18/07/2009

SHIRLEY, CHARLOTTE BRONTE'S HISTORICAL NOVEL


You expected bread, and you have got a stone; break your teeth on it, and don't shriek...you will have learned the great lesson how to endure without a sob.'


It took me quite a long time to finish this novel by Charlotte Bronte and it is not because I didn’t like it. I started it in a moment of frantic work and ended up reading only few pages a day , at night, when I was completely exhausted. So I went through the first 100 pages in … two months … but I’ve finished reading the other 442 in the last few days. While reading a book, I suffer from what I call “professional distortion”, I mean, I cannot simply enjoy the reading getting involved in the story. I tend to be always catching glimpses of other texts, finding links and connections, I need to underline the best passages and to add personal notes here and there, I search for more information about the author/ess as well as about the historical context in the setting. I know, I can be quite pedantic sometimes! Why do I have to be so complicated? Don’t worry, I do enjoy the stories I read, when it happens they are good. Enough with useless chatting, let’s start working on SHIRLEY .

What do you think of a story in which the two heroines seem to like the same man, the hero of the novel? And what if they are best friends and he proposes to the wealthier of the two girls to solve his financial problems but loves the other one? What do you expect from such premises? I found it extremely enjoyable.

SYNOPSIS


Shirley is Charlotte Bronte's only historical novel and her most topical one. Written at a time of social unrest, it is set during the period of the Napoleonic Wars, when economic hardship led to riots in the woollen district of Yorkshire. A mill-owner, Robert Moore, is determined to introduce new machinery despite fierce opposition from his workers; he ignores their suffering, and puts his own life at risk. Robert sees marriage to the wealthy Shirley Keeldar as the solution to his difficulties, but he loves his cousin Caroline. She suffers misery and frustration, and Shirley has her own ideas about the man she will choose to marry. The friendship between the two women, and the contrast between their situations, is at the heart of this compelling novel, which is suffused with Bronte's deep yearning for an earlier time. (For a more detailed plot click HERE)

SHIRLEY was Charlotte second published novel after the success of JANE EYRE. When she began it, she was one of four siblings, she finished it as the only survivor sister and that influenced her writing much, of course.
SHIRLEY is not her best book, I mean, it is less compulsively readable than JANE EYRE. It is, anyway, the one in which she expresses more of her character: her conviction that women might be as well qualified as men to practise a profession (which sets her apart from most of her own contemporaries); her contempt for the market of marriage; her experience as a governess; her longing for a better past.

CHARLOTTE BRONTE & SOCIAL CRITICISM

Now the negative part of my review.

I’ve always considered Charlotte Bronte very brave since, when she wrote JANE EYRE, she completely disappointed and scandalized her "perbenistic" Victorian middle-class audience, creating a heroine who dared too much, who was greatlly independent and strong-willed, but, above all, who was totally different from the Victorian ideal woman, “the angel of the hearth”.
In SHIRLEY, however, she is not as brave as in her first novel , though her reader finds several pages in defence of the woman question and against the market of marriage. An example:
“Look at the numerous families of girls in the neighbourhood: the Armitages, the Birtwhistles, the Sykes. The brothers of these girls are every one in business or in professions; they have something to do: their sisters have no earthly employment, but household work and sewing; no earthly pleasure, but an unprofitable visiting; and no hope, in all their life to come, of anything better. This stagnant state of things makes them decline in health: they are never well; and their minds and views shrink to wondrous narrowness.(…) They scheme, they plot, they dress to esnare husbands. (…) Could men live so themselves?”(p. 329)


Why am I saying that Charlotte Bronte was not very brave, then?

Her dealing with the woman question and the factory workers’ suffering is quite corageous in the social context of the Victorian Age but Charlotte, with SHIRLEY, drew back instead of daring more respect to what she had done in JANE EYRE: her good intentions are undermined by her acceptance of divisions of class, sex and race as natural and eternal. Her first and only historical novel deals with the Luddite riots (1811-12), the working-classes’ violent attacks against the introduction of machinery in factories. However, her effort to link the unfair suffering of workers to that of women is problematic from the start: she avoids representing the suffering of workers as fully as she depicts that of women. Then the novel’s middle-class women are as complicitous in the oppression of the workers as they are in “the regeneration of the interesting coloured population of the globe”. She fails to make the direct connection between the women’s right to be heard and that of the workers.

Moreover, in the scenes in which Robert Moore, the mill-owner male-protagonist of SHIRLEY faces the crowd of furious workers both the heroines and the narrator side with the hero.
So, I must admit, though reluctantly, that Charlotte Bronte was not as brave as her dear friend and first biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, who was writing and published her MARY BARTON in the same years (Shirley 1849 – Mary Barton 1848) or would again bravely advocate for better living and working conditions for factory-workers in her NORTH AND SOUTH (1855).


I liked SHIRLEY but was a bit disappointed by one of my favourite writers. I am sure it mustn’t have been easy to write against public opinion at that time, especially as a woman, but her analysis of the claims of working men concludes in a mystification: there aren’t enough factory jobs, yet there’s no way to provide them so long as machines are more efficient labourers than humans, or to reconcile the mill-owner’s (just) demand for increased productivity and profit with the (just) demand of his workers for steady occupation and income.
Elizabeth Gaskel, instead, lived in Manchester, the big industrial city in the north of England, as the wife of reverend Gaskell, and well knew the reality she describes through her writing. She sympathised with workers in their struggle to improve their living conditions; what she never approved of in the working class was the choice of violence as a fighting strategy. She absolutely rejected violence and arrogance both in the employers and in their employees. She invited them to face each other in an open, honest, man-to-man relationship based on dialogue. She was attacked by her friends enterpreuners who published in their newspapers harsh criticism against her MARY BARTON since they felt offended by the portrayal Gaskell did of their selfishness and inhumanity. But she went on writing RUTH (inspired by a “fallen woman” who became a prostitute she really met) or NORTH AND SOUTH ( where Margaret, the protagonist, and the narrator mostly side with the workers) .

12 comments:

costumedramas said...

I found this very interesting, Maria - I like the way you think around the subject and your choice of illustrations too.

It's a while since I read 'Shirley', so I can't say much to the purpose about your suggestion of Bronte being less brave than Gaskell in 'Mary Barton' in depiction of industrial problems, but it's something I'll be thinking about. They are two of my favourite writers and I always come back to them.

On another tack, I've read somewhere that the character of Shirley is based on Emily Bronte, and the incident where she is bitten by the dog really happened.

Enjoying your blog.:)

Judy

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@costumedramas
Hi, Judy! It's really gratifying to have competent visitors like you! I'm glad you've dropped by and thanks for your contribution to my post.

buy an essay said...

I like her Jane Eyre more than this one. It really depict the situation of women in that era.

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@buy an essay
I agree with you. I mean, I also like Jane Eyre more than Shirley. But I'm really interested in reading all by my favourite writers, even their less successful achievements or minor works. This is what I'm doing with the Brontes and Jane Austen in this period. Thanks for dropping by!

Shelly Steig said...

I am currently reading Shirley, and like you, had a very slow start. Perhaps part of that is because we are not introduced to the title character until mid-way through the book. Some of the characters who appear in the first chapters are hardly even players later on. You also have to get around some of Bronte's literary devices such as the narrator's interruptions and visions into the future (that once again don't drive the plot), and her use of the third person omniscient narrator. However, I still enjoyed the book and the similarities to North and South. And I do believe that Bronte showed a tremendous amount of courage in her depiction of a Victorian woman's inner thoughts and life.

Connoisseur said...

Actually, I beg to differ, I enjoyed Shirley more than Jane Eyre. I appraise the book from the perspective of enjoyment. I found her character of Caroline Helstone a very apt, perceptive commentary upon the differences between women and men in personalities, existence, etc. For all this, she is not a study in gender and politics, but a very real character to me, sadly constrained by her circumstances which are not her fault. Although I don't agree with her wandering aimlessly around the moors, breaking her heart over Robert Moore (who was very cruel in a way to her at the beginning, by enjoying her company so much, and then hinting he'd never marry her because he's only interested in profits. it seemed to me he was enjoying the best of both worlds. He couldn't seem to distance himself from Caroline though he'd essentially rejected her). But like any REAL and well-painted character, you cannot fault the author or even the character's own personality, for things you don't agree with. You accept it as much as you accept it in real people because they are NOT you. The facti was able to look past Caroline's weaknesses and still adore her very much shows how skillful and living a portrait she is.
And then enter Shirley Keeldar, who combines the best of feminine wiles with the means and even name of a male (to a certain extent. there's still things she can't do, like participate in a riot). In personal preference I respect Shirley more, but I am drawn to her personality less. She doesn't suffer at the constraints imposed on most women. She is singularly vivid. Both deserve the happy endings they achieved, and I think more independent women may agree more with her submission to Louis, but only Louis, at the end. After all, if you can't respect and look up to your husband, why marry him?
In contrast, I found the characters of Jane Eyre to be slightly alienating and formidable. I didn't get attached to Jane, or Rochester. They were people I didn't know, couldn't understand. I admire Jane's principles, but I cannot be her friend.
Of course, I don't have a degree in English or anything like that. I read these books for enjoyment, for my own tastes, not as a connoisseur might. I'm not really aware of any of the critical readings and backgrounds, and I sometimes find those things ruin books. I'm just taking it as a novel and enjoying it like that.

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Anonymous said...

I perfectly agree with what the Connoisseur had said about Shirley > Jane Eyre. I find myself connecting to Catherine more than I did with Jane Eyre. Nevertheless, the start was agonisingly dragging. I also think critiques ruin the essence of books. Though they sometimes help you see the novel from this or that perspective, they take the pleasure and enjoyment of reading out of it.

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