Monday, 10 September 2012

'Shirley' by Charlotte Bronte (1849)

Synopsis: the half-Belgian manufacturer Robert Moore is struggling financially and decides that marrying the beautiful, wealthy, independent and vivacious Shirley Keeldar will solve his financial problems - but he's really in love with his cousin, and Shirley's friend, Caroline Helstone. Caroline is pretty, shy, bored and lonely and is living as a ward in her uncle's home. Shirley, meanwhile, is in love with Robert's brother Louis but he's an impoverished tutor and her family would be opposed to the match. As this love square plays out, Robert also introduces labour-saving machinery at his Yorkshire mill but this stirs up anger and bad feeling amongst his workers. Several of the workers riot and try to kill Robert.

Shirley was written in between Jane Eyre and Villette. It's notable for being Charlotte Bronte's only historical novel and is set during the time of the Napoleonic Wars and Luddite Riots of 1811-12. The book really doesn't feel like a Regency novel though; and you might be interested to know that the only reason why Charlotte Bronte made Shirley a historical novel was because she didn't want to cause controversy by commenting on contemporary issues. Another thing that is particularly notable about Shirley is that the title is actually quite misleading. Shirley herself isn't the main character and the story isn't told from her point-of-view. The book is actually told in third-person and there are many characters. Shirley is probably Charlotte Bronte's least-famous novel and it's had no screen adaptations apart from an obscure silent film that was made in 1922. There are very few readers who would claim that this book is her best work either. The majority of Bronte fans would argue that Jane Eyre is her best work although I do know there's a minority of people out there who prefer Villette. Even in Charlotte Bronte's time the book wasn't that much of a hit. Charlotte Bronte lost all three of her siblings - Branwell, Emily and Anne - in the space of a year when she wrote the book. She only carried on writing because it was the only thing that was keeping her sane. She also hoped that when she eventually finished that the book would be just as wildly successful as Jane Eyre but it wasn't. I do feel really sorry for her but... I'm still not that keen on this book. Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre is a classic and it's one of my all-time favourite books; but although I've tried I just can't bring myself to like her other novels all that much. I didn't like Villette much and I wasn't overly impressed with Shirley either although I did prefer it to Villette by the end. I'll explain the reason for that later. For now I'll just point out my problems with this book.

The first half of Shirley is extremely slow-moving and all of the political and economic stuff in it really bored me. I found it hard to keep track of all the secondary characters as well. There's just so many of them! As an example: the first chapter begins with an account of the town's three curates at dinner, including their different personalities and eating habits. But these three curates are very minor characters and don't serve much of a purpose to the story at all. Charlotte Bronte just gets bogged down with introducing the characters and setting. The book is just over 600 pages long and a good third of it could have been edited out without any major effect on the story. My final problem with this book is that, just like Villette, you can tell that Charlotte Bronte had prejudices against foreigners and Catholics/Methodists. I know that these prejudices were very common in Charlotte Bronte's time and I don't judge her for it but it still made me uncomfortable while I was reading.

I'm glad that I carried on reading the book though because, at around 300 pages in, the story finally begins to pick up and we finally get some action. We get gun-fighting, a riot, a murder attempt, a love square, a long-lost mother and daughter reuniting, and even a rabies subplot! I quite liked the book's two heroines as well. I enjoyed the relationship between them and the contrast between them both. Apparently the character of Caroline is based on Anne Bronte; and Shirley is based on what Charlotte thought Emily Bronte would have been like if she'd been born into a wealthy family. Since I liked Caroline and Shirley I take that to mean that I'd have liked Emily and Anne. I like that! I found both Caroline and Shirley's characters more engaging than Lucy Snowe in Villette so that's my main reason for preferring Shirley over that book. I quite liked the character of Martin as well. Also, there isn't as much French in Shirley as there is in Villette so I didn't have to keep flicking to the footnotes all the time so I could understand what the characters were saying.

All in all, Shirley isn't a bad book. It's fairly dull to start off with yes but it does improve as it goes along and I'd say it's worth a read if you're already a die-hard Bronte fan. If you're a newcomer to the Brontes I'd suggest starting on Jane Eyre or her sister's novels Wuthering Heights or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, all of which are better. I'd also suggest reading Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (which is also better) first as well. Elizabeth Gaskell was a close friend of Charlotte Bronte and I noticed some very striking similarities between Shirley and North and South! I know I'm not the only one whose noticed these similarities either! Both books have romance in them (although it did take a lot longer for that to emerge in Shirley). Both books have angry workers and rioting. Both books are set up north. Both books have the name Helston(e) in them. Both books have a mill whose name ends in "-lborough". Charlotte Bronte was born in a town called Thornton and there's a character called Thornton in North and South. And here's a really spooky similarity! In the BBC adaptation of North and South the character of Thornton is played by Richard Armitage and there's a character called Armitage in Shirley! Oooooh-oooh!

Rating: 3/5

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