Shirley’s neck of the woods

Gable of Gatehouse, Kirklees Priory (H P Kendall) 1937 © Calderdale Libraries

‘And that,’ asked Miss Keeldar, pointing to the forest—‘that is Nunnwood?’
‘It is.’
‘Was it not one of Robin Hood’s haunts?’
‘Yes, and there are mementos of him still existing.’
—Chapter XII ‘Shirley and Caroline’

Welcome to the most final post on Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (the very last despite what I suggested in an earlier piece) and welcome, especially, to the greenwood that is Nunnely Forest.

Newly established friends Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar have walked from the parish of Briarfield and are now overlooking the treetops surrounding the Nunnely Priory estate. In this novel, set towards the end of the Napoleonic wars and during a period industrial unrest, the thing we might least expect to come across might be the legend of a medieval outlaw.

But perhaps this is not so unexpected. For the two have not long before been extolling the virtues of each being a native of Yorkshire, and an independent thinker at that. Given that some Robin Hood legends are set in Barnsdale (South Yorkshire, but formerly part of the West Riding) the mention of the outlaw’s baunts is not entirely outlandish.

And there’s more.

Roe Head School, Mirfield

Shirley, as I’ve previously noted, is based on a West Yorkshire landscape well known to the author. Roe Head in Mirfield, where Charlotte and her sisters went to school and where she later taught, is but a stone’s throw from the privately owned Kirklees Park estate. The 12th-century Cistercian Priory became a nunnery, only to be dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539; three of its seven remaining nuns (including the prioress) then retired to the Priory’s guesthouse — which thus became known as the Three Nunns Inn. Of the Priory only the gatehouse and some farm buildngs survive, the main site being demolished and replaced with a Jacobean mansion; even the inn was rebuilt in the 20th century and now goes under a different name.

In some of the ballads of Robin Hood Kirklees is where the hero met his end, treacherously bled to death by his cousin the Prioress of Kirklees (according to Robin Hood his Death):

Shee laid the blood-irons to Robin Hoods vaine,
Alack, the more, pitye!
And pearct the vaine, and let out the bloode,
That full red was to see.

And first it bled, the thicke, thicke bloode,
And afterwards the thinne,
And wel then wist good Robin Hoode
Treason there was within.

Then, following a fight with the prioress’s lover Red Roger, the weakened and dying Robin asks a final boon of Little John:

But give me my bent bow in my hande,
And a broad arrow I’ll let flee;
And where this arrow is taken up
There shall my grave digged be.

In the woodland by Kirklees Park — Nun Bank Wood — what’s known as Robin Hood’s Grave is still marked on maps as an antiquity. Past excavation and, more recently, ground penetrating radar hasn’t revealed any disturbance suggesting an inhumation. However, since Tudor times antiquarian speculation has added the notions that the outlaw not only robbed the rich to help the poor but also was a dispossessed noble, the Earl of Huntingdon. In Shirley the tutor, Louis Moore, declines an invitation to Nunnely Priory, modelled of course on Kirklees Park:

All but Moore […] are gone to Nunnely […] but the Tutor would much sooner have made an appointment with the Earl of Huntingdon to meet him, and a shadowy ring of his merry men, under a canopy of the thickest, blackest, oldest oak in Nunnely Forest. Yes, he would have rather have appointed tryst with a phantom abbess, or mist-pale nun, among the wet and weedy relics of that ruined sanctuary of theirs, mouldering in the core of the wood.

Kirklees Hall (image: Charnock Bates)

Let us now not ask why Louis Moore has turned down the invitation to Nunnely Priory, instead merely noting that if we imagine Kirklees (meaning “church-meadows”) as Nunnely (“nuns-meadow”?) we won’t go far wrong. And the mention of Robin Hood may echo one of the themes of Shirley, that of the poor rising up against oppression, as the merry men were supposed to have done.

Oakwell Hall, Birstall

As many know, Brontë purloined other locations in the vicinity for sites in her novel. Oakwell Hall in Birstall became Shirley’s residence Fieldhead (there is a Fieldhead Lane not far to the east of the Hall); from here a school was run by cousins of Charlotte’s friend Ellen Nussey. The equally historic Red House in Gomersal, home to another of her friends, Mary Taylor, became the residence of the nonconformist Yorke family, Briarmains (the name Red House was transferred to a nearby inn in the novel).

Caroline herself lived in her uncle’s rectory Briarfield close by Briarfield church; this was based on St Peter’s, Birstall (rebuilt a decade or so after Charlotte knew it). Hollow’s Mill is apparently a composite of mills in Hunsworth and in Rawfolds in Liversedge, the latter which actually suffered an attack similar to that described in Shirley: in 1812 the Luddites had marched at night from their rendezvous near the Three Nuns Inn outside Mirfield, across Peep Green common, past St Peter’s, Hartshead (near Patrick Brontë’s lodgings, then a curate at that church), along the Halifax Road through Hightown, then up Primrose Lane to the mill, where they were fiercely repulsed.

The Spen Valley and ‘Shirley’

On my sketch map (not to scale) I’ve indicated the relationship between the various sites mentioned, plus the fictional names Charlotte Brontë gave them, but it mustn’t be imagined that the geographical relationships in the novel are exactly the same: many distances have, I assume, been telescoped and others (such as the mills) amalgamated. I’ve not visited the area — yet — but there are numerous websites, such as that of the Spen Valley Civic Society, which detail the links between the area and settings in Shirley (and also Jane Eyre), and the long-distance route the Brontë Way, which criss-crosses the area, actually begins at Oakwell Hall.

It’s tempting to speculate further on other identifications — is Stillbro’ Huddersfield? Does Rushedge stand in for Liversedge? — but I shall leave that to those more knowledgeable than me. This very last in a series of posts merely aims to highlight the fine balance that the author trod between reality and fantasy, not least between historical events like the Luddite attacks and imaginative histories such as the Robin Hood legends and traditional fairytales, but also between actual places and fictional sites. Of such stuff are dreams made on.

  • Charlotte Brontë, Shirley. Penguin Popular Classics 1994 (1849)
  • J C Holt, Robin Hood. Thames and Hudson. Revised and enlarged edition 1989 (1982)
  • Maurice Keen, The Outlaws of Medieval Legend. Routledge and Kegan Paul 1961

10 thoughts on “Shirley’s neck of the woods

    1. Thanks, Lizzie, images and maps often (though not always) help me envisage the narrative more vividly. As always I’d be interested to hear your responses if and when you get to read the book. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

    1. I suppose there’s good reason, Jane, why maps figure in so much fiction, from fantasy to children’s stories, and in non-fiction such as histories — we all love to immerse ourselves in imagined landscapes! And if a novel doesn’t provide a map then I’m always scribbling sketches to try to picture the environment from clues in the text, as here. Happy to share it, for whenever you choose to read Shirley! 🙂


  1. Alyson Woodhouse

    I’ll need to re-read Shirley, as my memory of it is of a somewhat uneven book with rather lackluster male characters, not enough of Shirley herself, and a bit too much of Caroline whining in the early stages. Your recent posts have given me much to ponder though, so I should give it another go. Maybe I just wasn’t ready for it the first time around and was comparing it somewhat unfavorably to Jane Eyre and Villette.


    1. Your summary — uneven, lacklustre male characters, Caroline whining — is spot on, Alyson, and if it wasn’t CB would I have given it a go? I’m uncertain I would’ve, but having done so I don’t regret it. Would I read it again? Hmm. Possibly.


    1. That’s well kind of you, Marcie! I enjoyed doing the research, a mix of atlases, road maps, Google Earth and dedicated Brontë websites, though my sketch was very rough, dashed off in barely a couple of hours, all told.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. buriedinprint

        But that’s often the way with projects, writing and otherwise. The final stages are the ones that gain notice, but if we hadn’t done a lot of legwork and less immediately identifiable research, even a rough draft would be impossible! You’ve made me want to try the same thing.

        Liked by 1 person

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