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!