'Shirley' - a Novel by Charlotte Bronte Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Shirley' - a Novel by Charlotte Bronte

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Charlotte Brontë:
Jane Eyre | Shirley | Villette | The Professor
An engraving of a house illustrating the 1876 edition of Shirley.

Charlotte Brontë was the eldest of the three Brontë sisters who became famous as authors. During her short lifetime (she was born on 21 April, 1816, and died on 31 March, 1855, at the age of just 38) she wrote various short stories and poems, plus four novels, including the novel Jane Eyre that she is best known for. Shirley was published in 1849. It is a 'social novel' dealing with factual historical events (the Napoleonic Wars and the Luddite Rebellion of 1811-12) in addition to the fictional story of Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar and their efforts to find their way in the world as women, with or without husbands.

The character of Shirley was inspired by Charlotte's sister Emily - Emily's dog Keeper also appeared as Shirley's dog Tartar. In particular, one scene in the novel was based on Emily's experience - she once tried to give a sick dog a drink of water, but it bit her. Fearful of rabies, she went home and seared the wound on her arm with a 'red hot Italian iron'.

The character of Caroline was inspired by Charlotte's sister Anne. In particular, Caroline seeks for a purpose in life and sets her sights on becoming a governess, just as Anne had done. Later, Caroline falls ill with the same symptoms as Anne experienced when she contracted tuberculosis. Unlike Anne, who had died in May 1949, Caroline recovers from her illness, thanks to the care of Mrs Pryor1 (a character partly inspired by Charlotte's friend and former teacher Miss Wooler).

A room in Oakwell Hall, the inspiration for Fieldhead

Robert Gérard Moore is a merchant whose father was from Yorkshire, England and whose mother was from Antwerp, Belgium - he is described as, 'thin, dark, sallow, very foreign of aspect, with shadowy hair carelessly streaking his forehead.' At the start of the novel, he is renting a woollen mill on Shirley's estate of Fieldhead but is struggling to make a living because of the Napoleonic Wars limiting the market for his produce. To cut costs, he decides to invest in machinery that will enable fewer people to make more cloth in a given time. This makes him unpopular with the locals, as the machinery will put many of them out of a job.

As in The Professor, the first novel Charlotte wrote, the merchant has a brother who becomes a teacher. Louis Moore visits Fieldhead in the role of tutor to Shirley's cousin Henry Sympson. Henry is 'a young cripple' who walks with a crutch. He and Shirley used to be tutored together by Louis when they all lived in Sympson Grove.

The novel begins with a description of three curates at dinner. The characters were based on people Charlotte knew via her father, who was rector of Haworth in Yorkshire. Mr Malone was inspired by James Smith, Mr Brontë's curate 1843-44, who had a reputation for being argumentative and spendthrift. Mr Sweeting was based on James Chesterton Bradley, the short-statured and musical vicar at the neighbouring parish of Oakworth. Mr Donne was inspired by Joseph Grant, Mr Brontë's curate 1844-1847 and friend to Arthur Nicholls. Mr Nicholls became Mr Brontë's curate in 1845, married Charlotte in 1854, and inspired the character of Mr Macarthey, who replaced Mr Malone, and whom Charlotte described as 'decent, decorous, and conscientious' in the novel.

After the incident with the sick dog, Shirley becomes ill with worry, but confides in Louis. Robert is shot by a protestor, but Caroline helps him to recover. The 1812 repeal of the Order in Council that had restricted trade with Europe and the United States offered potential for Yorkshire's cloth manufacturing industry to prosper once more, so the novel ends on a happy note.


The novel is relatively long (the Penguin Classics 2006 edition is 704 pages compared to Jane Eyre's 624) and covers several different themes. As well as the historical detail relating to Napoleon and Wellington, and the struggle of the working classes2 to make a living in the face of technological change and exploitation by the ruling classes, there is also discussion of politics and religion that had relevance in Charlotte's own time. There are humorous episodes as well, often centred on the curates, such as the time Mr Donne and Mr Malone visited Shirley but were surprised by Tartar, who chased them up a slippery staircase.

As with her sisters' novels, Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Emily's Wuthering Heights, Charlotte makes reference to phrenology (judging people by the shape of their heads). For example, Shirley's neighbour Mr Yorke is described as being 'without the Organ of Veneration... without the Organ of Comparison... and thirdly, he had too little of the Organs of Benevolence and Ideality.' Mr Yorke's 'paucity of ideality' leads Charlotte to say, '[W]ho cares for imagination? Who does not think it a rather dangerous, senseless attribute - akin to weakness - perhaps partaking of frenzy - a disease rather than a gift of the mind?' even though (or perhaps because) she had a vivid imagination herself.

There are other episodes in the novel that could be termed 'feminism' in modern parlance. For example, Robert's employee Joe Scott quotes the Bible doctrine, 'Let the woman learn in silence, with all subjection. I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve.' Caroline and Shirley argue with him, and even suggest there could have been a mistranslation from the original Greek so the passage could have been, 'Let the woman speak out whenever she sees fit to make an objection. It is permitted to a woman to teach and to exercise authority as much as may be. Man, meantime, cannot do better than hold his peace.'

The novel popularised the name 'Shirley' for girls - previously, it had been a name given to boys only. In the novel, it is said, '[Shirley's] parents, who had wished to have a son, finding that, after eight years of marriage, Providence had granted them only a daughter, bestowed on her the same masculine family cognomen they would have bestowed on a boy, if with a boy they had been blessed.' Shirley is nicknamed Captain Keeldar as she manages her estate, including the mill that generates half her income, as a son of the house would have done. 'If she had had the bliss to be really Shirley Keeldar, Esq., lord of the manor of Briarfield, there was not a single fair one in this and the two neighbouring parishes whom she should have felt disposed to request to become Mrs Keeldar, lady of the manor.' Shirley says, 'Before I marry, I am resolved to esteem - to admire - to love.' Although she would leave a tyrant, she says, 'I prefer a master - one in whose presence I shall feel obliged and disposed to be good; one whose control my impatient temper must acknowledge; a man whose approbation can reward, whose displeasure punish me; a man I shall feel it impossible not to love, and very possible to fear.'

Shirley was not as much of a success during Charlotte's lifetime as Jane Eyre had been, but it still sold well. To date (2022), only one film adaptation of Shirley has been made, a black & white silent drama in 1922. However, the variety of themes in the novel have been extensively studied by academics since then. Thus Shirley plays as important a role in English Literature as Charlotte's other novels.

Images courtesy of Archive.org

1Mrs Agnes Pryor's maiden name was Gray, reminding readers of the protagonist of Anne's first novel Agnes Grey, and she left her abusive, alcoholic husband as the protagonist of Anne's second novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall had done.2The novel's attitude to class is illustrated by the quote: 'There is nothing the lower orders like better than a little downright good-humoured rating. Flattery they scorn very much; honest abuse they enjoy. They call it speaking plainly.'

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