DISCLAIMER: SPOILERS AHEAD.
I’ve done it. I’ve finally finished reading all of Charlotte Brontë’s novels. I can’t quite believe the time has come, but in retrospect, it’s about time. Fortunately for me, I saved the best ’til last: Shirley.
Shirley is a brilliant social novel. Taking a step back from her Romantic side, Charlotte composes this Realistic story set in early nineteenth century Yorkshire when machinery conquered the factories, and the Luddites uprising was the frightening consequence. Through this particular plot Charlotte illuminates the hardships working-class families faced when unemployment crept upon them rapidly. Intertwined with this narrative is not one but two love stories, which is where Charlotte’s deep and thoughtful explorations of society shine through – she explores the psychological effect of loss and love, as well as frequently challenging female conventionality.
This novel quickly became one of my favourites. I might even go as far as to say it’s just as good as Jane Eyre. The distinct and defining quality about both these novels is the proto-feminist writing style Charlotte adopts, which is illuminated in her interestingly strong-willed and independent female characters. Through Shirley, my favourite character, Charlotte challenges nineteenth century conventions through something as simple as a name. In this century, Shirley was typically a male’s forename or a family surname, yet our protagonist is ironically named it because her parents were expecting a boy. Through this name, Shirley can escape the confinements of womanhood by performing conventionally masculine jobs. At one point, the mill-owner, Robert Moore, relies on Shirley’s power and wealth to fund his factory in order to make a living, which is remarkable considering women were usually see as ‘secondary citizens’.
Fortunately, the challenging of social conventions doesn’t stop there. Charlotte also explores it magnificently through Caroline. To start off with, Caroline is controlled by convention; her oppressive uncle won’t pay her any attention, he restricts her from seeking it from her cousins, and won’t allow her to make her own life as a governess. All of this piles up until Caroline has a mental breakdown, and the only remedy is through her blossoming friendship with Shirley. This deep and moving connection between two women was not only empowering, but also extremely endearing to read about. I feel like these kind of female relationships are missing from classics, yet Charlotte sticks it right at the forefront of Shirley. It feels natural and not forced, which I think made the story even sweeter. It were these scenes in particular I was most looking forward to.
My favourite thing about Caroline’s character was her frequent outbursts of feminism. She calls out the double standards between men and women, stating women are made for more than just household chores. They could be making their own living through work, whether that be a governess or not, yet men still ultimately have the final decision. Shirley plays an important role in Caroline’s outbursts; she acts as a sort of catalyst. Caroline becomes more outspoken, opinionated and independent through her newly formed friendship.
Taking a step back from looking at the characters, the narrative is equally as brilliant. I liked the Realistic backdrop to the story. It was particularly interesting because it was so close to Charlotte’s home. Although she wasn’t born when the Luddites were uprising in Yorkshire, Haworth still probably felt the aftermath of it for quite some time, especially as the industrial revolution swarmed the rural areas. Charlotte went the extra mile when composing Shirley; she looked into cases from the Leeds Mercury newspaper, and through this she was able to capture the true essence of Yorkshire at the time. In a way, this made the story all the more powerful. Moreover, when depicting this situation, Charlotte doesn’t sympathise with any party – her unbiased opinion allows us, as modern readers, to determine our own feelings. Did we side with the mill-owners? Or the working class? Who did we feel the most sorry for? It was left completely up to us.
As previously mentioned, running alongside this plot was not one but two love stories, which, thankfully, didn’t take away from the Realist side of the story. Initially the love interest was between the two cousins Caroline and Robert, but this was before Shirley arrived. As Shirley is wealthy, all of Robert’s attention diverts straight to her. However, he only wishes to court her in the hopes of inheriting her money. To whose Shirley’s devotion is attached to we’re only left guessing. It isn’t until the third volume that we find out she’s faithful to her tutor, and Robert’s brother, Louis. I liked this relationship because it was scandalous. Her family were willing to disown her; a marriage to her tutor would be unforgiveable. Thankfully, doesn’t give in to social convention, or her overbearing family, thus giving me another reason to love her.
I could carry on listing all the wonderful things about this brilliant novel. It’s definitely become one of my favourites, and for that I had to rate it 5 stars. Charlotte is witty, radical (when she wants to be), and writes a bloody good novel. In the grand scheme of things, it’s upsetting that I’ve finished reading all her novels. I love the feeling I get when I pick up a new book written by her. It’s an indescribable sort of feeling. Nevertheless, I’m excited to start writing my 8,000 word dissertation on her. I can relive her stories through my own eyes, which will allow me to appreciate Charlotte in a whole new light.
This has definitely become one of my favourite reads of 2017 and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone.
Thanks for reading, Lauren X
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