(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Some readers have found it remarkable that they could read all the novels of Jane Austen and find no clue to the fact that the author had lived through three of the most momentous events in English history: the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars. Austen deals only with private life. While Charlotte Bronte was not alive during the era of the Luddite Riots of 1811-1812, her father was; and, he had fought on the side of the factory owners. Charlotte's knowledge of the period was something less than encyclopedic. But, she reveals a fine sense of the confusion, hard feelings, and disruption of the time. One of her central themes in Shirley is the need to place one's private needs and desires in proper perspective with the "outside" events and conditions.

Robert Gerard Moore becomes so obsessed with his fabric mill and the destructive activities of his workers (or, former workers) that he does not notice the growing ardor of his distant cousin Caroline Helstone, although they are much thrown together. Robert is intent on external problems, indeed legitimate bases of worry (his income could be lost if he cannot deal successfully with the rebellious Yorkshiremen). It takes a near breakdown on Caroline's part and a slow convalescence from a gunshot wound to make Robert (who has misguidedly proposed to Shirley, partly because of her generosity to poor families and because of her eagerness to aid him in his difficulties) perceive Caroline's devotion and to respond to it.

Similarly, Shirley is so dedicated to her "good works" and the disturbances in her community that...

(The entire section is 664 words.)