Critical Evaluation (Masterplots: Revised Category Edition)

(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

During 1848 and 1849 while Charlotte Brontë was writing SHIRLEY, her sisters Emily and Anne and her brother Branwell all died. Since her two older sisters and her mother had died earlier, Charlotte, thirty-three years old and unmarried, was left to care for her father. Some evidence suggests that these sad experiences made her add a happy ending to SHIRLEY. Her original plan called for Caroline to become an old maid.

In this novel, as in JANE EYRE, which it followed, Brontë showed her keen interest in the inner selves of her characters. Here she has concerned herself principally with two contrasting characters, Shirley Keeldar and Caroline Helstone, one spirited and independent, the other shy and delicate. Her divided interest between these two characters, however, is the main cause of the novel’s structural disunity. Shirley, whom the reader expects to be the protagonist, is not introduced until nearly one third of the book is completed, and thereafter the writer shuttles back and forth between the two characters, oblivious of integration; concern with the labor problems of the early nineteenth century, obviously not the author’s forte, also detracts from the structural unity. The plot is too contrived, leaning heavily on unrealistic turns, such as the revelation that Mrs. Pryor is Caroline’s mother and Robert’s sudden declaration of love for Caroline. Emotion often degenerates into sentimentality; but there are...

(The entire section is 514 words.)