In SHIRLEY, Charlotte Bronte sets her story among mills, their owners, and workers and strikers, in 1811-1812. I started it to learn about the history and thinking of that time, to use as reference for my new story, but ended up caught up in the story and the original yet universal characters. At 600+ pages and somewhat discursive style — and with that intentionally off-putting first chapter — the book requires a commitment from readers, but they do receive a sturdy payoff by the end.
I don’t know why I’m still surprised, but of course writers using distant omniscient point of view could well describe the thoughts and motivations of their people, treat subjects and events with realism, and experiment with form. Bronte, as in the more-famous JANE EYRE, breaks the fictional wall by talking directly to the reader (“Reader, I married him” being the classic line from JE). A paragraph into SHIRLEY, we read:
If you think, from this prelude, that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you never were more mistaken. 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 unromantic as Monday morning…
(from SHIRLEY, Penguin Classics edition 2006 (1849))
Of course, part of the story is a romance, and melodrama. The characters must suffer mightily, in deed and in mind, before some find their happy ending. And Bronte even includes a sort of epilogue, showing a few characters further on in life, reaping what they sowed during the story.
Some parts rang so true they made me laugh out loud. In my day job, I read about a lot of cognitive science research, including the benefits of exercise on the brain and mind. Not that it’s anything new:
‘My dear! You are surely not superstitious?’
‘No, Mrs Pryor; but I think I grow what is called nervous. I see things under a darker aspect than I used to do. I have fears I never used to have — not of ghosts, but of omens and diastrous events; and I have an inexpressible weight on my mind which I would give the world to shake off, and I cannot do it.’
‘Strange!’ cried Shirley. ‘I never feel so.’ Mrs Pryor said nothing.
‘Fine weather, pleasant days, pleasant scenes are powerless to give me pleasure,’ continued Caroline. ‘Calm evenings are not calm to me; moonlight, which I used to think mild, now only looks mournful. Is this weakness of mind, Mrs Pryor, or what is it? I cannot help it: I often struggle against it: I reason; but reason and effort make no difference.’
‘You should take more exercise,’ said Mrs Pryor.
(SHIRLEY, p. 227)
A big theme is the place of women in the world, or as heroine Caroline Helstone, 18, puts it ‘Half a century of existence may lie before me. How am I to occupy it?’ As is still true in some societies, most women in the early 1800s weren’t taught much and many weren’t expected to do much–certainly not go to work, if they were ladies. For a person who thinks and strives (and already has a staff to do all the housework and child-rearing), that doesn’t leave much.
And their worst tyrants were often of their own gender (I’m reminded of those morality-police ladies at the Iran-Germany women’s soccer match in the documentary ‘Football under cover’). Any straying from the path is called-out and castigated, if silently, as in this scene of Shirley singing a ballad containing words of passionate love:
Shirley sang them well: she breathed into the feeling, softness; she poured round the passion, force: her voice was fine that evening; its expression dramatic: she impressed all, and charmed one.
On leaving the instrument, she went to the fire, and sat down on a seat — semi-stool, semi-cushion: the ladies were round her — none of them spoke. The Misses Sympson and the Misses Nunneley looked upon her, as quiet poultry might look on an egret, an ibis, or any other strange fowl. What made her sing so? They never sang so. Was is proper to sing with such expression, with such originality — so unlike a school-girl? Decidedly not: it was strange; it was unusual. What was strange must be wrong; what was unusual must be improper. Shirley was judged.
(SHIRLEY, pp 509-510)
The tone is aggressive, ironic, off-putting, pessimistic and sometimes angry. In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, Lucasta Miller describes the many ways it is so different from Bronte’s first, JANE EYRE, with its tighter narrative and first-person intimate voice. But the canvas of SHIRLEY is wider, and the external conflict far greater–between classes, between manufacturer and labor, between women who won’t fit a mold and their elders and youngers who would force them to.