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Following the tremendously popular success of Jane Eyre, which earned her lifelong notoriety as a moral revolutionary, Charlotte Brontë vowed to write a sweeping social chronicle that focused on "something real and unromantic as Monday morning." Set in the industrializing England of the Napoleonic wars and Luddite revolts of 1811-12, Shirley (1849) is the story of two contrasting heroines. One is the shy Caroline Helstone, who is trapped in the oppressive atmosphere of a Yorkshire rectory and whose bare life symbolizes the plight of single women in the nineteenth century. The other is the vivacious Shirley Keeldar, who inherits a local estate and whose wealth liberates her from convention.

I recommend this book to young women and their mothers, as well as their brothers and fathers. It could well be a text in a top university business core curriculum as in touches on issues of roles and attitudes in creating plans to be fulfilled and communities to be created in conditions of turmoil caused by technology, international conflict, capital availability, government fiat, market instability, and labor displacement.--Submitted by Anonymous.

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Recent Forum Posts on Shirley

Shirley and the Odd Women

Overall, I did not think it was a very good book, but it did have some interesting bits. The best bit was some feminism in chapter 22, Two Lives. This is supposedly one of the heroines, Carolina Hellstone, thinking, but clearly it is Charlotte Brontė herself: Nobody,' she went on – 'nobody in particular is to blame, that I can see, for the state in which things are; and I cannot tell, however much I puzzle over it, how they are to be altered for the better; but I feel there is something wrong somewhere. I believe single women should have something more to do – better chances of interesting and profitable occupation than they possess now. And when I speak thus, I have no impression that I displease God by my words, that I am either impious or impatient, irreligious or sacrilegious. My consolation is, indeed, that God hears many a groan, and compassionates much grief which man stops his ears against, or frowns on with impotent contempt. I say impotent, for that I observe that to such grievances as society cannot readily cure, it usually forbids utterance, on pain of its scorn: this scorn being only a tinselled cloak to its deformed weakness. People here have to be reminded of ills they are unable or unwilling to remedy: such reminder, in forcing on them a sense of their own incapacity, or a more painful sense of obligation to make some unpleasant effort, troubles their ease and shakes their self-complacency. Old maids, like the houseless and unemployed poor, should not ask for a place and an occupation in the world: the demand disturbs the happy and rich: it disturbs parents. Look at the numerous families of girls in this neighbourhood: the Armitages, the Birtwhistles, the Sykes. The brothers of these girls are every one in business or in professions: they have something to do: their sisters have no earthly employment, but household work and sewing; no earthly pleasure, but an unprofitable visiting, and no hope in their life to come, of anything better. This stagnant state of things makes them decline in health: they are never well; and their minds and views shrink to wondrous narrowness. The great wish – the sole aim of every one of them is to be married, but the majority will never marry: they will die as they now live. They scheme, they plot, they dress to ensnare husbands. The gentlemen turn them into ridicule: they don't want them; they hold them cheap: they say – I have heard them say it with sneering laughs many a time – the matrimonial market is overstocked. Fathers say so likewise, and are angry with their daughters when they observe their manoeuvres: they order them to stay at home. What do they expect them to do at home? If you ask, they would answer, sew and cook. They expect them to do this, and this only, contentedly, regularly, uncomplainingly, all their lives long, as if they had no germs of faculties for anything else: a doctrine as reasonable to hold, as it would be that the fathers have no faculties but for eating what their daughters cook, or for wearing what they sew... When I read it, I was reminded of George Gissing's book, The Odd Women written about forty years later, when things were beginning to change for women. Working class women always had to work, but for middle class women, there was a new career option: secretarial work. George Gissing also commented on the excess number of women who could not be paired off with husbands (not that they all wanted to be). I wondered where the excess came from, but maybe it was the result of emigration or the dangerous nature of many men's jobs. I was also reminded of Gissing when Louis Moore teases Shirley about his plan to marry a poor, young, working class woman and cultivate her into a suitable companion. This is what Gissing tried with his second wife, and the plan went disastrously wrong. Think of those mad scientist creates sexbot films. It went that sort of wrong.

Was this a dig at Dickens?

I have been reading Shirley by Charlotte Brontė, which is sort of interesting. It's an industrial novel, a subset of the social novel, of which there are relatively few. Mind you, it has a lot about clergymen, and now it is morphing into feminism. This bit seems to be Charlotte Brontė speaking. It reminded me Jane's feminist speech in Jane Eyre (not that I don't sympathise). I snorted out loud when I read it. Who could she be thinking of? 'If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women: they do not read them in a true light: they misapprehend them, both for good and evil: their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad women almost a fiend. Then to hear them fall into ecstasies with each other's creations, worshipping the heroine of such a poem – novel – drama, thinking it divine! Fine and divine it may be, but often quite artificial – false as the rose in my best bonnet there. If I spoke all I think on the point; if I gave my real opinion of some first-rate female characters in first-rate works, where should I be? Dead under a cairn of avenging stones in half an hour' 'Shirley, you chatter so, I can't fasten you: be still. And after all, authors' heroines are almost as good as authoresses' heroes.' 'Not at all: women read men more truly than men read women. I'll prove that in a magazine paper some day when I've time; only it will never be inserted: it will be “declined with thanks,” and left for me at the publisher's'.

Interpreting Shirley.

In 06-05-2009 post, sweetsunray writes: “Something very peculiar occurs: our narrator LIES. She starts by assuring the reader it won't be a romance” - "If you think, from this prelude, that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you never were more mistaken. Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry, and reverie? Do you expect passion, and stimulus, and melodrama? Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool and solid lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning", but contrary to the authors injunction, a very emotional reading of Shirley. A refreshing response as opposed to the common blasé opinion. And in a subsequent post she adds :”Clearly though, CB created an unreliable narrator to us. It is curious to how she uses several times different narrator means in one story: omniscient 3rd person, to omniscient 1st person, over to subjective diary, and eventually revealing the omniscient 3rd person being someone anonymous who could never be omniscient, unless the person at the end is CB herself.” Not only is sweetsunray's reading alive, it is incisive of Charlotte's attempt at a novel different from its predecessor, Jane Eyre, but it provokes one to research a critique of Shirley from a literary perspective. I'll use Gender and Generic Mixing in Charlotte Bronte's Shirley (1) by Gisel Argyle, as an interesting example, as it reflects some of the ideas touched on by sweetsunray's reading. All quotes in italic, are from the Argyle's monograph. Crucially Argyle's study shifts the focus from examining Shirley as a novel in isolation, to a study of the novels in sequence: Jane Eyre 1847, Shirley 1849 and Villette 1853. Expanding the critique, she examines the possible stylistic influence of Emily's Wuthering Heights 1847, upon the composition of Shirley. Charlotte edited the manuscript for the second edition of Wuthering Heights and the question is to what extent did Emily's stylistic departure from conventional narrative influenced Charlotte's departure from the protagonist narrator form of Jane Eyre. Argyle quotes Charlotte, 'The successor to Jane Eyre was to be "'more subdued,'" as the author consented in her letter to G. H. Lewes, in 1848; (26) in Emily's Wuthering Heights (1847), Charlotte had available a model for both preserving a scandalous meaning and subduing its immediate effect. Charlotte Bronte's preface to the second edition of Wuthering Heights, in 1850, alludes to such a sense when she offsets the "'horror of a great darkness'" with Nelly Dean's sunny qualities, although her stress is on Nelly as a character rather than narrator. (27) Thus, both her own Jane Eyre and Emily's Wuthering Heights could serve her as well as her readers as points of departure, as horizons of expectations in a literary series, which guide the reading of Shirley for the writing author and the reader. A partial answer is offered by 'that after the focus on only one person in The Professor and Jane Eyre, Bronte turned in Shirley to the community and to experience in social and political terms, which are represented through a "disembodied" mystifying third-person narrator.' In conjunction with the thematically moral question, ' In Shirley Bronte engages the following questions, left unasked by Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre journeys through the world, tests herself against it, and retires at Ferndean, a wise and happy wife; what would it mean for a woman to remain in the world? Jane as narrator defies public opinion--"Anybody may blame me who likes"; what would it mean for a narrator to represent public opinion? Instead of a single, though changeable, even capricious omniscient narrator', we begin to sense the thematic convolutions in Shirley. Argile notes that 'Shirley is commonly noted as a "detour," .....The reason for this status is, of course, Bronte's departure from the use of a protagonist-narrator in favor of a third-person narrator for Shirley.' As noted by sweetsunray's “she uses several times different narrator means in one story: ....”, Argyle's ' we have here in fact three distinct narrators, two of whom represent social and historical law respectively, whereas the third represents psychological law and is therefore closest to the narrative voice in Jane Eyre.' 'The material of Shirley is presented in three distinct although not always separate generic modes, which are, in order of appearance, the comedy of manners, the historical romance, and the psychological romance.' Shirley remains an aesthetic work, not a political tract, thus the rationalization -'The thematic unity of Shirley has been persuasively argued by several critics, among them the editors of the Penguin edition, Andrew and Judith Hook, and Helene Moglen. (18) The Hooks, reading the work as a "condition of England" novel, see denial of the world of imagination as "link the different elements in the book: the life histories of Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar and their romantic involvement with the Moore brothers; the women's rights, tutor-governess theme; the regional, Yorkshire manners theme; and the unemployed poor, Luddite theme" (p. 20). They also judge the ending successful in "linking the romantic marriages of Shirley and Caroline above all to Hollow's Mill and its meaning" (p. 32). In a compatible interpretation, Moglen demonstrates that the conception of victimization in a patriarchal society connects the plots of romance and labor riots, but she judges the execution inhibited and perverted by Bronte's lack of either a sophisticated political understanding or of more radical convictions.' - is problematic in my opinion, and reflects the unease felt by sweetsunray's - “our narrator LIES” 'In the second generic mode, the historical romance, the narrator's relation to the action is omniscient, to the reader that of an informative, reflective mentor with a conservative bias, as in the following authorial rationalization of the millworkers' plight for the sake of "the progress of invention": "As to the sufferers, whose sole inheritance was labour, and who had lost that inheritance ... they were left to suffer on; perhaps inevitably left" (p. 62). This narrator will spare the gentle reader's sensibilities, for instance from any "harrowing up" of his soul with accounts of brutal child labor (p. 90). The characterization is limited to the depiction of typical traits on occasions of sociopolitical crises, rather than showing moral and psychological development.' 'The novel's radical ideas are presented in the third, psychological mode, the last mode to emerge clearly. This mode had been the dominant one of its predecessor, Jane Eyre; but the first chapter of Shirley warns the reader against anticipating "sentiment, and poetry, and reverie" '. 'In the third and last mode, the psychological romance, the narrator is intimately engaged, to the point of identification, with three of the female protagonists, mostly with Caroline Helstone, occasionally with both Caroline and Shirley when they are discussing the life of woman'. And it is this mode that causes the most problems in the neat schema of the generic modes: the comedy of manners, the historical romance, and the psychological romance. The distinction is blurred when the necessary separation of the views of author and that of the character, necessary for the autonomy of the character are compromised by what Argyle identifies as - “ the narrator is intimately engaged, to the point of identification, with three of the female protagonists”. Argyle is well aware of the problem - 'In both instances the author's own anger causes her to usurp her character's voice to speak more emphatically and sarcastically than is consistent with the character. In relation to the reader, the narrator presupposes a shared bias of female experience (in contrast to the implied male perspective of the two other narrators) which accounts for the notable excess in emphatic authorial congratulation, warning, and spite.' A specific example is the of out-of-character speech of Caroline's "'King of Israel! your model of a woman is a worthy model!... Men of Yorkshire! do your daughters reach this royal standard?... Men of England! look at your poor girls ...Fathers! cannot you alter these things? " (p. 378). The authors “shared bias of female experience” is comprehended in a patriarchal social order - “Fathers! cannot you alter these things?”, an appeal to right the wrong, to the fathers, not a clarion call to the sisterhood. For feminists who identify Charlotte Bronte as a prototype feminist, this requires a mental somersault. However the self-abnegation demanded of women was acutely felt by Charlotte as reflected in Caroline's - 'but I perceive that certain sets of human beings are very apt to maintain that other sets should give up their lives to them and their service, and then they requite them by praise' (p. 190). But Charlotte isn't a radical, nor Shirley a polemicists tract, her pen is that of a satirist - 'Helstone's teasing questioning of Shirley's sentiment draws the reader's attention to the oxymoron: "'and especially I like that romantic Hollow, with all my heart.' 'Romantic--with a mill in it?' 'Romantic with a mill in it.' ... 'And the tradesman is a hero? Good!'" (p. 215). Also in the 'advice to Caroline on feminine modesty--"You expected bread, and you have got a stone; break your teeth on it, and don't shriek because the nerves are martyrized" (p. 128). Where Charlotte uses the "disembodied" third-person narrator to reflect the social and political community, the tone is conservative and patriarchal. 'The narrator's relation to the action is omniscient, to the reader that of an informative, reflective mentor with a conservative bias.' - 'as in the following authorial rationalization of the millworkers' plight for the sake of "the progress of invention": "As to the sufferers, whose sole inheritance was labour, and who had lost that inheritance ... they were left to suffer on; perhaps inevitably left" (p. 62). Nor is the irony easily identified, as in - ' In Robert's daydream with Caroline, the realization of which is later witnessed by the narrator, "'the houseless, the starving, the unemployed, shall come to Hollow's mill from far and near'" (p. 598) to prosper under the care of the millowner Robert, the squire Shirley, the magistrate Louis, and the teacher Caroline.'. Is this just Robert's self delusion or Charlotte's comment on the industrialization of the rural England. Charlotte's admiration for the man-on-horseback is in 'the allusion to Napoleon in Robert's gesture, "one hand in his pocket, the other in his waistcoat" (p. 153)'.Yet Robert Moore is drawn as a complex character, as in his speech - "to respect himself, a man must believe he renders justice to his fellowmen" , 'has originated in Shirley's accusation that wanting "to make a speculation of " , he failed to render justice to her as a fellow human.' In the psychological mode 'each of the four major characters in some aspect serves as a double or a mirror image of another; for instances of each function, Shirley acts out for Caroline the criticism of Robert's confusion of love and business when she rejects his mercenary offer of marriage, and the brothers Robert and Louis Moore give diametrically opposite importance to inner and outer world. (21) Therefore, the major characters can be understood as fragmented projections of a single self, with Caroline's as the central consciousness; ' And what are we to make of chapter 18's injunction - “Which the Genteel Reader is Recommended to Skip, Low”, of Shirley's vision : “'Milton's Eve! Milton's Eve! I repeat. No, by the pure Mother of God, she is not! ..... I saw - I now see - a woman-Titan....So kneeling, face to face she speaks with God”. To which genteel Caroline replies: “'Pagan that you are! what does that signify?'” ....”Come, Shirley, we ought to go into church.'” 'Shirley's radical vision of Eve, the woman-Titan. This fantastical tale, imagined by a woman and narrated by her to another, is the novel's ultimate challenge to the "naturalness" of the political, social, and psychological assumptions which the two "male" modes champion.' Or of the imagery of 'Shirley's virtually rabid dog bite (the dog's name, Phoebe, alludes to the Titan goddess of the moon) and her self-administered cauterization function as a dramatization of the narrator's earlier sharp warning to Caroline against the "self-treachery" of revealing romantic passion: she is to close her fingers firmly on the scorpion which fate has given her and let it sting her through the palm (p. 128)”. Clearly the mythological references are not hap hazardous, yet what is the connection to the themes of the novel? Is Charlotte playing games with the critics? Argyle has an interesting interpretation: 'Besides contributing to the obvious sexual symbolism of the episode, which is generally acknowledged and to which reference has already been made, the name Phoebe also alludes to the passing of the prophetic gift from the matriarchal to the patriarchal powers, that is, from the Titan goddess Phoebe to the Olympian god Phoebus Apollo, as narrated in the Oresteia (Eumenides 4-8).' Clearly Shirley is a complex work, demanding an attentive and sophisticated, not genteel, reader. However the question whether it was a successful work remains. Apart from academic studies, for the general reader the answer is suggested in the Forums, popularity of Charlotte's novels, poll, where Shirley is next to last. Reference Gisela Argyle is an associate professor of humanities at York University, Toronto.

Isolation and frustration

One view of Shirley which I discovered while rooting around on the net, and with which I heartily agree to a certain extent, is the way in which the novel exemplifies the mood of frustrated ambitions, particularly with regard to industry and trade, prevalent in England during the time of the Napoleonic war. Essentially the characters' inability to act in any meaningful sense reflects the inability of the nation to defeat Napoleon (we're talking prior to the victories of 1814 here I'm assuming) which has the knock on effect of stifling trade and industry by denying trade with mainland Europe. This is why Robert Moore, for example, decides to propose to Shirley i.e. not because of any feelings of love but because of her wealth. It is also why Moore opposes the war, rather than supporting a continued fight against Napoleon. The war is killing his business. Running alongside this is the theme of the inaction of women. Shirley is the main character precisely because she as a single woman of some wealth stands out in opposition to the general trend of women being supported by men, rather than being independent. This also allows a comparison between the exploitation of women and the exploitation of the working class by the rich mill owners. There is also a small but interesting leaning towards a more anti-Christian, or Pagan, understanding of nature represented by Shirley and Caroline's refusal to attend church. This might have been Emily's influence at work here, but I'm just guessing here. :yawnb:


May I have a few questions? What is the moral abou what Charlotte Bronte speaks at the end of her novel "Shirley"? Did Shirley really loved Louis? I have my own answers but I want to know others opinions.

Shirley Review

I admit at the beginning that I can't be objective when I speak about SHIRLEY, since that's the book I'm obsessed with.I am tired of listening how it's worse than Jane Eyre and Vilette, because I know that the main reason for it lies in the fact that an average girl indetifies herself with the plain, poor girl like Jane is(and Lucy, too).Seams that the only Shirley's and Carlone's fault is their beauty!That's why the whole novel doesn't have the attention which deserves!You say it is naive, that it is a soapsund because of the happy-end?And what about Jane Eyre who marries a blind man, who, of course, starts to see again on the last page?Isn't that a soapsund?
Shirley is a wonderful, intelligent, funny, and above all, romantic book.Robert Moore is the most handsome male charachter in writing history.Caroline's and his relation is so touching and complexive, and not pathetic at all, which is very rare in love relations.Shirley is strong, original, modern girl for her time, and yet, besides her strength-she is a real woman(we see that from her relation with Louis)...I could say so many things about this novel, but I'm afraid this is already too much.I'll just say at the end-read it.


Shirley is an interesting book. Not as emotionally satisfying as the sublime Villette or Jane Eyre, it does have interesting portraits of characters. Caroline seems to be in some ways a mirror of Charlotte herself, like many of Charlotte's heroines. Yet Caroline's heart is so beautifully painted for us that we find it hard to leave her story and wade through the plot of the attack on the mill. Still, the book is informative about the times. Shirley seems to be agreed upon as a portrait of Emily. I feel that Charlotte, writing much of Shirley as Emily was rapidly dying and then finishing it after her death, took the story in a direction that it would not otherwise have taken. The story initially seems to be Caroline's story and Charlotte loses sight of that about mid way through the novel. Yet Shirley is a good novel and worth having on your book shelf.

Charlotte Bronte's Shriley

Shirley is a good novel though it is not as entertaining in my view as Jane Eyre or Villette. Shirley's best parts are the parts that explore the character's hearts. Caroline's character appears to me very much like Charlotte Bronte's own. Caroline seem the heroine of the novel, not Shirley. I believe that Charlotte based much of her portrait of Shirley on her own sister, Emily. As Shirley was written during the time of Emily's death, it seems that Charlotte's emotions of grief for Emily took over the book as allows Shirley to dominate it. I think Shirley would have taken a different direction had Emily not died in the middle of Charlotte's writing of it. Overall, Shirley is enjoyable though the explorations of the characters feelings are more interesting to me than the story of the mill riots.

No Subject

I think the book is good, although not as good as Jane Eyre, or Villete. But I love the characters. I admire Caroline as well as Shirley and it is interesting to see how they relate and differ from eachother mentally and physically. I wish that it would have centered more on Caroline and Robert, but it is still a great book, and I love Charlotte Bronte.

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