Many readers were no doubt first introduced to the Bronte sisters through either Emily Bronte’s novel, Wuthering Heights, or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I myself was no exception, and it is easy to see why these two iconic books have shaped what people think of when they think of a quintessential “Bronte novel,” since both conjure up images of windswept moors and thwarted lovers. (These books in particular are also by far the most popular because Anne’s works in years past were little read, and are only in the last decade or so gaining popularity.) Shirley then, at first glance, seems a different creature entirely. More akin to a smaller scale Middlemarch, Shirley seems to have more in common with Elliot’s work than what many people think of as being standard “Bronte fare.” But despite it’s differences, Shirley has much to recommend it and much to ponder, and people who pass it over are missing a great deal. Far from being merely another obscure, Victorian novel, a lesser work likely to be found in the footnotes of a scholarly essay, but nowhere else, Shirley in contrast, is quite compulsively readable. But don’t be fooled by it’s quaintness. In many ways this novel bears some of Charlotte’s most revolutionary writing. In the space of a modest, slim, volume, she manages to address the entire institution of marriage, the nature of romantic love, relationships between the sexes, classicism, politics, religion, and the plight of women and their limited options in society. There is also much here to investigate that may be partially at least based on real facts and personages.
It is cited by some that the titular character was based off of Emily Bronte, which would make sense, since during the writing of this novel Charlotte buried not only her, but her youngest sister, Anne, as well within the space of two years. It is easy enough then to draw a similar conclusion that Caroline, with her shy, highly-principled sweetness, would be based on Anne, and that basing characters off of her and Emily was Charlotte’s way of paying loving tribute to her departed sisters. But there are two other possible models that could have served for both of her principle female characters. Some have suggested that Shirley may have not been based on Emily, but on Anne Lister, a near neighbor of the Brontes who was well known for being both a notable land-owner and heiress, (like Shirley in the novel), but was also an infamous womanizer. There is no direct evidence that any of the Brontes ever met Anne Lister, but she was well-known in the area and her family home, Shibden Hall, was not far from Haworth, where they grew up. Her home is also believed to have inspired the description of the Earnshaw home in Emily’s novel, Wuthering Heights, so it doesn’t seem too improbable to believe that she may have inspired more than one sister. If perhaps Caroline, rather than being a depiction of Anne, is in fact supposed to represent Anne Lister’s lover, Ann Walker, who also shared characteristics in common with Charlotte’s sister, then it may point to an entirely different reading of Shirley. It’s not one that is entirely out of the realm of possibility though, since Charlotte challenges the status quo multiple times in her story.
What perhaps is most interesting is how many of the characters feel about marriage. An inversion of the typical Victorian storyline in which marriage is usually upheld and regarded as the one true aim and achievement of a woman’s life, Caroline, the first of our heroines we are introduced to, in contrast, is actively discouraged by multiple people, (including her own uncle), from pursuing marriage. In fact, many of the examples of marriage we are presented in the book aren’t overly flattering at best and outright disappointing and abusive at worst. Caroline’s own mother, who she has not seen since she was a child, suffered cruelly at the hands of her drunken husband, and Mr. Yorke never married the woman who he believed was his one true love, while she in turn married another man who was unable to make her happy.
Charlotte also highlights the inherent disadvantage women suffered under from being under-educated, and how many women who were well-to-do were expected to do nothing at all with their time and talents and were not allowed or encouraged to pursue intellectual pursuits the way their male counterparts were. Caroline wants more from her life, but she is expected to only expend energy on planning church teas and ensuring her embroidery is up to snuff. This in turn leads her to become resentful and depressed. Charlotte also shows us through Caroline’s attempts to make friends with the poorer women of the town, what became of many women who never married and had little or no income, and how spinsterhood, as a state of being, was regarded by the larger society. Women who never married were often treated as inherently “unlucky” to belong to such an under-valued class of personages and were often viewed with pity or scorn, and it isn’t until Caroline bothers to get to know many of these women that she learns to recognize their humanity that so many people overlook. Charlotte then in this novel takes a very radical position by asserting women’s personhood; she insists on their right to be regarded as separate entities of worth, whether they are married or not, a belief that, though is of course accepted today, was still not widely embraced in her own time.
In addition to Caroline, the reader is also given Shirley, a female character even more than usually liberated for a Victorian heroine. Far from being dependent and passive, Shirley is sparklingly effervescent, self-sufficient, and lively. But that is far from all that makes her a curious character. The reader learns upon introduction to her that she was given the name of “Shirley” because her parents had no son, and then is given a description of her personality using decidedly masculine adjectives. None of the other female characters in the book are described using this type of language, lending her a certain androgynous feel. Caroline’s assets, in contrast, are couched only in the most feminine of terms. Shirley is then, quite literally, set apart, not just by her wealth, but also by her demeanor. It is this portrayal of her that lends further credence to the theory that Charlotte was, at least in part, inspired by Anne Lister, and possibly the rumors she’d heard about her and her behavior that led people to give her the nickname “Gentleman Jack.” It is also difficult to ignore the heavily coded “romantic” scenes that occur between Shirley and Caroline, though the line between friendship and more in novels from this era can get decidedly blurry; mainly because the tradition of “romantic friendships,” not necessarily erotic, but still loving relationships between friends of the same sex, were quite commonplace. It is difficult therefore to speak on any of these matters conclusively, but the possibility to interpret the novel in this way is not out of the question.
But though all this content might make the book sound extremely volatile or expostulatory, it is often deceivingly sedate. Numerous pages are dedicated to lauding the charms of Yorkshire life: everything from church teas to pastoral descriptions of the landscape, and the beauty of the inhabitants…the middle-class ones at least. It is sections like these which make the novel appear rife with contradictions. Is Charlotte truly against marriage? It would appear not, despite there being ample evidence to the contrary presented, since both of her heroines do marry at the end of the story. And though she seemingly decries the inequality that existed in most marriages, the marriages both of her characters eventually make muddy the waters, since neither of the men they choose could be described as “modern” in the sense that they view their wives as truly their equals. This begs the question then as to whether Charlotte truly believed that men and women were capable of attaining relationships based on equality, or if her in some ways unsatisfying ending simply reflected the social mores she thought the general reading public subscribed to. It is also difficult to tease out her thoughts on class issues. On the one hand, as of many books of this time, the middle-class and well-to-do are exalted. Both of the heroines come from families of means, and neither must work for a living. Both are also conventionally attractive and beloved universally by all who know them. Though they aren’t portrayed as being faultless, they are held in high esteem. But Charlotte also does critique the way many of the middle-class and wealthy families treated their governesses, using Mrs. Pryor’s story as a means of bringing light to the injustices they suffered, which seems to show that she did have sympathy for the plight of the less fortunate. (Though of course it can’t be overlooked that her vitriol directed against the mistreatment of governesses was personal, since she and her sister experienced them first-hand.) In the end, her ultimate conclusion on class seems to be similar to the one held by Charles Dickens. He didn’t necessarily believe in the dissolution of class boundaries, but he did believe in being charitable, a virtue which Charlotte Bronte also clearly espoused, since it is because of Shirley’s generosity to her tenants that she is so beloved.
Perhaps the answer to these seeming contradictions can be found in Charlotte’s great fear of exciting scandal, something she would have been familiar with since she and her sisters’ earlier novels were not well received, with the exception of Jane Eyre, which was given mixed reviews due to Jane’s actions at the end of the novel. Maybe this lead to her conceding in this novel to tradition so as to not ruffle any feathers. Charlotte, more than a male novelist of the time, had to be careful not to push the envelope too far, and since her book was already filled with statements about things people may not have agreed with, maybe she felt that by tying up the ending in a neat way she would avoid censure, and the risk of being censored. All of this only proves all the more I believe that Shirley is a wondrously complex novel that deserves far more attention than it receives. If you love any of the Brontes’ other work you will be sure to enjoy it.