“Shirley” by Charlotte Bronte: Romance and the Industrial Revolution

Writers’ museums are enjoyable, yet boring. I considered traveling from London to Haworth, The Bronte Parsonage Museum, but it seemed too complicated, and would probably be  too touristy anyway.  Even the Dickens Museum is too touristy.  There are do’s and don’ts:  don’t linger in Dickens’ dining room, because you will not want to see plate settings labeled John Forster and Thackeray.  It is also, if I remember correctly, a  talking dining room, with a loop of The Pickwick Papers set on “forever.”  Do go upstairs and look at Dickens’s desk, specially designed for his readings.  I love the upper floors of the Dickens museum
 

I fear that Haworth’s dining room might recite Jane Eyre.  In fact, the only writers’ museums I can honestly recommend are in Nebraska:  Willa Cather’s in Red Cloud and Bess Streeter Aldrich’s in Elmwood.

The Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, West Yorkshire


Charlotte Bronte is, of course,  best known for Jane Eyre and Villette, both masterpieces, while her novel, Shirley, which she finished in 1849, after the deaths of her siblings Branwell, Emily and Anne, is unfairly overlooked. 

Shirley is an entertaining, well-written, serious book, if wildly uneven.  One gets the feeling that the mourning Charlotte lost her sense of form when she went back to writing Shirley.  It begins as an industrial novel, set in Yorkshire, centered on the clash between workers and manufacturers in 1811.  But soon it turns into a romance, and a fascinating study of women’s depression.

Bronte begins by introducing us to a a comic trio of  curates.

Of late years, an abundant shower of curates has fallen upon the north of England: they lie very thick on the hills; every parish has one or more of them; they are young enough to be very active, and ought to be doing a great deal of good.  

And then we meet Mr. Helstone, a well-respected, crusty clergyman, who interrupts the curates’ party, and commands Malone, his Irish curate, to accompany him to Robert Moore’s mill.  Moore expects trouble: he has ordered new machinery to be delivered. And many of his out-of-work employees, whom he has fired because of a trade embargo during the Napoleonic Wars, are militant.  And indeed there is violence:  the wagons are stopped and the machinery broken.

I am fond of Victorian novels about industrial change:  I love Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, a masterpiece, and Mary Barton.  In fact, Charlotte was worried when Mary Barton was published before Shirley, in case it affected sales and reviews.

But never mind:  Shirley is not entirely an industrial novel.   Bronte abruptly changes tack  and focuses on the heroine, Caroline Helstone, an intelligent young woman who has been brought up by her unaffectionate uncle, Mr. Helstone.  He wrecks Caroline’s happiness when he forbids her to spend time with  Hortense Moore, Robert Moore’s sister, who is teaching her French, mathematics, and English literature.  The Moores are Caroline’s Belgian cousins. Mr. Helstone fears that Robert may want to marry Caroline, for the little money she has.  (Mr. Helstone miscalculates:  there is not enough money for cold, calculating -yet supposedly lovable- Robert.)

Caroline in solitude changes overnight from a charming, lively woman into a depressed, mousy, miserable girl.  Caroline is completely alone, so she follows a schedule, studying, doing good works, and exercising every day.  She tells her uncle she would like to go away find a position as a governess.  He is angry, because of class reasons:  Caroline will never have to work, he says, and he will not allow it.  


But what is Caroline to do in the village?


We do not meet the heiress, Shirley Keeldar, until page 203 (the Everyman’s Libray edition).  And so I cannot seriously regard Shirley as the heroine and think the title is a misnomer. The heroine is Caroline, and that should be the title.

But Shirley’s move to Fieldhead saves Caroline from despair. The two become best friends, yet Caroline still longs to go away and work.  And, because she pines for Robert (and has no work) she becomes very ill and falls into a terrible depression. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this odd book.  Yes, it rambles, but Charlotte Bronte is brilliant, witty, and is one of the best – perhaps the best – writers of the 19th century. 

I don’t know the history or politics, but Bronte takes the side of the mill owners, because they cannot compete internationally unless they mechanize; yet she is fair to the unemployed mill workers and their starving families on a personal level. 

Author: Kat

I am an avid reader. The book blog is the perfect forum for bookish musings. Enjoy!

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