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Characters Discussed

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Shirley Keeldar

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 operates is rented from Shirley Keeldar. Robert Moore is a man with two sides to his nature. He is a hard-headed businessman for whom his mill and financial success are paramount. Under the domination of this side of his character, he battles ruthlessly with unemployed workers to try to prevent modernization of his factory. Politically, he opposes the embargo of British ports caused by the Napoleonic wars. Once removed from the scene of business and politics, however, he becomes a different man, loving, thoughtful, and kind. Influenced by the harder side of his character, he tries to marry Shirley Keeldar, but she refuses his suit because she realizes that he is more interested in her wealth than in her. Later, he woos and marries Caroline Helstone, whom he truly loves.

Caroline Helstone

Caroline Helstone, a distant cousin of Louis and Robert Moore. She is reared by a widowed uncle, the rector of the parish, who treats her as kindly as his austere nature allows. Caroline, a beautiful, sweet, and reticent young woman whom everyone likes, becomes Shirley Keeldar’s close friend. In love with Robert Moore, she keeps her love to herself when she thinks that Robert Moore and Shirley are in love, for she believes a match with Shirley would be better for her beloved. Eventually, Moore and Caroline discover their love for each other and are married on the same day as Shirley and Louis Moore.

Mr. Helstone

Mr. Helstone, the rector of Briarfield parish, Caroline’s uncle. He is a clergyman who would have been better fitted for a career as a military officer. In the conflicts between the workers and the mill owners, he is a great help to the manufacturers, even to participation in a pitched battle. He is liberal with his money to his niece, but he is not capable of giving her warmth and understanding.

Mr. Malone

Mr. Malone, the bumptuous Irish curate to Mr. Helstone.

Mrs. Pryor

Mrs. Pryor, Shirley Keeldar’s companion and former governess, a quiet, reticent woman of charm and fading beauty. She takes a great liking to Caroline Helstone and becomes her close friend. After nursing Caroline through a serious illness, she reveals herself as Mrs. James Helstone, Caroline’s mother and the rector’s sister-in-law. She had changed her name because she feared that her late husband, then living, would find her and force her to live with him under desperate circumstances.

Sir Philip Nunnely

Sir Philip Nunnely, a young peer given to writing bad poetry. He falls in love with Shirley Keeldar but his suit is rejected.

Mr. Sympson

Mr. Sympson, Shirley Keeldar’s uncle and former guardian. He is a weak but tyrannical man who takes his family to Fieldhead in hopes of dominating Shirley, even though she is of age and can make her own decisions. He tries to force Shirley to accept each of several suitors in turn and is horrified when she announces her love for Louis Moore. Sympson is ejected by Moore for insulting his former ward.

Mrs. Sympson

Mrs. Sympson, his patient, well-bred wife.

Henry Sympson

Henry Sympson, their only son, who is crippled. He is Louis Moore’s pupil.

The Misses Sympson

The Misses Sympson, their prim and proper daughters, older than Henry.

Hortense Moore

Hortense Moore, the sister of Louis and Robert Moore. She keeps house for Robert during his bachelorhood. More Belgian than English, she is unhappy in Yorkshire.

Michael Hartley

Michael Hartley, a crazed and drunken millworker who shoots Robert Moore from ambush and seriously endangers his victim’s life. Himself a victim of drink, Hartley dies a few months after the shooting.

Miss Mary Ann Ainley

Miss Mary Ann Ainley and

Miss Margaret Hall

Miss Margaret Hall, two spinsters who perform deeds of charity among the poor of Briarfield parish. Shirley Keeldar gives them three hundred pounds to distribute among the needy unemployed.

Literary Techniques

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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 to the present tense. Near the close of the plot, as the weddings and the victory over Napoleon are about to be announced, the paragraph begins, "It is August: the bells clash out again, not only through Yorkshire but through England . . . ." Many dramatic moments are heightened this way.

Finally, in Shirley, there is more emphasis on setting than in Bronte's other novels. Yorkshire stands for all of England in the large historical context. The people, their language and attitudes, however, are local. Here, Bronte is on safer ground. She knew such people well; and, her presentations of the landscapes are impressive and often quite detailed: She notes the weather and its effect on greenery; the seasons are accurately reflected in the Yorkshire countryside (the crocus of spring, peeping "green as emerald, from the earth"), and the somber mood of the events is accompanied by moody descriptions of surrounding details: "Discord, broken loose in the night from control, had beaten the ground with his stamping hoofs, and left it waste and pulverized. The mill yawned all ruinous with unglazed frames . . . ." The passage (after the workers' riot the night before) continues, showing further ruination, blood, and wounded and dead men. Since this is considered one of the very first regional novels in English, this feature is significant.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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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?

4. As always, attention should be paid to Bronte's writing style. In this case, do the figures of speech (for instance, the references to Shirley as a "leopard") advance and deepen the plot and the characterization, or are they distractions?

5. As with Bronte's other works, the matter of coincidence, the occasionally excessive dependence on it, has been raised (as it has with Dickens and Hardy). Is there any example of a coincidental event or circumstance (such as Mrs. Pryor's being Caroline's mother) that is too far-fetched to be accepted in a realistic novel?

6. Are the varying traits of Shirley Keeldar set forth in a credible manner? Are her occasional vanity and frequent courage fairly portrayed? Is she a well-realized literary creation?

7. Does the reader gain a lively sense of the Yorkshire setting of Shirley? Are there enough localized details to inspire a sense of time and place? Does the accent of lower-class Yorkshire characters present a problem to the modern reader?

Social Concerns

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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 the woman learn in silence, with all subjection." This last word is a key to Bronte's (and Shirley Keeldar's) refusal to accept the social and economic condition of women, one in which a well-brought up young lady without a fortune, had but two choices of vocation, teaching and being a governess (both of which Bronte experienced, with no delight in either).

So, the unsettled and often corrupt society that is involved in what often becomes violent opposition (shown well in this novel) also is corrupt in its treatment of women. Since the heroine, Miss Keeldar, is an heiress, she only perceives the problems of women through observation; however, she possesses a lively awareness of the injustice done to her sisters. As Bronte once remarked, Shirley is what her own sister Emily might have been with money and good health.

Literary Precedents

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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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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 York: Palgrave, 2005. Describes how Brontë uses disease and illness as a metaphor for issues of class and gender.

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