The story is told. I think I now see the judicious reader putting on his spectacles to look for the moral. It would be an insult to his sagacity to offer directions. I only say, God speed him in the quest!
I have noticed that many bloggers post apposite quotes from time to time on their blogs. Stuff from a book they’ve read. Something a writer in the public eye has written or said in an interview. Sometimes they post a collection of quotes they’ve liked, rather as compilers of commonplace books used to do in olden days.
Commonplace books? If you didn’t know they were, maybe still are, a bit like literary scrapbooks but without the cutting and pasting. (At least one hopes not — it would be awful to imagine books being vandalised in such a way, rather as dealers remove prints from vintage books to frame and sell to people who want to add cachet to their mock Tudor semi-detached homes.)
Though I describe imperfect characters (every character in this book will be found to be more or less imperfect, my pen refusing to draw anything in the model line) I have not undertaken to handle degraded or utterly infamous ones.
Charlotte Brontë introduces her authorial voice into Shirley (1849) a few times, including here in Chapter V. Now, Jane Austen intrudes herself rarely in her novels and that usually very briefly towards the end, in the last chapter or so. Charlotte, who (as discussed here) didn’t anyway have a high opinion of Austen, had fewer compunctions and here justifies her inclusion of flawed humans.
Child torturers, slave masters and drivers, I consign to the hands of jailers; the novelist may be excused from sullying his page with the record of their deals.
So it is that her leading actors in this novel (set around 1812 when Jane was in reality revising First Impressions as Pride and Prejudice) allude to the Napoleonic wars, politics and social unrest, unlike Miss Bennet or Lady de Burgh, Mr Darcy or Mr Bingham (Austen’s novel had first been drafted a score of years before).
And yet, imperfect though some Austen characters may be, Jane doesn’t show potential protagonists in quite so unflattering a light as Charlotte does. Robert Moore for example declares that the poor “ought to have no sympathies; it is their duty to be narrow. Poverty is necessarily selfish, contracted, grovelling, anxious…” Though Caroline Helstone appears to be more ‘in the model line’ and the epitome of the kind, generous and intelligent young woman that one may admire, she is revealed as brittle, doubting; while other females — such as Robert’s sister Hortense — are more abrasive.
And yet we thrive on imperfect characters in fiction, do we not? Without their imperfections how can they progress to happy or tragic ends, how can they grow or become corrupted, how may they achieve great things or alternatively fail to realise their potential? What is a narrative about a perfect human being but a parable or allegory, a homily to pointedly indicate our weak wills and unspiritual natures?
However, despite the author declaring that she will not ‘handle degraded or utterly infamous’ personages in Shirley we will find that there are villains sufficient to create the external tensions that drive the plot forward, unlike the difficult conversations and misunderstandings that mostly animated Austen’s novels.
Maybe the charge of imperfection that Charlotte laid at the door of her characters was a reflection of her view of herself: a probable self-portrait underlines the low opinion she had of her appearance when we compare it to the more idealised chalk drawing by George Richmond in 1850, completed five years before the author’s death.
An intriguing photographic image, with Les Sœurs Brontë written on its reverse, was found earlier this decade in a private Scottish collection by Robert Haley from Lancashire while he was researching for a book on Victorian photography.
As Haley explains in detail on his Brontë Sisters website this monochrome picture of three young women, two of them facing a third who is looking directly at the camera — and at us — can tell us a lot about when and where it was taken, what processes the portrait went through and, most importantly, who these women really were.
Haley makes a convincing case that the woman with the very frank gaze (possibly because she’s short-sighted) is Charlotte Brontë and the other two her sisters, Emily and Anne. Equally, he argues — using visual evidence — that the woman in the middle with the Jenny Lind hat is Emily, and the figure with the aquiline nose Anne.
The collodion image is likely to have been copied from a daguerreotype taken between the death of their brother Branwell and that of Emily in, he calculates, late 1848, at a studio in York.
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.
[…] 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.
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 Shirleyand 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.
‘And that,’ asked Miss Keeldar, pointing to the forest—‘that is Nunnwood?’
‘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.
Book-related update here, and thankfully it’s a short post.
I’m rattling on towards the end of Jane Eyre and will presently post some commentary and, soon after, a review. Unlike Charlotte Brontë’s later novel Shirley, which took me over a year to polish off, Jane’s story has proved to have more forward impetus. More later.
Meanwhile, though Moby-Dick was published (with the title The Whale) on 18th October 1851 in Britain, it first appeared under its now familiar guise a month later, on 14th November, in the States. I therefore officially retraced my steps from the very start yesterday after having stalled a couple of times a few years ago.
Call me tardy, but at least it was 168 years to the day after its American publication; and 2019 is of course the bicentenary of Herman Melville’s birth.
A fellow passenger on the voyage, Lizzie Ross, has already set off, so I will be following in her wake. I’m not sure how fast I’ll go or how often I’ll report on the journey; as there are around 135 chapters I hope it won’t take a third of a year to complete — maybe a rate of 20-25 chapters a week will see me navigate home before Christmas. Look out for entries from my ship’s log!
Have you read this classic? I know other bloggers have already embarked on this mammoth (should that be Leviathon?) undertaking; is it turning out or has it proved to be what you’d been led to expect?
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.