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For years, I’ve vaguely been aware that Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley (1849) is the one novel of hers that I never read properly. Jane Eyre and Villette jostle for the position of my favourite Bronte book, but I even knew The Professor better than Shirley. When I first read Shirley, in my teens, I was looking for more Jane Eyre, and didn’t find it. About four months ago I taught the first three chapters of Shirley, for a class on Condition of England novels, and was startled by how much I both remembered and had forgotten, just from that tiny section. I remembered autocratic Mr Helstone very well, and the three appalling curates, but where, I wondered, was Shirley? Why did she not appear in the first chapters? Where were the other women? Why was Mr Yorke such a professional Yorkshireman? (See what Charlotte did there?) With a wet weekend on my hands, I got stuck into Shirley while waiting for the summer to come back, and finished it with great enthusiasm. It is a tremendous novel. This is why I liked it so much.
Charlotte has too much anger in her to be a match for (for example) Dickens, when writing about English society in the recent past: he is genial, she is furious. She doesn’t hold back from harsh remarks, and is particularly catty about the Flemish (actually the Walloons) versus the English in terms of housekeeping standards and dress sense. This must have been more reprocessing of her experiences in Brussels and Antwerp: she makes fun of the arrogant half-Belgian Hortense Moore with as much energy as she romanticises her two brothers, Robert and Louis. Oddly, at the same time, Charlotte idolises the speaking of French. As well as using frequent stretches of dialogue in French, and several school-mastery episodes of French tuition that just breathe M. Paul, she deliberately uses French words because the English equivalents simply aren’t adequate, and challenges her reader in footnotes to find better ones. We are to understand that speaking French is an instant guarantee of sophistication, intelligence and cultural credit. I think she’s fallen into the Anglophone ex pat trap of blissfully assuming that no-one can be bad if they can speak French. Living in Brussels as I do, I know exactly where she’s coming from. I’m not saying I condone it, but it’s a familiar habit.
Since this is a Condition of England novel, we expect a lot of history (it’s set in 1811, during the Napoleonic Wars, when British manufacturers were forbidden to trade abroad for fear of abetting the enemy), and so we get machinery smashing, an attack on a mill and the attempted murder of a mill-owner. The sufferings of the labourers are desperately sad, because Charlotte makes us think through the ethics of their situation as well as the economics. But we also get a huge amount attention paid to the sufferings of women. These are the invisible sufferers, since no-one in the novel (and thus society) takes this seriously. Women’s energies and talents are wasted, the parish is full of women with little to do. Can drippy, dreamy Caroline Helstone sustain the role of a heroine in a book this long, without being permitted to speak, feel, or do anything of her own accord? There are dead and abandoned wives, and women who were not tough enough to survive their awful husbands, which brings to mind the resolute wife in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: it’s strange to realise that Anne Bronte wrote about women standing up for their rights, whereas Charlotte’s women suffered mutely and gloriously alone.
Charlotte does stand up for governesses, though. Mrs Pryor’s defence of their class and profession (her maiden name is Grey, by the way: remember the oppressed young governess of Agnes Grey?) is a brilliantly coded riposte to an unfriendly review of Jane Eyre from the year before Shirley was published, Charlotte’s very clever way to have the last word on governesses in perpetuity. The saviour of these women is the eponymous Shirley, who is a glamorised, rich and eloquent Emily Bronte, and was apparently written into the novel just as the real Emily was dying in real life. Shirley Keeldar brings the novel rapidly to life, by galvanising everyone around her. Caroline stops moping and learns to giggle. Mr Helstone begins to flirt again. Robert Moore starts planning a mésalliance against his better judgement. Mrs Pryor finds her long-lost daughter. The most arrogant of the horrible curates is kicked out of the house for rudeness. And the poor tutor finds a lost love: it’s all very satisfying.
It’s also an odd novel, because it’s a Victorian historical novel of the mid 19th-century set in the Regency period, which most of us now associate with Georgette Heyer, and thus does not ring true, according to our modern ideas about the Regency. The terrible Yorke family – children and parents – could just as well be characters in an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel, stirring up aggression against each other coldly and placidly. Small personal tyrannies have big effects: Mr Helstone’s emotional neglect nearly kills Caroline when she catches fever, because nobody is allowed near her to love her. The Yorkes have a frighteningly capricious attitude to Moore’s injury: it was only because they had sole charge of his body that they thought it worth saving his life. Shirley and Caroline carry weapons, tear across country to raise the alarm, and witness the bloody attack on the mill, acting like Gothic heroines, but realist ones. They don’t throw themselves fainting and screaming on the men defending the mill, but restrain themselves for the greater good. The ridiculously pompous Mr Sympson is an object of delighted ridicule, with his outrage at Shirley’s defiance of the conventions making Louis Moore’s controlled, gentlemanly behaviour just so much more attractive.
Shirley is such a satisfying read, because it is carefully written and soundly planned, as well as being full of happy, angry, passionate life. Charlotte Bronte’s voice comes through very strongly, with a freshness I didn’t expect, because we are, or I was, simply not so familiar with Shirley’s lines as we are with ‘Reader, I married him’.
Kate podcasts weekly about the books she really, really likes on Why I Really Like This Book, http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.