Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool and solid lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning.
Reader, I promised one last post on Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley and here it finally is. This discussion will attempt to tackle structure and history, so do please still your beating hearts if you’re hoping to read about unalloyed romance.
First, a bit of history. 1848 had been a year of upheaval in Europe, with attempted revolutions in several countries — only that in France achieved anything — and including Chartist agitation in Britain. The Chartism movement sought to widen suffrage and reform representation in Parliament, and this year saw demonstrations in England and a monster petition delivered. In the wake of these events Charles Kingsley, best known now for his ‘fairytale’ The Water-Babies (1863), published Alton Locke in 1850, an early novel of his which underlined the clergyman’s sympathy for the working man, for Chartist principles and Christian socialism.
After the relative success of Jane Eyre (1847) Charlotte Brontë also contemplated a novel based on Chartist agitation, determined to produce something as “unromantic as Monday morning”. In the event she revised her plans which were ultimately to result in Shirley.
That revision meant that her new work was what we’d now call a historical novel. Partly based on an interview with a local man and information from her father Patrick she set the action between 1811 and 1812 in a version of the West Yorkshire she knew. This was a time of Luddite ‘frame-breaking’; when the war with Napoleon meant many overseas markets were closed to cloth manufacturers and mechanisation led to unemployment, and dissatisfied out-of-work men sought to destroy cloth-making machinery that had made them redundant.
Patrick Brontë was a curate at St Peter’s Church, Hartshead near Liversedge, West Yorkshire at the time of a particular incident in April 1812. One night a crowd of over a hundred and fifty men marched past his church and nearby farm (where he was lodging) on the way to Rawfolds Mill; there they intended to destroy machinery that they felt denied them work. (There’d been an earlier frame-breaking incident, also co-opted for the novel.)
Once at the mill they were worsted by the mill owner who, with some of his workers and some soldiers, was prepared for trouble, and two Luddites were shot dead and others wounded. This is the skirmish that forms the basis of a climax in the novel, which follows the order of events very closely: Hollows Mill, Briarfield replaces Rawfolds Mill and Nunnely Common substitutes for Hartshead Moor, over which the Luddites marched to the mill.
Did Charlotte display favouritism for the workers or for the mill-owners? Interestingly, she was largely even-handed in this fiction, showing the good and bad aspects of individuals on both sides who, one way and another, were trying to make a living in very difficult wartime conditions.
That balance is evident below the surface of what at a first reading seems a very wandering, almost diffuse novel, cutting from interior thoughts to a flurry of activity, from humorous asides to discussion of Shakespeare, and so on. The balance is, for example, reflected in two violent Luddite incidents, the second increasing in severity. We can see it politically in two of the prime movers in the district, Reverend Helstone of Briarfield — a Tory — and Hiram Yorke of Briarmains, a Whig shading to a radical, who comment on the action.
And there is more. Among Charlotte’s unfinished novels was a two-chapter fragment variously called John Henry or The Moores. This was obviously the germ of an idea which found its way into the two brothers strand* of Shirley, when we meet Robert and Louis Moore, of mixed Belgian and English heriage. Robert is the hard-headed man of business, Louis the quiet intellectual, tutor to young Harry Sympson; and each appeals to one of the two female protagonists. Even the surname of the brothers has a binary aspect: Moore is an Irish name, echoing Charlotte’s father’s origins, but its sound also reminds us of her own background by the Yorkshire moors.
We are of course initially confused by the fact that the titular character doesn’t appear until at least a third of the way through;** instead we follow Caroline Helstone’s changing mood as her hopes fade for Robert Moore reciprocating her fond attentions. Then, after Shirley herself appears — and remember, Shirley was never before this a name borne by women — it takes until the final third of the novel to become acquainted with her admirer, Louis.
As love’s fortunes rise and fall each protagonist receives some hurt or emotional setback: Caroline becomes listless and takes to her bed, Robert is ambushed and shot, Shirley goes into a decline suspecting she has rabies and Louis’ sanguine exterior conceals overcharged emotions which he can only confide to his journal. So much for Shirley being “unromantic as a Monday morning”.
If Louis and Robert are the brothers with Shirley and Caroline respectively as the love interest, then the two young women have their own younger admirers — Henry Sympson and Martin Yorke — who exhibit a kind of puppy love towards the young women.
Another way the author structures her novel is to schedule it within the space of little more than a year. She marks the change of seasons with descriptive passages, with chapters entitled Whitsuntide, The School Feast, and Summer marking the midpoint of the story.
Finally, there is a crucial chapter headed Coriolanus, after the late Shakespeare tragedy. A lengthy discussion takes place with Caroline urging Robert to understand the import of a couple of choice passages from the play. You will of course have noted that Coriolanus echoes Caroline’s name, and that Charlotte and Caroline are etymologically related, but this I think isn’t the point of the digression at this stage of Shirley: instead, Caroline is attempting to instruct Robert on how to behave well to those who are out of work through no fault of their own.
In the play one of the Roman paticians, Caius Martius is contemptuous of ordinary Romans suffering famine. An uprising against the patricians is put aside when Rome goes to war against the Voscians; and when Caius Martius exhibits skills and courage against the town of Corioli he is awarded the cognomen Coriolanus. However he still refuses to curry favour with the populace and is banished. Joining the former enemy Volscians he besieges Rome, but when his family persuade him to show mercy his allies the Volscians murder him.
It’s clear that Caroline is warning Robert not to disdain unemployed, starving workers or to ignore their resentment against his new machinery. Will he follow her advice or will he suffer Coriolanus’ fate?
I’ve only given a hint of the complexities of Charlotte Brontë’s second published novel, and the potential delights that lurk beneath the lack of focus that only seems apparent on a cursory first reading. If it helps you appreciate this work, less popular than Jane Eyre or the later Villette, then it will have achieved something!
* Interestingly, Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon was initially titled The Brothers. This, her last work, concerns contrasting males, in particular Tom Parker the ambitious speculator and his dashing brother Sidney Parker. They also have other siblings, two sisters and a younger brother, but unfortunately the fragment was unfinished.
** Like most novels at the time, including those of the Brontë siblings, Shirley was published in three volumes, which also had a bearing on the novel’s structuring.