Anne Bronte (1820-1849), Emily Bronte (Thornton, 1818 - Haworth, 1848) and Charlotte Bronte (Thornton, 1816 - Haworth, 1855), English writers, Oil on canvas by Patrick Branwell Bronte (1817-1848), ca 1834. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest. Web. 19 Dec 2015.
Charlotte Bronte's novel views this turbulence through the perspective of her main character Caroline Helstone, the mild-mannered orphaned niece of a terminally cranky pastor. Caroline was based on Bronte's sister Anne and Caroline's friend, the female landowner Shirley Keeldar was Charlotte's imaginative concept of what her sister Emily could have been if she had been "placed in good health and prosperity".
Caroline's love interest Robert Moore is a harsh mill owner known for his coldness towards his employees. Robert lays the majority of his employees off, because his mill is in debt due to his late father's inefficiency and mortgages. Robert's older brother Louis becomes a private tutor, leaving Robert alone to turn their family's business around with the aid of new machinery which enables him to lay off even more employees. Angry, impoverished mill workers destroy his machinery in retaliation.
Shirley Keeldar is an independently wealthy heiress who lives with her devoted governess Mrs. Pryor. Caroline and Shirley's friendship is cemented in their desire to live meaningfully and help their destitute neighbors, who deteriorate into alcoholism and violence. Shirley becomes motivated to extend financial help the poorest of the poor and discourage attacks on Robert. Caroline is dismayed to witness Robert and Shirley's burgeoning friendship, which could become an advantageous marriage for both of them. In befitting Victorian fashion, Caroline becomes dangerously sick and is cared for by Mrs. Pryor, who reveals that she is Caroline's mother, who had escaped Caroline's abusive father. With the support of her mother, lovesick Caroline begins to recovery.
Deeply sensitive to her limited prospects, Caroline fears old maidenhood. Bronte's depictions of Victorian Spinsterhood are maddening and bleak. Despite Shirley's wealth and independence, she must also answer to her extended family, who wants her to marry well, despite her growing love for Louis Moore, the family tutor. Shirley's motives for helping Robert are also misconstrued by Robert, who proposes to Shirley in order to secure his dwindling fortunes. Shirley rebuffs him so harshly that Robert realizes that in order to regain his own dignity, he must be receptive to the idea of relinquishing his beleaguered mill and start over again, possibly in Canada, since the political climate makes it impossible for his mill to establish trade with America.
Ultimately, Robert is shot by his own laid off workers and has to recover at a friend's house. Gradually, Caroline and Robert re-establish their fractured friendship. The novel neatly ends with the respective marriages of Caroline with Robert and Shirley with Louis. However, by Shirley marrying Louis, she has to submit to her husband in all matters, even her own property, since women in that era were not allowed to own property.The plight of women striving for meaning in a patriarchal society is captured in Bronte's depictions of disrespect incurred by spinsters, the emotional claustrophobia of young women waiting for their lives to begin through marriage and motherhood, and the disqualification of love as a deciding factor in most matches.
Shirley was not as well-received as Jane Eyre, due to the sheer volume of this tome and the overblown, treacly prose. However, Bronte doesn't spare the clergy some judicious barbs in Shirley for their ineffectual ministering of mill workers struggling to survive a ruthless, changing world that threatens leave them. Social justice and romance make for an incongruous reading experience, but Charlotte's love and appreciation for her sister Emily shines through the complex and forthright character of Shirley Keeldar.
For further reading on the Bronte's world, The Public Library recommends:
How To Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman
The English and Their History by Robert Tombs
Napoleon On War edited by Bruno Colson; translated by Gregory Elliott
Wild Women: Crusaders, Curmudgeons, and Completely Corsetless Ladies In the Otherwise Virtuous Victorian Era by Autumn Stephens
Waterloo: Wellington, Napoleon, and the Battle That Saved Europe by Gordon Corrigan