Everyone loves Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, her classic novel about an orphan who suffers at a charity school, then becomes a teacher, then a governess, is engaged to her rich, middle-aged employer, Mr. Rochester – and learns at the altar that he has a mad wife in the attic.
Many readers consider this Gothic novel a romance: in fact, some wish Bronte had written Jane Eyre over and over. But I prefer Charlotte’s searing last novel, Villette. The narrator, Lucy Snowe, is a brilliant, if unattractive, teacher who falls into unrequited love. Bronte includes many Gothic elements, including a specter in the attic, and a drug trip on laudanum, which was administered to her without her knowledge.
For a long time I forgot about Charlotte’s third novel, Shirley. And so this week I have been rereading it with pleasure. In this stunning industrial novel, Bronte examines the industrial revolution from different points-of-view: that of a cotton mill owner, Robert Moore, who cannot remain competitive unless he introduces machines into the mill; unemployed workers, some of whom lost their jobs to machines ; and Caroline Helstone, Robert’s cousin, who believes in mediation and kindness.
Romance also plays a part in this industrial novel: in fact, some critics complain about a “lack of unity.” To me, Bronte’s smooth writing unites the industrial theme with the romance seamlessly. Caroline is in love with Robert, who is ambivalent about his feelings for her; and when Shirley, a feminist heiress who often refers to herself as “a gentleman,” because women have fewer opportunities than men, arrives in the neighborhood, Robert calculates that it might be wiser to marry an heiress for her money.
One of the cleverest aspects of the book is Charlotte’s subtle allusions to her sisters’ novels. She began to write Shirley in the late 1840s, and completed it in 1849 after the deaths of her siblings, Emily, Anne, and Branwell. No wonder she pays homage to Emily’s Wuthering Heights and to Anne’s two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Perhaps she alludes to Branwell, as well. She and Branwell obsessively wrote their Angria stories together.
Charlotte’s style is milder than Emily’s, but she seems in Shirley to rewrite a few of Emily’s scenes from a different angle. For instance, there are vicious dog scenes in both Wuthering Heights and Shirley. In Chapter XV of Shirley, “Mr. Donne’s Exodus,” Shirley’s dog, Tartar, barking and growling, chases two terrified curates up the stairs. This recalls a more savage scene in Chapter 1 of Wuthering Heights, in which Mr. Lockwood, Heathcliff’s tenant, pays a visit to his landlord, only to find himself left alone in a a room with six savage dogs.
Emily’s scenes are intensely savage, but there is also humor. Mr. Lockwood narrates:
Not anxious to come in contact with their fangs, I sat still – but, imagining they would scarcely understand tacit insults, I unfortunately indulged in winking and making faces at the trio, and some turn of my physiognomy so irritated madam, that she suddenly broke into a fury, and leapt on my knees. I flung her back, and hastened to interpose the table between us. This proceeding activated the whole hive. Half-a-dozen four-footed fiends, of various sizes, and ages, issued from hidden dens to the common center….
Charlotte’s take on the dog scene is very different: it is wholly comical. Two impolite, unpopular currates, Malone and Doone, arrive at Shirley’s house and rush up the stairs, chased by her black-muzzled, tawny dog, Tartar. Shirley and Caroline know that his “growl, more terrible than the bark – menacing as thunder…” never lasts long. And so Caroline and her friend Shirley laugh quietly, but are gracious when they save the curates, until more comedy ensues.
Here is a paragraph from the scene of Tartar with the curates.
…a gentleman was fleeing up the oak staircase, making for refuge in the gallery or chambers in hot haste: another was backing fast to the stair-foot, wildly flourishing a knotty stick, at the same time reiterating, “Down! Down! Down!” while the tawny dog bayed, bellowed, howled at him, and a group of servants came bundling from the kitchen. The dog made a spring; the second gentleman turned tail and rushed after his comrade; the first was already safe in a bedroom: he held the door against his fellow – nothing so merciless as terror; – but the other fugitive struggled hard: the door was about to yield to his strength.
In another scene in Shirley, Caroline Helstone, like Catherine Linton, née Earnshaw, in Wuthering Heights, is ill with a fever, and on the verge of death. She calls out deliriously that she must see Robert Moore one more time before she dies.
“Oh, I should like to see him once more before all is over: Heaven might favour me thus far!” she cried. “God grant me a little comfort before I die!” was her humble petition.
There is nothing humble in Volume II, Chapter 1, of Wuthering Heights in Catherine’s brief clandestine reunion with her first love and soulmate, Heathcliff. On her deathbed, she says that Heathcliff has killed her, and thrived on it.
“I wish I could hold you,” she continued, briefly, “till we were both dead! I shouldn’t care what you suffered. I care nothing for your sufferings. Why shouldn’t you suffer? I do! W ill you forget me – will you be happy when I am in the earth? Will you say twenty years hence, ‘That’s the grave of Catherine Earnshaw. I loved her long ago, and was wretched to lose her; but it is past – my children are dearer than she was, and, at death, I will not rejoice that I was going to her, I shall be sorry to lose them?’ Will you say so, Heathcliff?”
Passion kills Catherine in Wuthering Heights, but Caroline Helstone recovers, due to the bonding of women, one in particular. There is no female bonding in Wuthering Heights. Emily’s women rarely interact with one another.
Charlotte also alludes to Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey: Shirley’s governess is named Agnes – though Agnes Pryor is a middle-aged Agnes Grey. As a young woman, Agnes Pryor suffered like Agnes Grey as she tried to govern her charges; and she was desperately lonely, living in isolation from the adults of the family.
Now Agnes Pryor is a widow with a secret: we learn some of the nightmarish details of her marriage,though she is too discreet to reveal much. But they are not unlike the sufferings of Helen Graham in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and alcohol is implied, if not specifically mentioned.
Of course Anne wrote a happy ending to Agnes Grey. Grey married a gentle clergyman, and presumably lived with him happily ever. We want her to be happy, but was the curate always kind? Did something Gothic happen? People change. They have secrets, like Mr. Rochester. We hope Agnes Grey found bliss. We are not entirely sanguine. But that’s because I’ve also been reading Austen’s Northanger Abbey, in which Catherine Morland adores Gothic novels and puts a Gothic spin on everything!