Review: Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

4 of 5 stars

This one is a bit of a mystery. It seems when a “deep cut” from the Brontes is praised,  I don’t like it but when it is criticized, I seem to like it better. This one I liked, but it was uneven and strangely formatted.

Fun fact; did you know Shirley was once exclusively a man’s name? Well, because of this book, people began naming their daughters Shirley, and the area around Yorkshire where the novel takes place is often referred to as “Shirley country” by the locals. (And yes, I learned that little bit from Wikipedia.)

We do not begin with Shirley. We begin with a rowdy bunch of curates, a boor, a slob and a coward, all injurious to their landladies, getting their grub on, Through this strange beginning, which has little to do with the characters we will meet and hold dear, we find out we’re in the industrial revolution, at the time of the Luddites or machine-breakers. Basically, rapid mechanization of cloth production was putting people out of work. Robert Moore, one of the main characters, is hated in the area as a foreigner, an installer of machinery and ruthless boss. He has a strong character and will run his mill the way he sees fit. The men, for it’s always men who earn the bread, only know that their families are hungry and have no way to earn money to feed them, and angry men across the industrial centers of England are destroying machinery, burning mills and even attempting assassination of mill owners.

As I read this, to be honest, I first accused Charlotte of treading on the familiar path of a novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, my favorite, North and South. One of the main characters even has the surname of Helstone, which is the name of the fictional village the main character Margaret Hale calls home. However, this pre-dated North and South by about 6 years. (Another fun fact: Gaskell wrote a biography of Charlotte after she passed.)

The two novels do have some similar themes, but rather than delving too heavily into the workers plight, which was often a theme of Mrs. Gaskell’s work, this one deals more with the plight of women (not an uncommon theme for either author) especially the plight of the single woman. There are two main characters that are single women. The first is the aforementioned Helstone, Caroline, who lives with her uncle, a parson with very disparaging views on women. Sadly, Caroline has fallen in love with her cousin, Robert Moore, but notices that he is alternately hot and cold towards her. Robert is frustrating – first, that he would show her affection and single her out for attention and then abandon her when he remembers his situation (in debt, with a mill in danger of being burned down by radicals).

We don’t even meet our titular character and other single lady until 30% into the book (yes, thank you, Kindle percentages). She is truly a single, independent woman, of both personality and means. Orphaned, she’s inherited her father’s estate. Wild, brash, lovely and intelligent, Shirley is perhaps the perfect heroine. If she were  man, she would not be as rich as Mr. Darcy, perhaps, but surely the equal of Mr. Bingley. However, she is a woman and if It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, then a single woman in possession of a good fortune must be plagued and harangued by her near relatives to marry because a single woman running her own life and estate is an embarrassment to said relatives. As a modern gal, it really is maddening.

Shirley has a strange woman as her companion – a Mrs. Pryor who was her governess when she was younger. I’m a little proud of myself that I guessed who she was. It must be obvious. Shirley comes into the story as Caroline suffers a decline. Spurned by Robert and heartbroken, it begins to tell on her spirits. She makes friends with Shirley, who in some stories would lift our heroine up… but sadly, Caroline is a bit of a mouse. She exhausts herself, tries to find a salve in being industrious for other’s sakes, but ultimately, her youth and beauty begin to waver, and everyone wonders what is bothering the parson’s daughter.

We do have two love stories that run in here – Shirley has her beaux as well (and is far more sought after than little wilting rose, Caroline.) And each couple has their obstacle. Mainly, men and their stiff-necked pride. In the relationships is where Bronte flexes her themes, on class, the fate of women unprotected, the tyranny that single women can face in their own relatives. Caroline begs that the government would look into something dignified for single women to do. She has no recourse to getting a job and not losing her standing, and yet she wishes to be useful if she cannot be a wife and mother. It goes on a bit in this vein but it is most definitely a novel of ideas. It’s also a novel of near misses. There are three illnesses suffered among our lovers – oh no, there are four! I forgot one near miss. It does feel a little melodramatic, but then you have to realize that in the middle of writing this novel, Bronte lost her brother Branwell and sister Emily. She even quit writing it for awhile and then toward the end, her sister Anne died. It probably affected the decisions she made about her suffering lovers.

Now for my big beefs. My biggest complaint is her mix of characters that make no sense. There are four characters on the edge of the story that are overly detailed and have a crazy mix of personality traits that are no believable. Even Caroline’s uncle was difficult to follow. He clearly hates women and girls, but in public, he is charming and engaging, everyone loves him. Then he goes home and he’s taciturn, he doesn’t even speak to his niece or know what she is up to. When she begins to decline he passes it all off as woman’s foolishness. Then a neighbor, Mrs. Yorke, is a stony, impossible woman. But her children are so outlandishly brazen, rude, and outspoken. It’s just hard to believe these precocious children came from this woman. There are a few more. I just thought she was pushing the boundaries and trying to be quirky but it did not work.

My other exasperation is the style of the book. First, it’s called Shirley, and she doesn’t even show up until the 12th chapter. Then towards the end, the novel just sort of splinters. Whereas we have a third person POV in the beginning, then all of a sudden we are reading Louis Moore’s (Robert Moore’s brother) journals. ??? Then we have a tragedy and when we are concerned with the health of one of our bachelors, Bronte gives us one of Mrs. Yorke’s loutish sons as a POV. Again. ??? She puts one of our love stories in danger… and then all of a sudden she goes into epilogue mode. She begins to tell us about the boor, the slob and the coward who she began the story with. I could give a shit. Are you kidding? You haven’t even ended the story and you’re epiloguing these idiots? So that made me mad.

I won’t spoil it but the ending does come. I did enjoy the book despite its frustrations and if you enjoy the Brontes, I think you will like this.

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