The sixth book I read in the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge was Shirley by Charlotte Bronte. This book fits into the category of A Classic by a Woman Author. I chose this book because I had recently watched a docudrama, To Walk Invisible; the Bronte Sisters which was quite an eye opener. I highly recommend it if you haven’t seen it yet. This inside look into the Bronte family piqued my interest in reading more of the works of the Bronte sisters.
Shirley is the second novel written by Charlotte Bronte. It was published in 1849 just two years after her first and most popular novel, Jane Eyre. The story is set in Yorkshire and deals with the economic depression brought on by the War of 1812 between England and the United States and the exploits of Napoleon in Europe, both of which prevented trade and produced unemployment and hardship. It also deals with Luddite uprisings, that group of workers upset about the machinery, especially in cotton and woolen mills, that they felt were responsible for their unemployment. This was a day and time when there were no safety nets and unemployment could mean starvation.
Aside from the novel’s namesake, Shirley, there are several main characters whose lives are woven together throughout the story. Robert Moore runs the local mill and is in debt and struggling to keep his operation running during the challenging economic times. His cousin, Caroline Helstone, who has been raised by her uncle, the local church rector, after her mother abandoned the family and her father died is deeply in love with Moore. And although it appears that he cares for her as well, he is in no position to marry given his financial situation which creates tension throughout the story. Caroline’s struggle with what to do with her life given the few choices she has as a woman is a main theme throughout the story.
Shirley Keeldar, the rich heiress and owner of the mill is a very independent woman and a strong character in the story. She is just a few years older than Caroline and they become good friends. She is highly regarded by the community and does what she can to ease the suffering of those displaced by the economic conditions so many face.
The book begins with an emphasis on Caroline and her life. In fact Shirley doesn’t enter the story until about 150 pages in! I kept wondering, early on, when we would be introduced to the namesake of the book. So much attention to detail was spent on Caroline that I wondered why the book wasn’t named Caroline instead of Shirley. In fact, I felt Caroline’s character was better fleshed out than Shirley’s was.
The beginning chapters of the book definitely drew me in. This was not a book that took awhile to get into. But it was a book that, at times, took some effort to push through. More than once I was tempted to lay it aside. However, I did finish it and was glad that I did. I was hoping the ending would not disappoint and it certainly did not. But getting there was challenging at times.
That said the writing is wonderful. There were many passages that I reread just for the sheer pleasure of the words! The last chapter especially tied up loose ends, filled in some blanks, and gave the “rest of the story” for some of the characters. It helped to make up for some of the ambivalent feelings I had at times while reading through the book.
I think understanding some about Charlotte Bronte’s life and the personal struggles she experienced helped to make the novel more real, especially the passages dealing with the narrowness of life choices open to women at the time.
Do give this book a chance. I don’t think you’ll be sorry.