on 29 August 2001
'Shirley' did not grab my attention from the outset as it is densely written; each sentence must be carefully read, not skimmed over. As you can read from the synopsis on the cover, the novel is set in a fragile social and economic situation, but the novel concerns so much more than Luddite riots. Charlotte Bronte takes us into the hearts and minds of the characters as they are challenged by their surroundings, their church and each other. In the starkest terms it concerns loneliness and companionship, love and enmity. It is testament to her writing that months after reading it, I still feel as if I know the central characters almost better than they know themselves. To me, the world we are drawn into in 'Shirley' seems more real than that of 'Jane Eyre'. It is a wonderful book and I do not know why it is so neglected in comparison. It may take a while to get to grips with, but the result is worth the wait.
on 19 July 2009
this book is set in the early nineteenth century at the time of the luddite riots and the napoleonic wars. even though this was before charlotte brontes time it is clearly very well researched to the extent that it reminded me very much of the time that i was on strike a couple of years ago. the book doesn't though just look at the relations between the desperate, starving luddites and the ruthless industrialist robert moore. throw in to that two women who cannot see fault with him and you have a potent love story as well as a social novel. it also examines the role of the church in village society in the nineteenth century and how that affected the social dynamics of a village at the time. this is charlotte bronte at her wonderful evocative best, a fantastic read
on 14 November 2011
"Shirley" is a wonderful book by an astonishingly insightful and erudite author, Charlotte Bronte. Charlotte, unlike most women of her day gained education but her keen mind displays not only knowledge, but wisdom of the human condition which she channels into her utterley believeable characters. Her prose is sometimes pragmatically "Yorkshire" and at other times almost poetically Shakespearian. I loved this book!
Moreover, I loved reading it on Kindle. It contained many archaic and unusual words and it was a delight to be able to simply hover over them, to obtain the meaning and origins from the in-built dictionary. Pity it didn't cover all the Yorkshire dialect though!
One of the interesting things about Charlotte Bronte was the way she experimented with fiction. After the gothic (melo)drama of Jane Eyre she wrote her version of the 'industrial' novel more usually associated with her friend Elizabeth Gaskell.
Unlike the more romantic (or anti-romantic?) Jane Eyre and Villette, this is steeped in social realism: religion, class and economic politics. We have two heroines and two heroes and Shirley herself isn't always at the centre of the novel.
For Bronte or C19th literature fans this is a good read, but if you haven't read Charlotte Bronte before best not start here.
on 17 September 2009
As one of the other reviewers suggests, this isn't an easy read, there really is so much packed into each sentence, and it's a pretty hefty tome too! It's very much worth sticking at it.
For me, this is the first novel of its type which made me truly understand the precarious (and very lonely) position of a lot of women at that time... at one point, Caroline struck me almost as a Bridget Jones of her time... (with Shirley picking up the pieces (and not a bottle of Chardonnay in sight)) being denied a career as a governess by her guardian yet having no wealth to attract a husband... (OK so the Bridget Jones analogy is stretching it a little bit). It's very much more than merely taking tea, dancing and a barouche-landau here and there, the commentary on the poverty and social upheaval is a fascinating insight.
on 9 December 2011
This book is set in west Yorkshire during the Luddite disturbances of 1811-12. The four central characters are Caroline Helstone, Shirley Keeldar, Robert Moore and his brother Louis. Shirley is the wealthy owner of an estate; Caroline has no money and is under the guardianship of her uncle; Robert owns a textile mill but is under financial pressure because his foreign markets have been closed by the country's ongoing wars; Louis was formerly Shirley's tutor and is currently employed as a tutor by her uncle. The core of the plot is the fluctuating nature of Caroline's relationship with Robert, and of Shirley's relationships with both Moore brothers. An important sub-plot concerns Robert's desire to mechanise his production, and the sometimes violent Luddite resistance from many local people who have been plunged into poverty by such actions on the part of Moore and other mill owners.
When this book was published several contemporary critics were somewhat negative, on the grounds that they felt that it wasn't as good as Jane Eyre, which had been published some two years earlier. I agree that it isn't as good, but in my view this isn't a reasonable basis for being negative: rather than comparing the book unfavourably with one of the best novels ever written, it is surely more appropriate to judge it in its own right. Viewed thus, in my view it has plenty going for it. It develops two principal themes. The first is feminism, which in various guises is an important part of the work of all three Brontë sisters but is especially important in Charlotte's books. If anything it plays an even stronger role in Shirley than in Jane Eyre. The focus is on Caroline's frustration that as an intelligent and educated woman she has no prospect of a fulfilling outlet for her talents: either she marries and becomes totally subservient to her husband, or she remains unmarried and becomes equally subservient as the governess of some wealthy family's child. The book provides a strong and effective condemnation of such a state of affairs. Jane Eyre is often (rightly) seen as a landmark feminist novel. Shirley is a far less well known book but in its way it is every bit as effective as a feminist novel (if I may presume to make such a judgement as a man).
The second major theme is industrialisation and its consequences, in particular the potential conflict of interest between mill owners such as Robert Moore, seeking to mechanise their production, and working class families who see this as a potential threat to their livelihoods. This leads to some dramatic episodes, including a violent confrontation when a mob attacks Moore's mill, and an intense argument between Moore and a group of current and former employees. I find Brontë's treatment of these class-based issues less convincing than, and arguably inconsistent with, her treatment of gender-based issues. In the latter case she is unambiguously on the side of the underdog (women) but this doesn't carry over to her treatment of industrialisation. She recognises that the Luddites have a case, for example when she notes in chapter 2 that "misery generates hatred". Ultimately, though, the novel is structured in such a way that it's hard for her to avoid favouring the capitalists rather than the workers (of course these terms postdate her work so she doesn't use them) because all the principal characters are either capitalists (Robert and Shirley) or capitalist sympathisers (Caroline, her uncle, and to a lesser extent Louis). The only worker given any role in the book is William Farren, an articulate spokesman for the workers' case, but we encounter him only briefly. This asymmetry of treatment essentially leaves Brontë in the position of regretting hardship but concluding that nothing can or should be done to alleviate it other than, perhaps, charitable behaviour by more fortunate people (at one point in the novel Shirley organises donations to starving families from herself and other well-to-do individuals). Whilst this might indeed have been Brontë's view, she was a well-read woman who must surely have been aware of England's Radical tradition, dating back at least as far as the Civil War and the Levellers. A more even handed treatment would arguably have tried to balance Moore's view as a mill owner with a Leveller/Radical view about how society might be structured so as to give more weight to the interests of the powerless at the expense of the powerful.
I am an admirer of all three Brontë sisters: I find their work compelling for its intensity of purpose and for its dramatic quality. There is plenty of this in Shirley, but it is tempered by lighter episodes - for example, the scenes involving a triumvirate of slightly absurd curates, and those involving Shirley's much more absurd uncle. These scenes don't have quite the biting wit of Dickens or the subtle irony of Jane Austen: they more resemble the gentle humour of Trollope. `Gentle humour' is certainly not the quality one most associates with the writing of either Charlotte or her sisters, but these scenes are nonetheless well drawn and add to the overall appeal of the book.
As I have already said, this book isn't as good as Jane Eyre, and neither is it as good as Charlotte's later novel Villette. For someone who hasn't read any of her books and wants to sample one, Shirley probably isn't the place to start. But it's still a fine novel and more than worth reading. As a Brontë fan, though, I would urge people to read ALL of Charlotte's, and her sisters', books!
on 5 November 2003
This is a very uneven book, and doesn’t have the power to take you on a journey from cover to cover like 'Jane Eyre' and 'Villette'. The beginning of the story, which is involved with local and religious politics, is quite hard going, and I found the male characters quite difficult to imagine, even though they’re all described at great length. The character of Caroline Helstone is engaging and sympathetic, but she seems to fall out of focus towards the end. Shirley herself is certainly lively, but not very likable. There are some beautiful descriptive scenes now and again, particularly in the snowy chapter called ‘The Schoolboy and the Wood Nymph’. Altogether I didn’t find this novel very satisfying as a story, but Bronte's narrative voice is like a witty friend throughout.
on 16 January 2013
The depiction of Shirley and Caroline and their "plight" is perceptive. Bronte focuses on the different roles of women at the time and how limited their options were, how little independence they had as wives, sweethearts and as old maids. The political side - with the mills and workers is quite well handled too though perhaps not so well as Gaskell would later do it!
on 4 January 2015
I feel a strong sense of relief at having discovered Shirley. I consider myself a fan of Charlotte Bronte but have in the past abandoned her novel The Professor and found Villette hard-going (though ultimately rewarding).
Shirley is certainly not 'standard' Charlotte Bronte. It reads a lot more like a George Eliot (or even Charles Dickens) novel, in being a work which is much more socially aware than Jane Eyre, with a larger cast of characters. In contrast with Jane Eyre, the book has a third person narrator, which brings it more in line with the standard model for the Nineteenth Century novel. Also significant is the fact that it's her only novel to really transcend her abiding obsession with the lot of a female governess – although, latterly, a male tutor does become a significant character.
But I found it refreshing to read heroines who were not as doom-laden and self-absorbed as Lucy Snowe (Villette). Whilst Caroline is a more sensitive character, more akin to what we expect from Bronte, the feisty Shirley herself defies our expectations and, for me, this was one of the greatest revelations of the novel.
I found the first 100 pages (one-fifth) of the book rather arduous (although, it's here that there is social scene-setting that is interestingly atypical of Bronte) but it's necessary for what follows. Whilst I acknowledge that Shirley is Bronte's most ambitious novel in terms of providing a commentary on the society of early Nineteenth Century Britain, I found it most rewarding as the story of a love triangle and, when this strand of the plot develops later on in the book, I believe it becomes a much more compelling read. We also see in this storyline CB writing with emotional depth to challenge Jane Eyre.
So it's for this aspect of Shirley that I would recommend the book to any fan of CB's writing. But I would also say that, if you're a fan of the Nineteenth Century novel but not a fan of Jane Eyre, I would give Shirley a go – it shows a very different side to Charlotte Bronte's writing.