Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 961
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.
Despairing of gaining Robert’s love and refusing to tell her feelings to anyone, Caroline attempted to forget herself by devoting long hours to charity work. In this work, she followed the lead of a saintly old maid, Miss Ainley, and determined to prepare to be just such an old maid herself.
Meanwhile, Robert had set up new machinery in his mill, and the unrest in surrounding villages continued. Shirley generously poured out her money to the poor in an attempt to ease the results of unemployment. The tension mounted, however, and one summer night a band of men crashed through the mill gates and attempted to enter the mill itself. Robert had received word of their plan and was ready with men inside to defend his mill. Gunfire followed, watched from a hilltop by Shirley and trembling Caroline, who had been aroused from bed by the commotion. Robert successfully turned back the rioters, and for the remainder of the summer, he spent most of his time tracking down the mob leaders in the large towns of England.
Caroline’s attempts to occupy herself with charity work failed. When her growing despair contributed to a physical breakdown, she could only lie in bed, feverish and unable to eat. Robert was away in London and knew nothing of her condition. Possibly she would have died if a singular revelation had not occurred. Mrs. Pryor, Shirley’s governess, a retiring woman who had in her faltering way expressed much fondness for Caroline, nursed the invalid constantly during her illness. One night, she confided that she was Caroline’s own mother; she had given her up as a child because Caroline’s beauty had made her fear that she would grow up to be like her errant father. With someone to love her, Caroline slowly recovered.
During Caroline’s illness, Shirley’s aunt and uncle, the Sympsons, arrived for a visit. Solicitous to find a distinguished and wealthy husband for their niece, they suggested and encouraged several likely candidates. One such eligible gentleman, Sir Philip Nunnely, seemed on the verge of success, but he was finally rejected by Shirley, who admired but did not love him. Robert Moore appeared one evening and proposed suddenly, only to have Shirley’s frank and passionate outburst of rejection prove to him that he had only been fascinated by her and that she was keenly aware of the fact.
In the background of these attempts at matchmaking, a quiet, intelligent figure smoldered and outwardly behaved coolly to Shirley—Louis Moore, Shirley’s former tutor, now the tutor to the Sympsons’ son. Gradually, apparently casual meetings in the schoolroom began to break through the barrier between Shirley and Louis. Shirley scorned his pride because of his low situation; he, in turn, showed that he could master her willful independence and yet not crush her spirit. Despite the Sympsons’ outrage, the two at last set a date for their wedding.
In the meantime, Robert had been shot and badly wounded while pursuing the leaders of the rioters. During his slow recovery, he was nursed in the home of a friend, and visitors were forbidden to see him. Through the scheming of one of the children in the household, however, Caroline managed to see him in secret several times; at last, Robert awakened to her love for him and discovered the strength of his own love for her. A double wedding was planned at Briarfield church.
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