Critical Evaluation (Masterplots)
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....
(The entire section is 1090 words.)