Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1090
Shirley is a complex novel. It has been variously classified as a comedy of manners, a historical romance, and a “condition of England” novel, focusing on social situations during that time. Originally written in three volumes, it includes two love stories, social history, and humor. Charlotte Brontë wrote Shirley after Jane Eyre (1847), at a time when she experienced the devastating losses of her brother Branwell and both her sisters, Emily and Anne. Following the success of Jane Eyre, Brontë struggled to complete Shirley, her third novel. She described writing the novel as her salvation, but the publication was not a success. Both readers and reviewers were disappointed with the novel. This attitude has persevered over the years. Part of the problem relates to the author’s use of point of view. Unlike the earlier Jane Eyre and the later Villette (1853), Shirley is narrated in the third person. There is no sense of one person’s ideas and reflections driving and unifying the story. The novel also includes a wealth of material concerning the times in England, both political issues and the impact of the Industrial Revolution on local communities. Consequently, rather than focusing on individuals, the novel shows how individuals are influenced by social forces.
The novel’s structure also resists unity. Shirley begins with a satiric portrayal of three curates, who reappear throughout the narrative. The second chapter introduces a main character, Robert Moore, but chapters 3 and 4 concern Mr. Yorke, who is not a major character. It is not until chapter 6 that Caroline Helstone, a heroine, is introduced. The title character, a second heroine, is introduced in chapter 11, nearly one-third of the way through the novel and long after readers have become attached to Caroline. Shirley’s love interest, Louis Moore, is not introduced until chapter 26 of the thirty-seven-chapter novel.
The novel includes a multitude of characters, who can be grouped into categories: churchmen, including the curates and their pastors; “old maids” and unmarried women; workers and the unemployed; those of no class in society, such as a governess and tutor; and landowners and businessmen. With the curates and their pastors, Brontë provides a commentary on a church that is basically insensible to the needs of the people. With the exception of Mr. Hall, Christianity appears absent from this Christian community. Generally, the male characters are seen as failures in their personal and professional relationships. Robert and Louis Moore, the two major male characters, are flawed. Robert is uncaring toward his workers and is blind to what constitutes true love; Louis exhibits an excessive pride in his poverty that will not allow him to love. The women characters, particularly those who are unmarried, are represented in a more positive light.
Unmarried women and their place in society is a major issue in the novel that is generally developed through the two heroines. Caroline and Shirley are complementary in more than their looks. The blonde Caroline is powerless; she is a dependent, duty-bound to her uncle, somewhat passive, and resigned to her “place” in society. The dark-haired Shirley is independent, empowered by her wealth, and bound to no one. Shirley is active and eager to embrace a traditionally masculine role in England’s patriarchal society. With her name (which was then a male name) and her wealth, she jokes about being Captain Keedlar, fighting for her rights.
The two heroines become close friends, and they discover their similarities. Both believe that a woman can be more than an ornament in a man’s home. When Robert’s mill is threatened by the rioters, Caroline and Shirley sneak out of the house to help, and Shirley brings a pistol. Both women are in love, and neither can speak of her love publicly: Caroline cannot tell anyone of her love for Robert because she believes he does not love her as a result of her lack of fortune. Shirley cannot speak of her love for Louis because he is her cousin’s tutor and, therefore, not a suitable match. However, both women work within the existing patriarchal system to get what they want.
The book is set in Brontë’s home county of Yorkshire and has been described as a regional novel. The activities of small villages and their people and customs are portrayed against the background of increasing poverty and fear as new machines put people out of work. The attack on Robert’s mill resembles actual attacks by Luddites in the newly developing mill towns. The conflict in England between the Liberals and the Tories is also portrayed among the novel’s characters, such as Mr. Yorke (a Liberal who opposes the Church of England) and Reverend Helstone (a Tory churchman). The argument between Yorke and Helstone is enhanced by the larger issue of Napoleon’s activities in Europe.
What is central to the novel is “the woman question”: What is the position of women in a man’s world? Victorians were concerned with single women. Those who did not marry usually remained dependent on their fathers or other male relatives, in a society whose economy was structured to distribute wealth through patriarchal familial structures. Unmarried women had few opportunities to be self-supporting; one was to become a governess. Brontë had described the role and fate of a governess in Jane Eyre.
In Shirley, Caroline wishes to be free of her uncle and to make her own way in the world. All she can expect, since she does not believe she will marry, is to become a governess, a household dependent wedged between the servant class and the family that employs her. She is both realistic and rebellious, not wanting to continue her dependence on her uncaring uncle, who dismisses her concerns for her future. When Caroline is told to go amuse herself, she caustically remarks to herself, “What with? My doll?” Caroline and the narrator, in a narrative aside, both speak of the necessity for single women to have something constructive to do with their lives. Shirley, because of her wealth, does not have to conform to the usual role for women, to marry, but she does. Despite her Uncle Sympson’s insistence, she spurns a number of “suitable” men and, unlike many women, marries for love. Some critics have said that Shirley resigns her role as a strong woman when she chooses Louis, someone who can master her, but Shirley does not relinquish her strength or simply accept patriarchal norms. She convinces Louis to marry her, and her playfulness disguises an iron hand that will guide their future.