Shirley Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of British Fiction)

The introduction of machinery into Robert Moore’s Yorkshire cotton mill had caused many mill workers to lose their jobs. One night a group of rebellious men, spurred on by hungry families and resentful leaders, stormed down on wagons bearing new machinery to the mill. The rioters destroyed every piece.

Caroline Helstone, quiet and delicately pretty, appeared the following morning in Robert Moore’s cottage to take her French lesson with Hortense Moore, who with her brother had recently come to England from Brussels. As a young child, Caroline had been deserted by her parents and left to the care of her stern and unsympathetic uncle, the rector of Briarfield. Robert and Hortense were Caroline’s distant cousins, and her visits to their cottage were the brightest moments in her routine life. On this day, her anxiety over Robert’s mill trouble and her attempts to distract him by reading Shakespeare with him made it apparent that Robert himself was the main reason for the pleasure of her visits.

Robert, however, was too much concerned with his affairs to notice his cousin’s growing ardor. In the days that followed, Caroline distractedly sewed for the charity basket, read, and had tea with her uncle and the three ludicrous curates, while secretly cherishing each word that Robert spoke to her and his few displays of cousinly affection. Then, to make her life more intolerable, Robert and her uncle quarreled over politics and she was forbidden to visit the Moore cottage.

A new and charming individual suddenly appeared into this barren world of Caroline’s. Shirley Keeldar, the youthful heiress of Fieldhead, one of the largest estates in the countryside, came to occupy that long-deserted mansion and to preside as its mistress. Vivacious and independent, she was soon a favorite of all her tenants and the village people. Although her opposite in temperament, Caroline became Shirley’s special friend, and Robert, who rented his mill from Shirley, became a frequent visitor at Fieldhead, where Shirley cajoled him into talking with her about his political views and labor problems and readily gave her own ideas. When Caroline was present on these occasions, she withdrew shyly from the conversation and watched painfully the growing color in Shirley’s cheeks as she talked and the amusement in Robert’s eyes.

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(The entire section is 961 words.)

Shirley Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Three self-centered Yorkshire curates are interrupted at dinner by Reverend Helstone, who is concerned about the dangers of sabotage. England is at war with Napoleonic France, and manufacturers have been confronted with the Orders in Council, developed by the British government to impose control and taxation on trade with Europe and America, greatly curtailing business. Moreover, the Industrial Revolution is well underway in England, resulting in the loss of jobs as machines make it possible to produce the same amount of goods with fewer laborers. Roving bands of men are destroying the machines they see threatening their way of life. Reverend Helstone, acting like a soldier, takes arms to protect a shipment of frames being delivered to Robert Moore’s textile mill. He is unsuccessful, however, and the frames are destroyed.

Meanwhile, Caroline Helstone, an orphan, has been taken in by the reverend, her uncle. He provides for Caroline but shows her no affection. Caroline falls in love with Robert Moore, but he is so focused on making a success of his business that he cannot allow himself to love Caroline. Seeing this, Caroline resolves not to marry and to distract herself from grief by doing good works. The narrator comments on the “old maids” and the problem of what women can and cannot do while living in a “man’s world.”

Caroline, as is proper for a young woman, suffers in silence, but she knows she has to change her life. She tells her uncle that she wishes to leave his home and to earn a living since she herself is penniless. Caroline plans to become a governess, but her despair makes her ill. Distraction from her unhappiness is provided by...

(The entire section is 687 words.)