Classic Book Review: Shirley

Shirley by Charlotte Brontë

by Charlotte BrontëLucasta Miller (Introduction), Jessica Cox (Editor)
5 out of 5 stars

Caroline and Shirley are dear friends, but their friendship is tested when they both appear to have fallen in love with the same man. They never speak of it, but they each suffer alone with their hearts in anguish until the truth can be known.
Robert Moore, a mill owner, is threatened by his ex-employees when he brings in new machinery to replace their jobs. A riot ensues and the mill is attacked. Robert must act swiftly and decidedly to save his business in the face of violence, but he leaves no room in his heart to show compassion to the poor. He struggles to find a balance between charity and justice.

I love that this book uses industrialization as a major theme and setting in the story. It provides a lot of action and drama into the plot, and I love the actual history that is represented. (I find the setting similar to “North and South” by Elizabeth Gaskell, which is one of my favorite books.) However, I wish that the industrial theme had been explored even further. It is very important in the beginning of the story and then kind of peters out. I wish there had been more about the relationships between masters and workers, and even the politics and pride that would keep these people at odds with each other. However, the scenes that do explore this, do it very well!

The theme of unrequited love is explored extensively in this book. Just like in Villette, there is a deep psychological analysis going on about the condition of heartbreak, and how suppressed emotions can tear your health apart and affect every area of your life. And it’s not just romantic love. Caroline longs to know her parents whom she doesn’t remember. She is craving family connection, but is left alone, loving the memory of people who cannot return her love.

There are strong themes of being lonely in the middle of a crowd. Caroline especially finds it difficult to approach people or find friends with whom she can truly connect. There are many scenes where characters are looking for connection on a special level, but they find only small minds and meager hearts in their social circle. I loved the parts of the story where Caroline really begins to look closely at the people around her and finds that many people that she had previously dismissed actually have extremely good and amiable qualities that she had overlooked. She begins to cultivate friendships with them, and finds her loneliness and depression lessen.

I really loved the scenes where Caroline and Shirley are longing to be able to take action in their lives with the kind of freedom that men have in their society. Caroline wishes she could go out into the world and do something useful, but her only respectable or viable option would be to become a governess, which would be too difficult for her. Therefore, she is left with no options at all, and must stay where she is. “I believe single women should have more to do – better occupation than they possess now.” I love how Charlotte Bronte approaches the subject that there is something wrong in a society that has no scope of independence and respectable work for educated single women. The characters contemplate their options for self-reliance in a logical but passionate way that is very compelling even today. It’s especially meaningful considering how the Bronte sisters’ own options for an independent life were constricted.

Writing Style:
I love the vigorous writing style, and all the engaging dialogue. Each scene has humor and drama beautifully balanced. There are many serious subjects, but it’s blended wonderfully with fun and laughter too. I love the rich vocabulary and the metaphors that bring new perspectives to life. It’s truly genius writing on so many levels!

I was surprised to find the romance so flowery and sentimental. I didn’t think the “Oh my darling, your eyes are like the stars” type of stuff would be Charlotte Bronte’s style, but somehow I liked it. It felt in keeping with the characters and the expression of their personalities. And it had a sharp Bronte flavor to it that kept it from being too sappy or silly.

(Like many classics, there is some French dialogue, so have a translator app handy.)

Caroline has such a gentle personality. She is definitely an introvert, and has to really call on all her courage to teach a class at church, or attend an event where she will have to talk to lots of people and serve tea. However, she does. She teaches the class. She attends the event. She makes conversation and selflessly puts aside her own wants and needs to meet the expectations and needs of others. She sometimes appears weak, but I think in many ways she is the strongest character in the entire book. She suffers quietly, never asking for help. She is meek in the sense of having self-control, and she is humble in the sense of thinking of others before herself. She is intelligent and innocent, but also wise and mature in some ways while being a little childish in others. She is wonderfully complex. She seems to understand people in a deep way, and has an instinct for knowing just how to talk with them on their level. She can be shy, but she speaks out strongly when she is confronted with injustice or censure. I loved one scene where she picks a fight with an old mean gossip, and doesn’t care if she offends the lady because Caroline knows she is in the right. It’s that high moral sense of what is fitting and right that gives her social courage. She comes close to being angelic, but it is her internal suffering that gives her a steely resolve and gives her character a little bite. I was so impressed with her intelligent thoughts and feelings through the ups and downs of the plot. Her generous heart never wavered.

Although Caroline is really the central character, Shirley is the titular character because of the effect she has on everyone around her. She is the focus of so many of the other characters, and the catalyst of their own stories and character arcs. Even when Shirley is not in a scene, the other characters are often talking about her. When Shirley is in a scene, she leads the tone with her witty dialogue and quick thinking.
Shirley’s personality was partially modeled after Charlotte’s sister, Emily Bronte. She is wild and passionate, unruly and unconventional. She is physically courageous, and mentally tortured, and absolutely willful. I love that Charlotte Bronte doesn’t shy away from Shirley’s faults, so that Shirley is a well-rounded, realistic character, who feels larger than life and bigger than the words that describe her. She is a good person, but she is not an angel. I feel like she is a tigress holding herself in check, pulling herself back by her own leash. She has so much potential for extreme good or extreme evil, and she makes the choice. No one chooses for her. She has the power to choose who she will be. She consistently chooses good. I adore her for it!

Robert Moore is a complex character as well, and I loved seeing his character development. He goes through more changes than anyone, and is almost like a different person by the end. In the beginning, he can be quite harsh and cold. He’s very solitary and unwilling to form any strong attachments of friendship with anyone. However, he goes through the fire, and stares down at destruction, and his life is changed. It’s powerful writing and so engaging to read about. I don’t know that I really like him though. I found him infinitely interesting, but somehow I don’t quite trust him. He’s a little too calculating and careful. A man like that might do anything, anything at all, and find some logical reason for his wickedness and walk away without remorse. Hmmm… that’s why he needs a good romantic arc and a good woman to keep an eye on him. He can be kind and soft-hearted, but he needs balance in his life to keep his baser tendencies in check. He can be quite noble and high-minded, and I was glad to see him humble and penitent in the end. He changed, and learned, and grew into a new person. I love that about him.

Robert’s brother, Louis Moore, is even more of an enigma. I don’t think I quite like him either. I’m fascinated by him, enchanted with his charm and poise and strength, but I don’t think I quite trust him either. He’s so very calm and collected. I was delighted the one time he lost his cool and acted without thinking. Finally, the REAL Louis without his carefully constructed façade! If he would just let down his guard a little more, then I would have room to like him plenty. I was captivated by his romantic journal entries, but he would insist on saying chauvinistic things about “taming” Shirley. Boy, that girl has tamed her own wild nature with no help from you! Get off your high horse and leave other people to learn their own life lessons without you ‘teaching’ them from your high pedestal of perfection. Humph. And again I say, Humph. Still… he is fascinating. Ah well. …humph.

One of the great things about this book are the fabulous side characters. Half the time, the author introduces a new side character, and takes the time introduce their family, their background, their appearance, their personality, and their demeanor. By the time I’ve read five pages about this new side character, I am impatient. “Get back to my beloved main characters!” I think. “I don’t have time for these insignificant side people.”
And then… oh and then… somewhere along the line, later in the story, that little side character pops up again, suddenly important to the plot, doing things and saying things and making a difference. Aha! So that’s why I needed to know their relationships, their family, their education, and their boring daily habits. Now it makes sense. Now I care. Now I desperately care! Now I am totally in love with this adorable side character. How could I have ever called them insignificant? Was I blind? Was I heartless? You darling side character, you have stolen my heart, you little rascal!

Mrs. Pryor is an interesting and enigmatic side character. Her personality is eccentric, and she has a quiet emotion about her that makes the reader think she is hiding things. I loved her story arc where we gradually, little by tiny little bit, get to know her and understand her, and eventually learn her secrets.

The pastor Mr. Hall only has a few good scenes and some lovely dialogue, but I found myself wishing for more scenes with him. No wonder all the characters love him. He’s wise and good and kind. He is cheerful and encouraging and a steady rock of faith. He reminds me of my Dad! No wonder I like his character so much.

The Yorke family are strange and astounding. Each of their personalities are forceful and stormy in different ways. I think if I knew them in real life they would make me tired. They are so energetic. I completely fell in love with that hooligan Martin Yorke. What a selfish little rascal with a heart of gold!

I found it interesting that when little Jessie Yorke is introduced, it is immediately revealed that ‘unbeknownst to the characters’ she will be dead within a few years. (This isn’t a spoiler since it is revealed in the very beginning of the Yorke family’s introduction.) The fact that Jessie is going to die years later doesn’t have any bearing on the story at all. She doesn’t even die within the timeline of the story. I suppose it makes the reader more sympathetic to her, but she’s already a sweet and lovable character. I’m not sure why it was added, other than for a chance to digress about childhood death and grief. It is meaningful though, when you consider that Charlotte Bronte lost her two older sisters to tuberculosis when they were only 10 and 11 years old. Maybe the author is working through some of her grief by having little Jessie die at a young age too.

Overall, I loved this book so much. Even the bits that I didn’t exactly like, still fascinated me.

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