Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

23 May

I know I’m reviewing Charlotte’s books out of order here but this was a conscious choice. The Professor, while published last, was written first. Jane Eyre was first, and then this one, Shirley. But since Jane Eyre is the only one that has adaptations available, I’m saving that one for last. There was a silent version of this one done in 1922, but it’s not available.

Shirley, Charlotte Bronte’s second novel, was published in 1849. Charlotte apparently thought it would be wildly successful like Jane Eyre, but alas, it wasn’t that big of a hit. I feel bad for her because Branwell, Emily, and Anne all died while she was writing it. But…I’m not a huge fan of the book either.

The novel is quite different from all of her others- it’s told by an omniscient, 3rd person narrator, it’s set during the Napoleonic Wars, it follows two heroines, and it’s part social commentary/part Romance. Well, Charlotte only set it in the past because she didn’t want to cause controversy by commenting on contemporary issues, and it doesn’t really “feel” like a Regency novel, so that part doesn’t quite count, but you get the point. The two heroines are Caroline Helstone, a quiet girl living with her uncle, and Shirley Keeldar, an independent, free-spirited young woman. The two become friends when Shirley moves to Caroline’s Yorkshire town. Caroline is in love with her half-cousin, half-Belgian, Robert Moore, the local mill owner. But Robert proposes to Shirley (for her money), who rejects him. Oh, and Robert’s brother was Shirley’s tutor, with whom she constantly bickers. Along with the love triangle is the trouble at the mill. Robert ignores his workers’ problems and they riot and try to kill him.

Shirley was hit and miss with me. I enjoyed the love story, but I thought the book needed better editing. There was a lot of superfluous information. For example, the first chapter goes into detail about the town’s three curates at dinner- including their personalities and eating habits. It was so hard for me to even get through this and continue the book! And guess what, these three curates are VERY MINOR characters who don’t serve much of a purpose in the story at all. I guess there was supposed to be symbolic meaning or something like that, but I guess I’m too stupid to figure it out. As it is, the book is over 600 pages, but I think a good third of that could have been cut out.

It also bothered me that once again, Charlotte had to show her prejudices of anything anti-English and Anglican- the French/Belgians are bad, the Catholics/Methodists are bad, etc. It’s really ridiculous. I know these prejudices were very common at the time but Charlotte really isn’t even subtle about showing it in her writing. It’s just tiresome to read about.

Okay, so ignoring all of the prejudices and the extra detail, we have just the love story to look at. Admittedly, I found it enjoyable to read about, even if it did follow the usual Victorian cliches, like illnesses and coincidences. But there was one major thing that bothered me. Shirley, throughout the book, can be seen as an empowering, feminist character. Her parents are dead and she is rich- she runs her own life. But after she falls in love, she and her betrothed agree that she will now leave ALL decisions to him. Shirley no longer wants to have that sort of power and they both think it will be better to let her husband control everything. I know this was written in the Victorian era, but really? I thought it was over the top, even for back then.

My Rating: 5/10

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4 Responses to “Shirley by Charlotte Bronte”

  1. Grace May 23, 2011 at 2:34 PM #

    I did like the critique though of early unregulated capitalism and the way that she painted a good picture of what pressures were felt during that era.

    I used to love Charlotte Bronte, and then I realized while reading her one day that her writing was very fluffy and melodramatic. I respect her, but still don’t read her for fun anymore.

  2. The Poet & the Poem June 4, 2011 at 1:06 PM #

    I’m reading this book right now too. Finally after weeks only about 50 pages to go!

    I have to agree with you about the editing, and the prejudices. I loved Villette, and I love Victorian and earlier novels – they are my comfort food reading, but this was very hard to get through. I kept getting angry at all the prejudiced remarks and asides. Another things that annoyed me, was how she kept interrupting the narrative, saying something like “let me stop dear reader..” and go off a completely unnecessary tangent.

    I do think it was worth reading for the insight it gives on what it was like to be a women at that time, the little snippets about what it was like for single women and for governesses, who essentially fell between classes, were especially interesting to me.

  3. Kate June 6, 2011 at 12:14 AM #

    This is the only book of any of the Bronte sisters that I haven’t read. I have really been putting it off, even though I completely enjoy the genre. I can’t comment on the editing, but it occurs in a lot of Charlotte Bronte’s other novels as well. I love her beautiful use of language, but she does seem to go off on tangents quite often!

  4. The Poet & the Poem June 6, 2011 at 7:53 AM #

    I love her language and imagination also, and usually the tangents and interdictions don’t bother me as much, but this one was hard for me to get through. I would still recommend reading it, but make sure you have a lot of spare time and are in the right mood for it!

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