Date of Publication: 1849
Number of Pages: 599
Synopsis (from back cover of book): Written immediately after Jane Eyre, Shirley is a novel of wider sweep and scope. Its focus is less on individual men and women, although their stories add compulsive drama and tension, than on the individual perceived in close relation with the forces molding society. Charlotte Brontë chose to set in during the Napoleonic Wars – a period of bad harvests, Luddite riots, economic unrest and the oppression of women – in order to grapple with social and political issues. In her story of two contrasting heroines and the men they love can be traced her wish to reconcile the world of romantic love and fulfillment with the gritty realities of suffering, obligation and social duty.
Review: To a reader who had no knowledge of Charlotte Brontë, other than as the author of Jane Eyre, the beginning of this book would present a challenge. Such a reader would be surprised at the depth of the story and its seeming disregard of all romantic notions. Instead of introducing us to some pretty, sweet heroine, we are faced with the dangers of mob violence and the harshness of the main hero, the miller, Robert Moore. Politics also makes an entrance in the first few chapters, and the reader will find that the political and religious differences between the characters play an important role in the story.
This is not to say that Shirley is not a romantic story. There are passages of such longing and despair, and even of the hope of love, that actually made me weep. The romance in this story is not petty or superficial. For those who feel that the object of their love is out of reach or is uncaring, there is utter heartbreak and the danger of wasting away. None of this feels contrived, however. Both the women and the men suffer almost equally, which feels more true to life.
Another focus of this book is the oppression of women. There are many characters, both male and female, that object to the idea of women taking an active role in the public world. Women were confined to the home, and they were thought not to possess the mental capacity for business or politics. The two heroines, Caroline Helstone, the niece of a misogynistic rector, and Shirley Keeldar, the independent owner of substantial property, both, in their own separate ways, rebel against the restrictions that society has put on them. Caroline, rather than waste away in her uncle’s rectory, quietly strives for some purpose in life, and determines to become a governess. Shirley, due to her more elevated place in society, forces the men around her, including Caroline’s uncle and her tenant, Robert Moore, to take her seriously as a participant in the defense of her property, which includes the besieged mill run by Moore. She also rejects several suitable offers of marriage, declaring her intent to marry only for love.
This book definitely does not focus on any one character. Shirley herself isn’t introduced until about halfway into the book, and Caroline, Robert, and other principal characters go missing for chapters at a time. The result is a deeply felt story about a certain place in a volatile time, with all of the uncertainty and danger that the characters faced. There is no lack of character development; indeed, one gets to understand all of them. I recommend this book to any fan of nineteenth century literature, or to any history buff who is interested in learning about the personal side of the economic crisis in England during the Napoleonic Wars.