Musings on Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley


Title page of Shirley (public domain) – via Wikimedia Commons

Shirley is a most unusual Brontë novel. 

And it’s also the first Brontë novel I almost struggled through.

If you have been following my blog or Twitter over the past year, you may have surmised that I have essentially become a huge Brontë fan since I read Wuthering Heights in June of 2012.  I have now read six of the sisters’ seven novels, seen a number of film adaptations of their works, and made a trip to Haworth to visit the Brontë Parsonage Museum, about which I will have a detailed post later this month.

That in mind, suffice to say that I found the background information about Shirley far more interesting than Shirley itself.  For while Charlotte Brontë was writing Shirley, she endured the deaths of her brother Branwell followed by her sisters Emily and Anne.  Charlotte worked her sisters into Shirley, but the personal trauma likely adds to difficult nature of the novel, in which the sum doesn’t quite equal the parts.


The story opens like many Shakespeare plays: we have a number of rather comical characters – in Shirley’s case, curates – talking ever so vaguely about what will become part of the main storyline before they disappear into the background of the story.  Who exactly the curates are and what their function in the story is, I still don’t quite understand.  But they pave the way for the main characters slowly take over the narrative.

But I must put the emphasis on slowly, for several pages pass before the first main character appears – and nearly 150 before Shirley herself appears.

Unlike other Brontë novels, Shirley is not written through its main character’s viewpoint; rather, it has an omniscient narrator, albeit one who talks to the reader like the narrators in Jane Eyre or Villette.  But if you think the book will be like those other two in any way, the narrator destroys the thought on the very first page:

Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry, and reverie?  Do you expect passion, and stimulus, and melodrama?  Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard.  Something real, cool and solid lies before you; something as unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake with the consciousness that they must rise and betake themselves thereto.

The narrator is right to temper our hopes.  For there is romance in Shirley, but it is understated; there is melodrama, but it is fleeting.  Rather, Shirley operates as a portrait of a group of people populating early 1800s Yorkshire.

There are the brothers Moore, Robert the clothing manufacturer and Louis the poor tutor.  There are the introspective Caroline Helstone and the headstrong Shirley Keeldar, apparently modeled, respectively, after sisters Anne and Emily Brontë.  A host of other supporting characters join these four, but I’d like to take some time to discuss Shirley herself.

Shirley Keeldar and Emily Brontë

Shirley is a woman in a man’s world.  She revels in running her estate as though she were the male head of house.  Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Shirley for inquisitive readers of today is the significance of the title.

Here’s a bit of trivia for you: Shirley was not a girl’s name before the publication of Shirley; it was a surname often passed to male heirs, as was the tradition at the time.  Shirley thus not only has a man’s demeanor but also a man’s name.

Through naming her titular female character Shirley, Charlotte Brontë fundamentally disrupted the gender norms of the time – and in the process created a new name for girls.


Title page of Gaskell’s biography (public domain) – via Wikimedia Commons

Although Shirley is a co-leading player in the novel alongside Caroline, the novel is, after all, called Shirley, denoting authorial preference to the titular character, just as Emily was Charlotte’s beloved sister.  Through Shirley, Charlotte apparently envisioned what Emily would have been like if she had been born into better circumstances, per Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte:

The character of Shirley herself, is Charlotte’s representation of Emily. I mention this, because all that I, a stranger, have been able to learn about her has not tended to give either me, or my readers, a pleasant impression of her. But we must remember how little we are acquainted with her, compared to that sister, who, out of her more intimate knowledge, says that she “was genuinely good, and truly great,” and who tried to depict her character in Shirley Keeldar, as what Emily Brontë would have been, had she been placed in health and prosperity.

A scene of Shirley cauterizing her own wound from a rabid dog was apparently inspired by a similar event in Emily’s life – and also recalls the dogs attacking Cathy in Emily’s Wuthering Heights.  In addition to the nods to Emily, the governess character – Mrs. Pryor – reveals her maiden name to be Grey and later her first name to be Agnes, thus giving her the same name as the titular character in Anne’s first novel.

I have found it helpful to know a bit of the Brontë biography when reading the other Brontë novels, but none so much as ShirleyI read Shirley almost as Charlotte’s subtle tribute to her sisters, adding new layers to the Brontë myth – and a good dose of sadness.

It is only through thinking about Shirley in terms of the lives and work of the Brontë sisters that I was able to enjoy the novel.  It contains a number of discussions of political and social issues (chiefly, the Napoleonic Wars and the rise of machines in manufacturing), but I did not connect as strongly to those sections.

Shirley, thus, is a mixed bag, but I think that Brontë fans will find something intriguing in it.

And that’s why, when all is said and done, I cannot recommend Shirley except to those who are already Brontë fans or have a particular interest in the historical time period.

How do you feel about needing to know more about an author’s life to understand his/her work?

This is Book #14 off my Classics Club list.


2 thoughts on “Musings on Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley

  1. I had NO IDEA that Shirley was, as one time, not a girl’s name.

    I’m not sure if I need to know more about an author to understand the work but sometimes it’s important, such as the example of “Shirley” you’ve provided. I don’t think I would have read this book but, after going through your post, I think I would pick it up if I saw it. What a sad time in Charlotte B’s life.

    • I too generally feel that I don’t need to know about the author’s life to dissect the work, but with the Brontës, I find that their lives so influenced their work that it really helps. And, yes, while a good deal of the story of their lives is rather depressing, this particular moment in Charlotte’s life must have been simply awful. And somehow Shirley was written along the way.

      I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book if it ever makes it over to you, and thanks for sharing this on Twitter, by the way!

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