Saturday, 17 November 2012

1001 Books Review: Shirley

Some books come along exactly when you need them, and Shirley by Charlotte Bronte turned out to be just such a one.

As many of you will know, I am currently... not gainfully employed (although not through want of trying). As any of you who have met me will also know, I am the worst unemployed person in the world. If I haven't done six impossible things before breakfast, the day has been a failure. In an ideal world I'd be editing a book with my left hand, drafting an email with my right, making up a blog post in my head and filing with my feet. I really need to be busy, is what I'm saying. My brain just will not shut up.

I always wondered what women like me did before we were allowed to apply for jobs and have actual serious careers. I sort of hoped that they didn't know what they were missing.

Alas, no.

Shirley is technically about the frame-breaking riots in the North of England during the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century. Actually, though, that's all just background to a double marriage plot, itself window dressing for the concept that Bronte really wants to get across: how damaging it is not to give smart women a purpose in life.

Shirley has two heroines, Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar, and both are (as you would expect from Bronte) clever, witty and determined. Like all of Charlotte Bronte's leading women, they're Bronte repackaged, but it's the packaging Bronte chooses this time around that's so interesting. If you're expecting mousy Miss Eyre or plain and serious Lucy Snowe, you'll be surprised. Both Shirley and Caroline are knock-down gorgeous and adorably dainty. They look like the stereotypical dumbass girly girl of Victorian fiction: the fainter, the weeper, the scream-if-she-sees-a-mouser, the lady who can't wrap her pretty little head around a complex sewing pattern let alone an expenses sheet. The reader reads their physical descriptions and expects them to be stupid, and so do most of the novel's other characters.

Owner of a beautiful brain
Bronte, of course, is just waiting for you to fall into that trap. She knows that if this were a novel by Dickens, Caroline would be presented as a living doll, an angel in human form, with nothing between her ears but fluffy clouds and the nicer bits of the Bible, and she takes that preconception and mashes it into the ground. Caroline is sweet-natured, yes. She ties herself into knots trying to be dutiful to her overbearing uncle, a man who unthinkingly expects her to be happy sewing and doing her hair and staring at the wall. But although Caroline really tries to be a good and stupid girl, her brain just won't stop working. She begs to be given responsibilities, to be allowed become a governess, to do anything, and her uncle's response is along the lines of "Oh! The silly poppet! It mustn't worry its little head! I shall buy it a pretty dress and then it shall be happy." At which point Caroline takes to her bed and literally almost dies out of sheer unadulterated boredom.

Readers, in that moment I felt for her.

Shirley herself doesn't actually appear until page 150 (this is something that Victorian novels do a lot, and I find it really bizarre), but when she does she confounds expectations even more beautifully. An orphaned heiress with control over her own fortune and a keen business sense, Shirley has to be the predecessor of characters like The Well of Loneliness's Stephen Gordon. Like Stephen, she begins a lot of sentences with 'If I were a  man...', she refers to herself as a 'gentleman' and at one point she works out which of the women in the neighbourhood she'd be willing to marry. But (and I think this is an absolutely genius move on Bronte's part) Shirley does not have one single physical characteristic that is traditionally manly. She is very slight, her fingers are small and white, her face is pretty, her figure is slender. On the contrary, she is repeatedly described as feminine - meaning that her shrewdness, her ability to manage her business, her facility with numbers and her bold opinions must all be essentially female qualities. You can almost hear Charlotte Bronte yelling GOTCHA.

Caroline and Shirley are both utterly realistic and rounded human beings. They resolutely walk through snow, rain and wind without getting sick or fainting, they go on a daring escapade in the dead of night, Shirley uses a pistol, they have reasoned opinons about life, the universe and everything and, although they are set up as love rivals for the hand of one man, mill-owner Robert Moore, they never allow that rivalry to get in the way of their friendship. And they do it all while wearing really nice dresses. I think that Bronte's arguing for women to be seen for what they are already. They don't have to be like men, or not like women, to be worthy of respect. They just have to be allowed to develop the intelligence and strength of character they naturally have inside them.

I think it's also a nice touch that Bronte shows her smart women falling in love (and being loved themselves) without having to compromise their intellect. Yes, Bronte has a thing about teacher/student relationships that looks disturbing to many twenty-first century readers' eyes, but when you consider that the teachers she knew were the only men who valued her brain, and that she was one of those people who falls fervently in love with someone's brain, it all makes sense.

There's an idea that comes up in every Charlotte Bronte novel ever: that if two people are really in love they will suit each other. Not just fancy each other, but suit. People's characters need to be compatable, not just their faces - which is why I dig Bronte's attitude to love so much. She's totally right, but in being right she's before her time, because she's acknowledging that a woman's brain can be the match of a man's.

It's probably because of this that I think Charlotte Bronte is so uniquely wonderful at generating great sexual tension. Characters glare at each other, or don't speak, or even refuse to be in the same room together, and you suddenly know that they LOVE EACH OTHER and they are MEANT TO BE, and that if they are not allowed to be together, your whole brain will die. As I said at the time,

And I meant that.

I don't know why this novel isn't more widely known and read. Yes, it's a slow starter, and yes, like all of Bronte's other books, it's drowning in Biblical references complex enough to fox even the most theologically aware reader today. But it's amazing. It's a great story that doubles as a beautifully rational polemic against treating one half of the human race like idiot children. Shirley and Caroline are both immensely intelligent, obviously the equals of any of the novel's male characters. It's wildly stupid - and Bronte points this out forcefully - that they're being made to waste the talents they have on staring at walls. The answer that Shirley gives to this problem is simple: everyone's lives would be better if women got up off their sofas and went to do the work they're capable of.

Thank goodness that, today, I at least get that chance.

4.5 stars


  1. just read this meself recently. Didn't have time to do such an amazing job with my review as you've done with yours. Guess that's what comes from being gainfully unemployed ;-) Let's hope you don't find a job too soon and are thereby able to add a few more thought-provoking reviews to the blogosphere.

    1. There are upsides to everything! How's your 1001 project going? Mine's falling by the wayside a bit, I keep finding all these brilliant NEW books that I want to read.