evening; can it be the ring of Gyges?’

The ring of Gyges was a ring of invisibility, according to Plato, allowing the owner to act surreptitiously. In Chapter XVII the two friend Caroline and Shirley surprise Robert as he comes away from a parish feast:

‘Where did you come from?’ [he exclaims.] ‘Are you fairies? I left two like you […] standing at the top of a bank, four fields off, but a minute ago.’

Chapter XIX (‘A summer night’) tells how Caroline is happy to walk late ‘for the mere pleasure of seeing the stars, and the chance of meeting a fairy.’ By the mid 19th century fairies were less in evidence in West Yorkshire: the final pages of the final chapter has the narrator report her housekeeper’s mother being, around 1800,’ almost fleyed out of her wits’ from seeing a fairish or fairy in a lonesome but bonnie spot:

‘And that was the last fairish that ever was seen on this country side (though they’ve been heard within these forty years).’

Not just fairies but other magical tales and creatures are mentioned in passing. Shirley’s despicable uncle, expecting a letter announcing his niece has an offer of marriage,’ was for ever looking out of the window, and listening for chariot-wheels: Bluebeard’s wife […] were nothing to him.’ Caroline associates glamour with fascination, enchantment and charms when she catches sight of herself in a mirror: she’d

commenced combing her hair, long as a mermaid’s; turning her head, as she arranged it, she saw her own face and form in the glass. Such reflections are soberizing to plain people: their own eyes are not enchanted with the image; they are confident then that the eyes of others can see in it no fascination; but the fair must naturally draw other conclusions: the picture is charming, and must charm. — Chapter VII

Shirley too has her allurements, as touched on at the end of Chapter XXVI. One male declares, at her immediately absenting herself, ‘There is a curious charm about her,’ and another, her rather fey sensitive cousin, muses, ‘Is she not a kind of white witch?’

Finally, just two other references must suffice to hammer home the point. In a ‘deep recess with a window’ in Shirley’s Fieldhead mansion sit a couch, a table and a ‘fairy cabinet’ or cabinet des fées, a tiny container with shelves to display mementoes and keepsakes. Here is where a mini-drama takes places, completely misinterpreted by Shirley’s deluded uncle who has formed his own misinterpretation of the mise-en-scène. And, as Le Cabinet des Fées was also a well-known French collection of fairytales, another reenactment takes place, aptly enough, in the chapter entitled ‘The Schoolboy and the Wood-nymph’; it has a besotted teenager seated on a mossy mound beneath a tree remove from his satchel ‘a contraband volume of Fairy tales’:

He reads: he is led into a solitary mountain region; all around him is rude and desolate, shapeless, and almost colourless. He hears bells tinkle on the wind; forth-riding from the formless folds of the most, dawns on him the brightest vision—a green-robed lady, on a snow-white palfrey; he sees her dress, her gems, an her steed; she arrests him with som mysterious question: he is spell-bound, and must follow her into Fairyland.

And on he reads, about a wild sea shore, and a vision of Nereides; and then… No more. I’ve told you enough.

You can’t be unaware any more that, despite what Charlotte said earlier about Miss Helstone, the author herself — at twice the age in years of Caroline — has one foot planted on the shores of Reality and the other lingering in Elf-land, reluctant to leave. That alone must encourage us to see Shirley not just as a socio-realist novel of an early industrial North of Engand but as a happy-ever-after fairytale following, of course, the expected vicissitudes.


Still to come: a wrap-up post on the historical background to Shirley and a cursory look at how the novel may have been structured.

Charlotte Brontë, a sketch by George Richmond (?)

4 thoughts on “Charlotte has a laugh

    1. Don’t get me wrong, Ola, it wasn’t the easiest of reads — quite a few longueurs, some chapters where I couldn’t work out where the novel was heading, several sequences where I felt drowned by a character’s self-pity — but in between these weaknesses (as I saw them) were these flashes of humour, insight and mischievousness that I found endearing.

      I’m not certain I’d ever read it again but I’m glad I didn’t give up on it. Interesting too to contrast it with Austen for its depiction of a near enough self-contained community, but where Austen focuses entirely on relationships Brontë brings in issues around technological changes, social unrest; with Austen it would be hard to guess that, other than the presence of soldiers and the navy, Britain was ever at war with France and that there was the worry of insurrection at home. (This novel is set just five or six years before peace in Europe, followed by Jane’s death in 1817.)

      Apologies—this is a longer reply than I meant to give to your brief comment!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. And I thank you for this comment, Chris! Forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes, so I will consider your words carefully before I choose whether to read Shirley or not 😉 I confess I have no patience for severely flawed novels at the moment 🙃

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I wouldn’t say Shirley is severely flawed, just a little less than perfect. If the ending felt a bit Austen happy-ever-after, I still cared what happened to the main female protagonists, whether or not they were supposed to be semi-portraits of her recently deceased sisters (I’m not entirely convinced I believe this frequently-expressed assertion).

          Liked by 1 person

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