Shirley (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Shirley Keeldar, the mistress of Fieldhead, a young woman of wealth who owns estates in Yorkshire. A spirited, independent woman of great sense, she finds marriage difficult to contemplate because she does not wish to put herself into the hands of a man who is after her money or a weakling who has no moral fiber of his own. Most of all, she fears submitting to someone who might be a domestic tyrant. Beneath her independent spirit, Shirley is a good-hearted, warm person eager to help anyone who needs assistance. She has a social conscience and tries to organize in the surrounding parishes a system of giving charitable aid to the families of unemployed millworkers. She eventually falls in love with Louis Gérard Moore, her former tutor, and marries him.
Louis Gérard Moore
Louis Gérard Moore, a young man of Belgian and English ancestry who, because of his family’s straitened circumstances, becomes a tutor in the family of Mr. Sympson, Shirley’s uncle. Moore, a quiet, intelligent man, loves Shirley deeply. Through his patience and wisdom, he comes to understand her and to help her understand herself. He wins her for his wife despite his impecunious circumstances and the opposition of Shirley’s uncle, her former guardian.
Robert Gérard Moore
Robert Gérard Moore, a textile manufacturer and Louis Moore’s brother. The mill he...
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The central differences between this novel and Bronte's other works are the point of view and the fact that Shirley treats real historical events instead of being confined to intimate personal life. Some readers believe that Bronte was unsuccessful in blending the external historical plot with the several internal, subjective story lines. Others believe that she has accomplished this difficult task as well as most historical novels do (it is likely that Bronte chose such a general topic because of her reading of the historical romances of Sir Walter Scott).
The first person point of view, which so well unites Jane Eyre and Villette (see separate entries) would not serve for this book; however, the third person omniscient point of view tends to aggravate the problem of structural unity of the text. Shirley herself does not enter the story until well after page 100; also, the lively action of the local people seems something of a distraction from the activities of the central characters. Bronte's sketchy grasp of the national crisis of 1811-1812 may have contributed to the "scattered" effect that many readers sense.
There are effective scenes, though— some contain the confrontations between workers and owners (and their allies); others reveal, as in the passages between Louis Moore and Shirley, a fine power of dramatic dialogue. Another device clearly intended to increase the sense of immediacy is the occasional switching...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Given the historical aspects of Shirley, one might find it instructive to return to the writer who was probably her primary inspiration in this genre: Sir Walter Scott. One might, for example, read the early passage in Scott's The Heart of Midlothian (1818) dealing with the real-life Porteus Riot and compare it with the section in Shirley which narrates the attack on Robert Moore's mill. Does Scott do the job better? What are the similarities and differences in technique?
Also, gaining some background on the Luddite uprisings and on the effects of the Industrial Revolution (including, for example, the horrific working conditions of many poor people) and on the Orders in Council could aid the reader in evaluating Bronte's treatment of the period. Further, the matter of how well the historical material is blended with the personal elements should be considered.
1. Which main female character, Caroline or Shirley, emerges as more fully developed?
2. Bronte says that "there are many Hiram Yorke's in the world." Does the chapter devoted to this peripheral but interesting character truly develop a rounded personage? Are the opposing traits presented in a psychologically believable manner?
3. Do the extended passages of dialogue on less than vital subjects become, as some readers feel, tedious? Could the lengthy novel be shortened with no loss of effect? What passages could be omitted?
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The unhappy situation of women in Victorian society always concerned Charlotte Bronte, as is seen in her earlier novel Jane Eyre. Shirley, however, sets this circumstance against a historical and social background of wide scope. The plot events take place in 1812, a troubled time when the Napoleonic Wars and the attendant Orders in Council have brought on a chaotic economic and social disruption. Bronte had wanted to write a "condition of England" novel and, even before penning Shirley, had declared that she wished to deal with the "condition of women" in her time and place. In Shirley, Bronte combines and interrelates these concerns.
While the owners and workers are in grim opposition, so society itself is crushing the spirit of most women. The basis of both conflicts is primarily economic: The workers are losing their jobs because of a poor market condition and because of the technical advances of the Industrial Revolution (in the present era of speedily expanding technology and the dislocations that it causes, this phenomenon should seem relevant to modern readers); women are caught in a system arranged by men and are expected to live by its rules.
Thus, when Shirley confronts the foreman Joe Scott, a disaffected but intelligent worker, he refuses serious discussion because women should not be involved in such serious matters: "Joe, do you seriously think all the wisdom in the world is lodged in male skulls? Let...
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The historical novel has a long and lofty heritage in English literature, with Sir Walter Scott at its peak. Bronte is, thus, part of an old tradition. What might be called semi-historical novels, the genre known as "condition of England" works, were well represented in the nineteenth century (largely as a response to the increased industrialization of the nation). Examples include Disraeli's Sybil (1845), Mrs. Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1854-55), Dickens's Hard Times (]1854), and Charles Kingsley's Alton Locke ('1850). Charlotte Bronte had, perhaps beyond her intention, placed herself in distinguished company.
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Craik, W. A. The Brontë Novels. London: Methuen, 1968. Sees Shirley as Brontë’s “least successful novel.” Discusses the failure of the male characters and the third-person point of view.
Edwards, Mike. Charlotte Brontë: The Novels. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Part of the Analysing Texts series; different aspects of the novel are discussed, as well as their counterparts in Brontë’s other novels. A particularly useful source for students.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. In a chapter devoted to Shirley, the authors focus on Brontë’s handling of women who are imprisoned and accepting of self-denial because of their gender.
Ingham, Patricia. The Brontës. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Part of Oxford’s Authors in Context series; discusses how Shirley reflects concerns with social class as well as the governess “problem.”
McLaughlin, Rebecca A. “’I Prefer a Master’: Female Power in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley.” Brontë Studies 29 (November, 2004): 217-222. Sees the novel as a subversive depiction of the power of women in a male-dominated world.
Torgerson, Beth. Reading the Brontë Body: Disease, Desire, and the Constraints of Culture. New...
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