I haven’t read The Professor or Villette yet, so I can’t say for sure, but it seems as if with Shirley, Charlotte Bronte was trying something a little more ambitious with what would be her final novel. She’s not always successful, but her attempt is interesting.
Bronte’s novel is a historical one, set about 30 years earlier, when the Luddite riots were doing a great deal to cause social unrest in England, and Napoleon was stirring things up abroad. Robert Gerard Moore has moved from France back to Yorkshire, where his father was from, determined to remake the family fortune through trade. He is equally determined that it shall be accomplished through the use of new machinery. This decision is unpopular with the working people of the village, who have been thrown out of work by such developments as well as too many bad harvests.
Robert is a strong and outspoken man of many opinions. He’s also quite good-looking and young “not yet thirty”. Most of the time, thankfully, Bronte’s got him speaking in English, so he’s both intelligible and intelligent. Think Mr. Rochester, and you’ll have a good picture of Robert Gerard Moore. When he’s present in the pages of the novel, he makes it all quite interesting. Although he seems hard and uncaring to the workingmen, he’s got a sensitive side that he likes to keep on the down-low. Constant threats are being made on his life, so readers worry about him and his safety.
So with such a terrific introductory character, who does Bronte turn to and focus on the most? Caroline Helstone, the niece of the rector, is an orphan of sorts and in love with her cousin by marriage, the abovementioned Robert Moore. He loves her as well, but they’re both too well-bred to discuss their feelings. Plus, Robert feels as if love must stay on the back-burner until his financial woes are straightened out.
Anyone with half an eye can see that he’s distracted, but Caroline, who’s got a terrible case of low self-esteem, tortures herself daily, wondering if Robert loves her or not. Is she going to die an old maid? She won’t marry anyone if she can’t have Robert. She worries about it for chapters and chapters AND chapters and “her cheek becomes thin and pale”.
On some level, Caroline realizes that she’s driving herself crazy, and decides that she’d like to go away and become a governess. Her uncle nixes the plan, and about that time, he decides that Caroline can’t hang out with the Moores any more because he doesn’t like Robert’s politics. So Caroline’s cheek gets paler and thinner.
About this time, the owner of a neighboring estate comes home to live, and Caroline is summoned by her uncle to go with him and be neighborly. It’s 21-year-old Shirley Keeldar, the title character, and she’s the antithesis of Caroline: plucky, confident and rich. She’s highly intelligent and doesn’t really care much for polite society, but can charmingly work with it if she’s absolutely forced to. At this time, Shirley was a man’s name, (the popularity of this novel caused it to gain favor as a woman’s name) and she often has fun with this fact and will cheekily ask the men she’s dealing with to refer to her as “Captain Keeldar.”
Shirley and Caroline become fast friends, but when Shirley lends Robert a large chunk of money to help him through his financial bind, Caroline bleakly assumes that the two will end up marrying. This causes her cheek, well, you know.
While Shirley is off enjoying herself on holiday, Bronte leaves us with Caroline who falls into bed sick for months, and no one (in the novel) is sure which side of the pearly gates she’ll end up on. She would probably perk up if Robert visited her sickbed, but he’s off in London, trying to make money. Caroline is forcibly pulled back from death’s door by Mrs. Pryor, Shirley’s kind ex-governess and now her companion. Mrs. Pryor accomplishes this fact by revealing a deep secret to Caroline. She’s still abed for chapters, but it works; she lives to fret on. She revives her governess scheme, but Mrs. Pryor tells her some personal governess-in-hell stories that switch her off the subject for good.
When Shirley returns from holiday, Shirley’s uncle is determined to see her married. After all, a woman can’t run an estate by herself! He starts running rich suitors by her, and Shirley turns them down one by one, with well-reasoned arguments that have her uncle progressively purple with rage. He’s convinced that left to her own devices, she’ll become an old maid (which doesn’t seem to bother Shirley in the least) or make a mesalliance (she’s not thinking of it, but since it bugs her uncle, she devils him with the possibility). Bronte is really funny and sharp in this part of the novel, which is decidedly feminist.
Uncle brings his whole family and moves in with Shirley so he can keep an eye on her till she’s safely to the altar, whenever that may be. Along with the family comes Louis Moore, who tutors Shirley’s cousin, Henry. Louis is also Robert Moore’s brother. The first couple of conversations between Louis and Shirley are a trifle barbed. You know what that means. It means that we’re up to page 500-something, and Charlotte Bronte’s got to work like the devil to establish why Louis is worthy of Shirley and get the two of them from slinging intellectual insults to falling in love.
Luckily, Shirley is bitten by a possibly mad dog. (She’s really a cool customer; she walks herself with her bleeding arm into the laundry where the maids have been ironing, and when no one’s looking, picks up a little iron and cauterizes the wound with nary a whimper.) She says nothing to anyone about the incident. Of course, she worries that the dog was rabid, and that she, Shirley, might…and yes, her cheek grows thin and pale.
Louis notices that cheek, pries the facts out of her, and reassures her that the dog was most likely not mad, and then they begin to be friends and confidants. Actually, Louis was also Shirley’s tutor in the past, and she finds an essay of hers that he saved in his portable desk alllll those years! (The reader is treated to this lengthy essay verbatim. I find it difficult to believe that even the most ardent admirers of Charlotte Bronte’s work wouldn’t be nodding off or in open revolt at this juncture.)
But wait! Robert’s back from London! Uh-oh! Who’s that Luddite with a gun? Is Caroline going to visit Robert’s sickbed?
Written during and after Emily, Anne, and Branwell Bronte died, the portraits of the two main characters, Shirley and Caroline, are based on Emily and Anne, which gives the book an added dimmension of literary excitement. Bronte describes Shirley’s personality in loving and meticulous detail, and it’s almost as effective as seeing an author interviewed on Book Talk. The reader can see the personality behind a book like Wuthering Heights. I don’t know for sure, but Louis is probably a cleaned-up version of Branwell. I’m basing that opinion on the fact that Branwell worked as a tutor, like the fictional Louis.
My problems with Shirley are:
1. Shirley shows up too late for a title character. And there’s no foreshadowing or mention of her. She’s dropped into the novel with an almost audible thud.
2. Louis shows up waaay too late as well, and you can see strain as Charlotte Bronte struggles against time to make the reader love him. Because of this rushed awkwardness, I could never really warm up to him; he was pushed towards the reader the way Shirley’s suitors were pushed at her by her uncle.
3. Caroline gets too much “air time”. She’s lovely and good, but passive and boring. (I hope Charlotte Bronte wasn’t exactly accurate with this portrayal; I’d hate to think Anne Bronte was that much of a snooze!)
4. The lapses into French were annoying, but that’s more of a problem with my edition than a gripe with Bronte.
5. Bronte presents her readers with exciting social unrest then drops it for long periods of time in favor of watching Caroline’s cheek and listening to her sighs.
I wonder if this novel is taught in women’s literature classes. It would be great for students to study a heroine who’s really got her shit together, instead of a heroine who is driven mad by yellow wallpaper or a heroine who is trying to decide to return to boring hubby or take a permanent dip in the ocean.
Regarding my Bronte challenge: Three more to go! Whoo!