Brontë, Shirley Charlotte
Shirley Charlotte Brontë
The following entry presents criticism of Brontë's novel Shirley (1849). See also, The Professor Criticism.
Charlotte Brontë's second published novel, Shirley (1849), followed by two years the very popular Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. In Shirley, Brontë abandoned first-person narration by the main female character—which she had successfully employed in the earlier effort and which would reappear in Villette (1853)—in favor of an omniscient third-person narrator and not one, but two, principle characters, Shirley Keeldar and Caroline Helstone. In a further departure from her earlier success, Brontë moved out of the realm of the purely personal to include elements of the social and political as well. Set in Yorkshire during the time of the Luddite unrest—a labor movement that began in 1811-1812 in an effort to protect the interests of the working class—the novel consists of two narrative strands woven together, one involving the struggles of workers against mill owners, and the other involving the romantic entanglements of the two heroines.
Despite Brontë's ambitious plan to write a grand romance against an industrial backdrop, she was forced to amend her original intentions several times during the course of the novel's production. Early on, she realized the potential embarrassment she would cause her minister father, not to mention the actual danger to herself, if she were to set her new novel amid the Chartist unrest of her own time and region as she had originally planned. (The Chartists were nineteenth-century political reformers who championed the causes of the working class.) Accordingly, she retreated to an earlier period of social upheaval, the 1811-1812 Luddite disturbances, and to another place, the Heavy Woollen District of the West Riding. But progress on the novel was halted again when Charlotte's brother Branwell died in September, 1848, followed soon thereafter by sister Emily's illness and subsequent death in December. The author had scarcely resumed her work when her remaining sibling, sister Anne, became ill and died in May, 1849. Fortunately, completion of Shirley became came both escape and therapy for Charlotte, but numerous critics have speculated on the effect the family's multiple tragedies had on the finished product, most notably, on the fate of Caroline Helstone, a character loosely based on Anne.
Plot and Major Characters
Shirley begins as Robert Moore, a Yorkshire mill operator, awaits a shipment of machinery which arrives in pieces, smashed by angry workers protesting the loss of jobs to mechanization. Although he is determined to become successful in order to restore his family's honor and fortune, Robert's business difficulties continue, due in part to the continuing labor unrest, but even more so to the Napoleonic Wars and the accompanying Orders in Council which forbid British merchants from trading in American markets. Robert is unmoved by the plight of workers whose jobs are being eliminated and is so completely focused on profits that he rejects the idea of marriage to his distant kinswoman, the penniless Caroline Helstone, in favor of a proposal to the title character, a rich heiress. Shirley Keeldar, a strong independent woman who relishes her role as land owner and mill owner, ultimately rejects Robert's proposal, but not before the unhappy Caroline has suffered through what she imagines to be the courtship of her beloved Robert and her dearest friend. Caroline, poor but respectable, has no other prospects for either marriage or employment, since all professions except that of governess are closed to women. The daughter of an absent mother and an abusive father, Caroline has found refuge, such as it is, with her clergyman uncle, who ignores her. After Robert's rejection, Caroline retreats to this loveless home and begins to waste away until Shirley restores her to health by reuniting Caroline with her long-lost mother, Mrs. Pryor. Shirley, meanwhile, is in love with Robert's brother Louis, a poor tutor, but her pride prevents her from expressing those feelings. Louis, in turn, is similarly restrained from declaring his love for her by pride and fear of rejection by a woman whose means are considerably greater than his own. Events on the industrial front are brought to a head when Robert is shot by a member of the opposing faction. During his recovery, he learns what it is like to be at the mercy of another, to be treated as an object, to be totally dependent—the very status of his workers in relationship to Robert himself. This role reversal, along with the end of the war and the revocation of the Orders in Council, both of which alleviate Robert's financial difficulties, bring about enormous changes in the man. By the novel's end, Robert is reunited with Caroline and is eager to provide work for all the poor and hungry who want it. The communication problems between Shirley and Louis are finally overcome, and the headstrong Shirley submits to Louis as her "master." The novel ends with a double wedding.
Despite the novel's conventional happy ending featuring the marriage of both principle female characters, Shirley is nonetheless a powerful indictment of the position of women in nineteenth-century England. That their dependent status is a source of misery is evident in the initial fate of Caroline Helstone, who, like the Brontë sisters themselves, has neither dowry with which to secure a husband nor any respectable means of earning a living without one. The novel's other female characters offer no role models for Caroline, either inside or outside the married state; the married women are abused or ignored, while the spinsters are impoverished and embittered. The plight of women dependent on men for their survival is similar to the plight of workers dependent on the mill owners for theirs. Although the novel's treatment of its social and political theme is ambiguous—on the one hand sympathizing with the workers, while on the other fiercely defending the property rights of the owners—in the end, it seems to deplore inequality and exploitation for both women and workers.
For those critics who praised Jane Eyre, Shirley was a disappointment. G. H. Lewes's 1850 piece in the Edinburgh Review, claiming that the second publication is "inferior in several important points," is perhaps the most famous of these early negative assessments. Lewes denounced the characters as "not true" and the plot as devoid of unity and coherence. This latter point—that the political events and the personal events in Shirley are unconnected—was then repeated by several other critics. More recent criticism, though, has refuted this charge by pointing out that the condition of the female characters and women in general is itself a political theme and that the common plight of oppressed women and oppressed workers provides the unifying connection. Another critic claims that there are actually three narrative threads in Shirley—dealing with religion, work, and romantic love—and that each represents a means of coping with life's hardships. Still others suggest that Brontë's alleged failure to successfully reconcile the public and private realms was deliberate, an acknowledgment, in fact, that life is complex and that truth is relative. In recent years, Shirley, along with Brontë's other work, has received a great deal of attention from feminist critics, some of whom praise it as an early feminist text, and others who denounce the apparent capitulation of the female characters to the constraints of marriage at novel's end. At least one critic has even suggested that the aforementioned disunity is a result of Brontë's failure to follow through on the novel's promise of providing a viable alternative to the limited possibilities for women at that time. The tragic events in Brontë's life during the time she was working on the novel have prompted several critics to suggest that the allegedly flawed ending is a direct result of those events. Speculation abounds that Caroline Helstone was never intended to recover and marry, but Charlotte, having just attended her third deathbed vigil in less than a year—this time for Anne, on whom Caroline is partly based—was unwilling or unable to see her character suffer the same fate as her sister. Many critics believe Shirley would have been a better novel if Brontë had adhered to her original plan.
SOURCE: "Currer Bell's Shirley," in Critical Essays on Charlotte Brontë, edited by Barbara Timm Gates, G. K. Hall, 1990, pp. 217-23.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1850 in the Edinburgh Review, Lewes criticizes the characters in Shirley as unnatural and unrealistic, despite the author's claim that they are drawn from real life.]
Shirley is inferior to Jane Eyre in several important points. It is not quite so true; and it is not so fascinating. It does not so rivet the reader's attention, nor hurry him through all obstacles of improbability, with so keen a sympathy in its reality. It is even coarser in texture, too, and not unfrequently flippant; while the characters are almost all disagreeable, and exhibit intolerable rudeness of manner. In Jane Eyre life was viewed from the standing point of individual experience; in Shirley that standing point is frequently abandoned, and the artist paints only a panorama of which she, as well as you, are but spectators. Hence the unity of Jane Eyre in spite of its clumsy and improbable contrivances, was great and effective: the fire of one passion fused the discordant materials into one mould. But in Shirley all unity, in consequence of defective art, is wanting. There is no passionate link; nor is there any artistic fusion or...
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SOURCE: "Private and Social Themes in Shirley" in Brontë Society Transactions, Vol. 13, No. 3, 1958, pp. 203-19.
[In this address to the Brontë Society, Briggs explores Shirley's social theme—the Luddite uprisings—an element of the novel that is often overlooked.]
I consider it a great honour to address the Brontë Society. The Transactions of the Society reveal the variety of approaches to the work of the Brontës and the continuing relevance and freshness of their creative achievement. There are still new things to say and new ways of saying them. The sense of honour, however, is mixed with some trepidation. I am not a "Brontë expert," and among the vast mass of books and articles about the Brontës there are many which I have not read. I suppose that my best qualification for giving this lecture is a birth qualification—always a point on which Yorkshire folk pride themselves. Before I knew anything about nineteenth-century Haworth I knew twentieth-century Haworth. Before I had heard of the Keighley Mechanics' Institute in the days of the Brontës I was sitting at a desk in the present Mechanics' Institute. Before I had heard of Wuthering Heights I knew the moors. In a sense I grew up with the Brontës and accepted them naturally as a part of my own background, an exciting and provocative part. I feel to-day that I am making my own humble homage to the...
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SOURCE: "Caroline Helstone's Eyes," in Brontë Society Transactions, Vol. 14, No. 1, 1961, pp. 18-28.
[In the following essay, Tompkins looks at possible sources for the character of Caroline from among the author's family members and friends.]
Two-thirds of the way through Shirley Caroline Helstone's eyes change from brown to blue. This is not an unparalleled phenomenon in a novel. In Shirley, however it is unexpected, for here Charlotte Brontë is much occupied with the looks of her characters. Here, for the only time, she gives herself two pretty girls as heroines, and she does not allow us to forget their charm. Her imagination lingers round their soft, rich hair, their slender grace, their muslins and silks, and their intelligent, sparkling eyes with that delight in feminine beauty which was mortified by her own appearance and denied satisfaction in her other heroines. It is in Chapter XXIII that Caroline first raises her 'blue orbs' in steady defiance of Mrs. Yorke's odious attack. Before that we have had our attention drawn to 'the soft expression of her brown eyes' (Chapter XI), 'the very brownness of her hair and eyes invisible by this faint light,' as she sits in the shade 'without flowers or ornaments,' a foil to Shirley's brilliance (Chapter XIII,) and to her 'brown eye and clear forehead' when she is dressed for the Whit-Tuesday Sunday-School tea-drinking (Chapter...
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SOURCE: "The Structure of Shirley," in Brontë Society Transactions, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1962, pp. 27-35.
[In the essay below, Holgate describes the changes in the novel from its planning stage to its completion—changes brought about by the tragic events in the author's life in 1848-49.]
If any one of Charlotte Brontë's novels could be described as 'ill-starred' it must surely be Shirley.
Its conception was by no means a chance-blown seed; it set out to be an ambitious work; the nucleus and growth started in a decade, and in a district, which offered lush material, rich with incident, for a romance amid industrial strife, such as Charlotte envisaged. It is possible that from the time she first conceived the notion of writing for publication, bearing in mind that the stuff of her novels would be her own experience of life, the idea of such a romance was an inchoate ambition.
One imagines that she had given much previous thought to the plot and structure of her second novel before she put pen to paper, and the fact that Benjamin Disraeli's Coningsby had become the popular novel by the time Charlotte was working on Jane Eyre must have provided a good deal of stimulus. But Fate was to take a hand: the writing of Shirley was to prove a burden—an arduous task which might well have been set aside and never...
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SOURCE: "Art, Death, and the Composition of Shirley," in The Victorian Newsletter, No. 28, Fall, 1965, pp. 22-4.
[In the following essay, Knies examines Brontë's writing timetable in order to challenge other critics ' claims that Anne Brontë 's death brought about changes in the character and fate of Caroline.]
It is a well-known fact that the composition of Charlotte Brontë's third novel, Shirley, was interrupted by the successive deaths of Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë; and writers—notably Janet Spens and J.M.S. Tompkins—have argued plausibly that as a result Charlotte altered her original plan while she was writing the novel. Thus, many of the readily acknowledged weaknesses of the novel can be attributed to personal rather than artistic problems. But these theories, as well as the statement in Mrs. Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë upon which they are based, appear in view of the available evidence to be erroneous.
To review briefly, Mrs. Gaskell states that Charlotte "had nearly finished the second volume of her tale when Branwell died,—after him Emily,—after Anne;—the pen, laid down when there were three sisters living and loving, was taken up when one alone remained. Well might she call the first chapter that she wrote after this, 'The Valley of the Shadow of Death.' '"
Partly on the basis of this comment,...
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SOURCE: "Public Themes and Private Lives: Social Criticism in Shirley," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 4, No. 1, Winter, 1968, pp. 74-84.
[In this essay, Shapiro challenges the conventional criticism that the public and private realms in the novel are unconnected.]
From the outset, critics of Charlotte Brontë's third novel, Shirley (published in 1849), have said that the book lacks unity. It has been charged repeatedly that there is no correlation in it between the social themes—for example, the Luddite rioting of the turn of the nineteenth century—and the private ones—the two love stories at the center of the book. Thus, G. H. Lewes asserts: "Shirley . . . is not a picture; but a portfolio of random sketches for one or more pictures. The authoress never seems distinctly to have made up her mind as to what she was to do; whether to describe the habits and manners of Yorkshire and its social aspects in the days of King Lud, or to paint character, or to tell a love story."1 More recently, Miss Ratchford calls Shirley "the poorest of Charlotte Brontë's novels": " . . . it is cumbered and weighted down by too much that is taken directly from observation and the Leeds Mercury. .. .2 " Asa Briggs, who sympathizes with Charlotte Bronte's intention in the book, states: ".. . it is not concerned with one theme...
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SOURCE: "The Three Voices in Charlotte Brontë's Shirley," in Brontë Society Transactions, Vol. 15, 1969, pp. 323-26.
[In this excerpt, Passel describes the contrapuntal structure of Shirley, in which three voices explore possible solutions to life's problems through religion, work, and love respectively.]
In Shirley, Charlotte Brontë has written a novel with a highly organized three-voiced contrapuntal structure. The novel has seldom been viewed as an organic unity; more often critics consider it to be a gathering together of dissimilar threads of plot. Shortly after its publication, such an attitude was expressed by G. H. Lewes in his severe critical attack in the Edinburgh Review in 1850. Lewes was looking for an echo of the message the world had found in Jane Eyre, and Shirley is not a second Jane Eyre. The critic expressed his disappointment:
But in Shirley all unity .. . is wanting. There is no passionate link; nor is there any artistic fusion, or intergrowth, by which one part evolves itself from another. Hence its falling-off in interest, coherent movement and life.1
In Shirley, one part does not evolve from another, and Lewes was right in abandoning all attempt to find an "artistic fusion or intergrowth."...
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SOURCE: "Shirley: The Eternal Feminine," in Charlotte Brontë: A Psychosexual Study of Her Novels, Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1973, pp. 78-95.
[In the following excerpt, Burkhart claims that, despite the novel's faults, its title character succeeds as a forerunner of today's liberated women.]
Voices public and private
The habit among Victorian writers of addressing the reader directly was based on the assumptions that reader and writer shared a common background and common beliefs and that the writer's duty was rather more to instruct than to delight. When an author felt his audience becoming inattentive or alienated, he tended to raise his voice, in insistent vocative; Victorian prophets like Carlyle or Ruskin are often a strident group. If Charlotte Brontë is strident in Shirley, however, and now conceives of herself as interpreter, mentor, and guide, the more specific cause was that Jane Eyre's success had gone to her head, and, accustomed to the clerical as she was, she donned the robes of the preacher with alacrity. Fortunately it did not touch her heart, and most of what is good in Shirley comes from deeper experiences than her new fame could affect.
She elected a public subject, probably suggested by the Chartist movement of her own time: the Luddite disturbances in the West Riding of Yorkshire, beginning in...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Shirley by Charlotte Brontë, edited by Andrew Hook and Judith Hook, Penguin Books, 1974, pp. 7-32.
[In this introduction to Shirley, the Hooks explore the various social themes of the novel as well as the circumstances under which it was written and the intentions of its author.]
With Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë achieved the kind of success denied to all but a handful of writers, the kind of success that soars beyond the approval of critics and reading-public alike. Jane Eyre belongs to that select company of books which have passed into a nation's literary consciousness. An extraordinary combination of life and art, romance and realism, and compelling imaginative power, it appeals so widely at so many different levels that our normal critical procedures are made to seem superfluous or irrelevant. For its author's other books, however, the triumph of Jane Eyre has produced a difficult situation. Charlotte Brontë wrote four novels, but to be totally overshadowed by Jane Eyre has been the inevitable fate of three of them. With the reading-public Jane Eyre, of course, has always reigned supreme, but even scholars and critics have been inclined to approach the other novels from the perspective it provides. The Professor, the first of the novels to be written though the last to be published,...
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SOURCE: "Shirley," in Myths of Power: A Marxist Studies of the Brontës, second edition, Macmillan Press, 1988, pp. 45-60.
[In this excerpt, originally published in 1975, Eagleton explores the possible reasons for the novel's focus on the Luddite disturbances of 1812 rather than the Chartist unrest of Brontë's own time.]
Shirley was published in 1849, one year after the defeat of Chartism; and yet, though the novel is much preoccupied with class-conflict, it is backdated to the Luddite events of 1812. It is worth enquiring why this should be so. The West Riding of the 1840s was an intensive focus of Chartist agitation: Leeds was second only to Manchester as a centre of radical insurgency, and produced the most influential of all Chartist organs, the Northern Star. During the Plug strikes of 1842 some six thousand workers brought mills in the villages around Leeds to a standstill; five years later, severe economic depression, high unemployment and soaring food-prices generated a significant Chartist revival. In 1848 West Riding workers were arming and drilling; two thousand of them clashed in that year at Bradford with an equivalent number of soldiers and police.1 Yet Shirley chooses to ignore contemporary conditions, imaginatively translating them to an earlier phase of the Yorkshire class-struggle, negotiating its feelings in relation to the past...
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SOURCE: "The Genesis of Hunger, According to Shirley," in Feminist Studies, Vol. 3, Nos. 3-4, Spring-Summer, 1976, pp. 5-21.
[In the following excerpt, Gubar dismisses those critics who claim that Shirley lacks unity, and praises the novel as a revolutionary text.]
Charlotte Brontë's second published novel, Shirley, begins with three clergymen at table: complaining that the roast beef is tough and the beer flat, they nevertheless swallow enormous quantities of both, calling for "More bread!" and ordering their landlady to "Cut it, woman."1 They also consume all her vegetables, cheese and spice cake. Is it merely a scene of local color, part of the wrong-headed impulse that led Brontë to write an historical novel set during England's war-time depression of 1811-1812? Is it just one example of the multiple ways in which the wide-ranging omniscient point of view allowed her to digress with irrelevant characters and vulgar dialogue included only because she wanted to be faithful to her real-life models? This is what many of her critics have claimed.2 Yet, the voracious curates begin a novel very much about the expensive delicacies of the wealthy, the eccentric cookery of foreigners, the abundant provisions due soldiers, the scanty dinner baskets of child laborers, the starvation of the unemployed. Indeed, the hunger of the exploited links them to all those...
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SOURCE: "Shirley: Feminism and Power," in Charlotte Brontë: The Self Conceived, W. W. Norton and Company, 1976, pp. 152-89.
[In the following excerpt, Moglen looks at the author's progression from Jane Eyre to Shirley as an attempt to turn from the personal to the political.]
For reasons which I will shortly sketch, Charlotte Brontë turned away from the quasi-allegorical mode of Jane Eyre and attempted to write what she conceived as a social and political novel. She would, of course, not abandon the psychological conundrums she had explored in that violent and radical new myth of heterosexual relationship, but she would now emphasize the pressures of the workaday world. She would discipline herself, as she had announced she would try to do in The Professor, to the dictates of "realism."
Something real, cool and solid lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake with the consciousness that they must ride and betake themselves thereto.1
Several factors contributed to the change of perspective. Although Jane Eyre had received enthusiastic reviews, its unknown author had been accused by many of impropriety and "coarseness."2 The attacks on the novel's open sexuality and expression of "unseemly" feeling, might well...
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SOURCE: "What Some Women Can't Swallow: Hunger as Protest in Charlotte Brontë's Shirley," in Disorderly Eaters: Texts in Self-Empowerment, edited by Lilian R. Furst and Peter W. Graham, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992, pp. 141-52.
[In this excerpt, Lashgari discusses images of food, starvation, and eating disorders in Shirley.]
Does virtue lie in abnegation of self? I do not believe it. (10:190)
You expected bread, and you have got a stone. (6:105)
Individual eating disorders in Charlotte Brontë's novel Shirley (1849) are portrayed as part of a much larger picture, in which a dysfunctional society starves women, literally and metaphorically, and women internalize that dis/order as self-starvation. Contrary to some readings of the novel, Brontë is not selling the two heroines out to conventional female passivity, either when she has them stop eating or when she marries them off at the end of the story. Caroline and Shirley have both struggled against gender roles and relationships that are "killing them." When each in turn finds herself blocked from any effective overt protest and barred from speaking her pain, she asserts control over her life in the only arena available, inscribing her hunger on her own body in a desperate plea to be "read aright."...
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Ankenbrandt, Katherine Ware. "Charlotte Brontë's Shirley and John Leyden's 'The Cout of Keeldar'." Victorian Newsletter No. 34 (Fall 1968): 33-34.
Traces the possible source of the surname Keeldar in Shirley.
Argyle, Gisela. "Gender and Generic Mixing in Charlotte Brontë's Shirley." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 35, No. 4 (Autumn 1995): 741-56.
Explores the use of the third-person narrator in Shirley as a departure from Brontë's use of protagonist-narrators in Jane Eyre and Villette.
Bailin, Miriam. '"Varieties of Pain': The Victorian Sickroom and Brontë's Shirley." Modern Language Quarterly 48, No. 3 (September 1987): 254-78.
Examines the roles of nurse and patient in Shirley.
Belkin, Roslyn. "Rejects of the Marketplace: Old Maids in Charlotte Brontë's Shirley." International Journal of Women's Studies 4, No. 1 (January/February 1981): 50-66.
Studies Brontë's parallels between oppressed workers and oppressed single women in Shirley.
Bock, Carol A. "Storytelling and the Multiple Audiences of Shirley." The Journal of Narrative Technique 18, No. 3 (Fall 1988): 226-42....
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