This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 20… Shirley (1849) by Charlotte Brontë
I have a strange relationship with Brontë novels. Though my reviews of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were both generally negative, I do like the Brontës’ books… In the sense that I often find them interesting rather than enjoyable. That is, in short, how I feel about Shirley as well. I plan to review all of the Brontë novels this year (I’m about halfway through them now, anyways) and thought it was about time I covered something written by the most famous of the three sisters: Charlotte.
Shirley takes place during the latter part of the French Revolution, focusing on the effects it had on a Yorkshire community. Robert Moore, a mill-owner, finds himself up against the vast majority of the town when he fires a large amount of his employees in order to replace them with much more cost effective machinery. Though many people despise him, Robert’s cousin, Caroline, has deep feelings for him – longing to be noticed by the man. When the rich, beautiful and witty Shirley arrives in town, it seems as though a marriage to her could fix all of Moore’s problems… and present Caroline with some new ones.
This is a hard novel to summarise the plot for because there’s so much going on. My largest problem with Shirley – by far – is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. If you asked me what genre I thought the novel was, I’d probably just give you an exaggerated shrug. At the beginning it seems like it’s going to be a social novel – like North and South or Hard Times – focusing on the conflict between the wealthy mill-owner (Robert) and the poor who are starving and jobless. But then why is Caroline the protagonist? Though completely inconsequential to the social novel side of things, we spend quite a lot of time with her. Okay, I guess that means it’s a romance then, something more like Jane Eyre. And then the author seems to forget about this romance when Shirley comes along, and the novel becomes about her… And then Robert’s mill gets attacked and it becomes a social novel again… And then Shirley begins to fall in love with Robert’s brother and it becomes a romance… And then Robert gets shot by one of his former workers and it becomes a social novel again… And so on.
And this is what kind of ruined the novel for me. I think I would’ve liked it more if it was just a straight-up romance or social novel. The amount of time the narrative spends flip-flopping between the two just demonstrates that Charlotte didn’t know what she wanted to write about at all. It feels as though she desperately wanted to write a social novel but kept falling back on romance as a crutch. Shirley is a novel trapped in an identity crisis; there are two separate novels in it and, while I’m not sure either of them would be amazing, they’d definitely work better separately. Trying to be two things at once just means that both parts of the novel get wrapped up unfulfillingly. For a novel that clocks in at just under 200k words, it has one of the most phoned-in endings I’ve ever encountered in literature. The social conflict and the two romance plots all get wrapped up in one ten-page summary-based chapter. In the end it seems as though Charlotte Brontë got fed up with her own flip-flopping and just wanted to be done with the book.
Though once you get past the novel’s genre crisis – and its meandering pace – it isn’t too bad a book. Not as good as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, but not as bad as Agnes Grey. One of Shirley’s strongest assets is, well, Shirley; she’s by far the novel’s strongest character (although, despite being titular, she doesn’t show up until over 200 pages in…) In a time where strong female characters were still pretty rare, Shirley must’ve felt very refreshing. Though she sometimes feels like little more than a physical embodiment of Charlotte Brontë’s views, it’s still very entertaining to watch her go against gender conventions and see how many middle-class gentlemen she can wind up. She’s just fun – something I don’t usually associate with Charlotte Brontë.
Given how large and sprawling the novel’s cast is, I should probably touch on some other characters. None really come close to Shirley’s greatness, but there are some stand-out ones. Robert Moore grew on me, being grumpy and opinionated yet strangely likeable. Watching him and Shirley bounce off of each other definitely made forvsome of novel’s strongest moments. Robert’s brother Louis – Shirley’s love interest – is less interesting. There are some intriguing aspects to his character, but Charlotte mostly drowns them out with irritating ones – such as his habit of writing pretty much all of his thoughts out on paper. Plus the novel introduces him much too late. He doesn’t come in until over halfway through, so the novel’s late focus on him feels pretty jarring. As it stands, he is a character filled with the potential to be interesting… but just falls short.
It would make sense to talk about the character of Caroline as well, given that she’s the protagonist. She’s fine – her affection for Robert is pretty sweet – but she doesn’t really become anything more than a stock female protagonist. It other words, as soon as Shirley is introduced it immediately becomes clear why the novel isn’t called Caroline.
If you enjoyed Jane Eyre, then you’ll probably enjoy this. It feels similar in quite a few ways… just with an undercooked bit of social commentary added in. There’s a pretty strong novel hidden in Shirley, but unfortunately we’ll never get to it. If only Charlotte had had a more ruthless editor.