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[ing] 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" [p. 506], 'has originated in Shirley's accusation that wanting "to make a speculation of [her]" [p. 499], 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.
Gisela Argyle is an associate professor of humanities at York University, Toronto.