The world of Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley

I enjoyed reading Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.  Published in 1849, the novel is set in Yorkshire in 1811-1812 at the time rebellious factory workers were fighting the introduction of labor-saving weaving machinery.

The title character is Shirley Keeldar, a rich, beautiful extroverted heiress who, in the absence of either father or husband, comes as close to being free and independent as was possible to any woman in that time and place.

By good-humoredly refusing to conform to the expectations for women in that era, she gets the men to accept her as a kind of honorary man.  She isn’t a rebel against society; she just wants to be a full participant.  She enjoys managing her estate and organizing charities.  She gets a number of proposals of marriage from rich suitors, which she turns down.

The Shirley character was the orphan daughter of a man who wanted a son and raised her as a boy—which was in fact the background of many accomplished women of that time and later.

Shirley was then a man’s name; it may have become more of a woman’s name because of the novel.

The emotional core of the novel is the intense personal friendship Shirley forms with the introverted and penniless Caroline Helstone, who lives as a tolerated poor relation of her uncle, Matthewson Helstone, an Anglican rector.

Rev. Helstone thinks he is doing his duty by Caroline by giving her food, shelter and a place to sit and do her sewing until some man comes along who is willing to marry her.

She is unhappy with these limitations, but the only choices for an upper- or middle-class woman of that time would be to find a suitable mate or live a marginal life as an old maid.   There was long before women could become school teachers, nurses or typists.

The only occupation open was governess, which is being a nanny and tutor to a rich family’s children.  Only educated women from genteel backgrounds are eligible to become governesses, but their lives were constant reminders that they are servants and social inferiors of their employees.

The older characters all regard Caroline’s discontent as girlish foolishness.  Their view is that life is not supposed to offer you love or happiness.  It is a grim test in which you prove or fail to prove your worthiness to enjoy eternal happiness with God in Heaven.

Caroline is attracted to her cousin, Robert Gérard Moore, a half-Belgian factory owner, who has affectionate and protective feelings toward her.  She accepts the fact that marriage is out of the question because she has no money.  Moore in turn has a platonic, intellectual friendship with Shirley.

Moore is in the forefront of the struggle against the “frame breakers,” workers are fighting mechanization of the weaving industry.  Brontë depicts them as criminals and terrorists who have successfully intimidated magistrates and other industrialists by threat of riot and assassination..

Moore alone has the courage to fight back.  He brings in troops to protect his factory, tracks down rebel leaders and sees to it that they are sentenced without mercy to transportation to Australia.  This is at great personal risk because at one point he is shot and nearly dies.

Rev. Helstone and the other Anglican clergy are all on Moore’s side.  They do not attempt to be peacemakers.  Methodist and Baptist preachers are depicted as part of the rebellious riffraff.

By the end of the novel, Moore has developed a greater sympathy for working people.  Although he does not regret any of his actions, he no longer regards his employees as his enemies.

Only one worker, William Farren, is described by Brontë in any detail.  He does not complain, has a healthy distrust of union agitators and only humbly begs for an opportunity to work—much like Stephen Blackpool in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times.

Moore arranges for him to get a job as a gardener.  Any hint of radicalism would probably have put him beyond the sympathy of most of Brontë’s readers.

Charlotte Brontë was a compassionate person, but her frame of reference prevented her from even considering that the rebel workers could have had legitimate grievances, that their leaders could have been intelligent, educated men or that negotiations with them were possible.

Britain in the 18th and early 19th centuries was haunted by the fear of “leveling,” the fear that the lower classes would rise up, seize the property of the rich and divide it among themselves.  The reign of terror in the French Revolution was considered a justification of that fear.

Few upper-class Britons could have conceived that Britain would become a more peaceful place when workers and their advocates were allowed to form unions, to write and speak freely and to vote.

I don’t mean to imply that Shirley is a right-wing propaganda tract.  The novel is full of varied characters with varied opinions about politics, labor-management relations, social class and the role of women, although the range of opinions 21st century characters would have.

Brontë had an interesting way of narrating the story.  It was as if she and the reader were disembodied spirits, and she was taking the reader on a guided tour, explaining what was seen.  She kept introducing new characters throughout and unexpectedly bringing obscure characters to the forefront.  I couldn’t predict that would happen next.

The interesting political arguments were between Whigs and Tories.  The Tories favored the monarchy, established church and hereditary privilege, but believed, at least in theory, that society should be like an extended family, with servants and poor people in the position of children.

The Tories were extremely class-conscious.  Caroline was criticized for having extended conversations with the workman, William Farren, about gardening, much as a woman in his position in the Old South would be criticized for spending time with a black servant.

The Whigs were skeptical of hereditary privilege and classes and favored business enterprise and competition.  They were moderately anti-war.  The Tories were all-in supporters of the war against Napoleon and thought of the Duke of Wellington as the great national hero.

I’m not sure where Brontë stood, except that she shared the hero-worship of Wellington.

I thought of Shirley Keeldar as a forerunner of feminism, but in the last section of the book, it turns out that what she really wanted in a man is not an equal partner, but someone with the intellectual and moral qualities that make him worthy to be her lord and master, but with the proviso that he not be interested in her money.

The person who meets this standard came as a surprise to me.  And the chapter in which he proposes marriage and she accepts seemed deeply strange.  It was more like a test of wills than a declaration of affection.

Robert Gerard Moore’s economic problems are resolved by the repeal of the Britain’s Orders in Council, which cut off trade with the United States.  His economic gamble of continuing production despite lack of a market pays off, because he has a large inventory on hand to sell, which he wouldn’t have had if he had shut down production.

Money, as often happens in Victorian novels and also in real life, resolves their problems.  Robert is able to propose to Caroline because he no longer has an economic need to marry for money.  Everybody else’s futures also are provided for.

I had never read any novels by the Brontë sisters until now.  I had thought of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights as high-class Chick Lit—women fascinated by mysterious, charismatic brooding men (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  I never even heard of Anne Brontë.  It’s my loss!

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