I came to Shirley by Charlotte Bronte with low expectations. I had read a few reviews and none were particularly complimentary. It was an uneven novel, they said. Its beginning, middle and end were not meant to fit well together. On top of that it was meant to be Charlotte Bronte’s least popular work and, interestingly I found, it has never been turned into a movie.
So after continually shuffling it to the bottom of my reading pile it was with some trepidation that I finally picked up Shirley and began reading. Immediately I was struck by the ironic tone and the clearly satirical picture Charlotte painted of the curates gathered in Mr Donne’s lodgings. Against this was a background of social change and unrest as mill workers were being replaced by machinery. Then we have the unlikely (and unrequited) romance between Miss Caroline Helstone and her cousin Robert Moore. Robert—the mill owner—has his eyes more on the business than on his young cousin so he misses the obvious cues. Typically for a Charlotte Bronte heroine—not to mention the expectations of a young woman in the 1800s—Caroline remains silent about her love for Robert and waits patiently for him to make her an offer. That Robert is more interested in his business is Charlotte’s satirical comment on the patriarchal views of men’s and women’s social roles—the woman belonging in the domestic sphere while men are more concerned with more worldly affairs. After setting up this scenario Charlotte brings Shirley Keeldar into the story. Shirley completely breaks all the rules of patriarchy—she is an independent and rich young woman who continually scorns the many offers of marriage she receives. On top of that it is Shirley that provides the financial rescue for Robert Moore’s mill. It is Shirley that encourages Caroline to sneak out at night and help with the fight against the rioters. It is Shirley that does everything that would normally be expected of a male character is a Victorian novel.
So what did I think of this novel? Of course I loved it. It hurt knowing that Charlotte Bronte wrote this novel over the period that she lost her sisters and brother. I know she struggled at times to finish the novel with what I suspect was a severe bout of depression. But she wrote the novel she wanted to prove that women could write social and satirical novels. When viewed in this way I think it is a great novel.