Book cover for Shirley, by Charlotte Bronte

Shirley, by Charlotte Brontë (English classic)

“Written at a time of social unrest, [Shirley] is set during the period of the Napoleonic Wars, when economic hardship led to riots in the woollen district of Yorkshire. A mill-owner, Robert Moore, is determined to introduce new machinery despite fierce opposition from his workers; he ignores their suffering, and puts his own life at risk. Robert sees marriage to the wealthy Shirley Keeldar as the solution to his difficulties, but he loves his cousin Caroline. She suffers misery and frustration, and Shirley has her own ideas about the man she will choose to marry.”

I really wanted to like this book and began it with that intention, and by the time I finished it, I did like it—I just didn’t love it. I think the reason was because it never completely captivated me. Brontë begins the novel by describing many minor characters in detail, and I had difficulty understanding which characters the story would follow, which made it all seem rather pointless to me in the beginning. As the novel and its underlying themes unfold, it does become just as much about a community of people as it does the lead characters, which gives at least some purpose for the detailed descriptions of the secondary characters. Structurally, this novel begins with a community in turmoil and ends as that community begins to come out of the turmoil. This struggle is mirrored on an individual level with several of the characters, in particular Caroline Helstone and Robert Moore. This observation puts into words what I believe is the overall theme of the novel:

Most people have had a period or periods in their lives when they have felt thus forsaken—when, having long hoped against hope, and still seen the day of fruition deferred, their hearts have truly sickened within them. This is a terrible hour, but it is often that darkest point which precedes the rise of day—that turn of the year when the icy January wind carries over the waste at once the dirge of departing winter and the prophecy of coming spring. The perishing birds, however, cannot thus understand the blast before which they shiver; and as little can the suffering soul recognize, in the climax of its affliction, the dawn of its deliverance. Yet, let whoever grieves still cling fast to love and faith in God. God will never deceive, never finally desert him. “Whom He loveth, He chasteneth.” These words are true, and should not be forgotten.

Chapter 20

Structurally speaking, this novel is almost a romance but not quite. If you’re reading it for the first time, you may find it helpful to know that the character to focus on in the beginning is Robert Moore. Caroline Helstone enters the story next, followed by Shirley Keeldar, although Shirley doesn’t show up until Chapter 11. When she does, she livens things up considerably!

The best glimpse of Zion I gleaned from this book came with a scene that dramatizes what Zion is not as much as what it is. Concerned about the unemployment and poverty in her community, Shirley decides that she wants to donate a considerable sum of money to alleviate the suffering of as many as possible. In an effort to make the best use of her money, she enlists the help of a woman who has devoted her life to helping the poor and knows where the money can be put to best use. This woman wants to involve the rectors in this project, and she also sets out to obtain subscriptions from others in the community to raise more money. This humanitarian project is so successful that one of the petty curates decides to demand money from Shirley to fund one of his own projects:

When asked for money, Shirley rarely held back. She put down her name for £5. After the £300 she had lately given, and the many smaller sums she was giving constantly, it was as much as she could at present afford. Donne looked at it, declared the subscription “shabby,” and clamorously demanded more. Miss Keeldar flushed up with some indignation and more astonishment.

“At present I shall give no more,” said she.

“Not give more! Why, I expected you to head the list with a cool hundred. With your property, you should never put down a signature for less.”

She was silent.

“In the south,” went on Donne, “a lady with a thousand a year would be ashamed to give five pounds for a public object.”

Shirley, so rarely haughty, looked so now. Her slight frame became nerved; her distinguished face quickened with scorn.

“Strange remarks?” said she— “most inconsiderate! Reproach in return for bounty is misplaced.”

“Bounty! Do you call five pounds bounty?”

“I do; and bounty which, had I not given it to Dr. Boultby’s intended school, of the erection of which I approve, and in no sort to his curate, who seems ill-advised in his manner of applying for, or rather extorting, subscriptions—bounty, I repeat, which, but for this consideration, I should instantly reclaim.”

Donne was thick-skinned. He did not feel all or half that the tone, air, glance of the speaker expressed. He knew not on what ground he stood.

“Wretched place this Yorkshire,” he went on. “I could never have formed an idear of the country had I not seen it. And the people—rich and poor—what a set! How corse and uncultivated! They would be scouted in the south.”

Chapter 15

Donne continues to ridicule both the rich and the poor of Yorkshire, and with that, Shirley loses her patience and kicks him out of her house. I love the way she refuses to allow him to shame her into doing something good. Donne’s mean tactics make the efforts of the rest of the community shine even more as they voluntarily come together with their particular talents and resources to help the poor. This situation reminds me that “extortion” has no place in Zion and that Zion won’t be built by people who are shamed into doing or being good—but by those who truly want to serve God and others.

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