I snapped up an old Everyman’s Library copy of Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley at Recycled Reads for $2. Although worn and covered with library stamps, the little volume is sturdy. Physically, they are wonderful books, just the right size for the hand and well bound.

Most of Shirley is written in a voice that sounds like Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester. I think it interesting to imagine that Charlotte Bronte identified more with Mr. Rochester than Jane Eyre. It’s so easy to mistake the voice in a first person narrative for the author’s, thinly-disguised. In one of my own stories, I realized I could write more freely if I wrote with the voice of the character that was the least like me. Jane Eyre, although very singular, tried always to appear correct. Mr. Rochester had the wealth and position to do as he pleased. Charlotte Bronte grants Shirley the same freedom.

Quotes and Notes

“…it is a novel of wonderful interest, for the framework has been clothed with the stuff of her own mind and much of it is unforgettable. It contains more of her thought than any other of her novels, and for the reader who comes to it with some knowledge of Charlotte Bronte’s life, Shirley is an oddly moving experience. And that, after all, is how most of us approach this uneven book. We read Jane Eyre in youth, falling at once and for ever under its spell. Next, we turn to Mrs. Gaskell…” –Margaret Lane, Introduction p vi

So I have followed a well-worn path, although I’ve yet to meet any other travellers.

Reading Shirley, I’m reminded of a remark I read years ago from Virginia Woolf (from A Room of Her Own?) in which she complained of a passage in Jane Eyre where Jane is feeling bitter that a woman’s life is so narrow and constrained. That one outburst in Jane Eyre fills most of Shirley.

“When she wrote Shirley, Charlotte [Bronte] believed that she would never marry. She had pondered much on spinsterhood, and was appalled at the barren lives of middle-class unmarried women, without education, without occupation, with nothing to expect from society but contempt.” –Margaret Lane, Introduction p viii

The frustration at being denied occupation and employment colors the whole book. So while I thought Virginia Woolf was being a bit hard on Charlotte Bronte for the passage in Jane Eyre, I begin to see her point. This isn’t to say that Shirley isn’t worth reading; it’s just more interesting reading it for historical insight than as fiction.

However, the opening lines are wonderful.

“Of late years, an abundant shower of curates has fallen upon the north of England: they lie very thick on the hills; every parish has one or more of them; they are young enough to be very active, and ought to be doing a great deal of good.” –1

Charlotte Bronte, who was writing under the pen name Currer Bell, then goes on to savage those curates. Unfortunately, her identity and those of the curates quickly became public knowledge.

“‘Some people say we shouldn’t give alms to the poor, Shirley.’
‘They are great fools for their pains. For those who are not hungry, it is easy to palaver about the degradation of charity’.” –209

Being raised as a Catholic, I came quite late to the knowledge whole sects of Protestants had taken St. Paul’s and Martin Luther’s idea that good works flow from faith and twisted them into the justification that faith alone matters and thus we should abandon good works. It seems that not a lot has changed in 200 years. It’s still odd that the people who claim to be Christians are the ones arguing against helping the less fortunate.

“…till a man had indisputably proved himself bad and a nuisance, Shirley was willing to think him good and an acquisition, and to treat him accordingly. This disposition made her a general favourite…nor did it diminish the value of her intimate friendship, which was a distinct thing from social benevolence, depending , indeed, on a quite different part of her character. Miss Helstone was the choice of her affection and intellect; Misses Pearson, Sykes, Wynne, etc., etc., only the profiters by her good-nature and vivacity.” — p 234

“…when I see or hear either man or woman couple shame with love, I know their minds are coarse, their associations debased.” — p 251

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