Monday, 8 June 2015

Shirley as a political novel

My essay in Eng2305 at UiO. 
In what ways could Shirley be described as a political novel?
(Word count: 2094)

Compared to Jane Eyre and Villette, Shirley is more explicitly a political novel. Having a third-person narrator, Shirley lets us enter the minds of many characters, depicting and exploring their hardships and sufferings not only as individual problems but also as social, political ones. Shirley is political not only because Charlotte Bronte tackles the theme of Ludditism, but also because the women’s condition question, examined in Jane Eyre and Villette through the life and suffering of one character—Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe respectively, is explored further and from a larger perspective in this novel. This essay will be focused entirely on the latter aspect of Shirley, and, for lack of space, more on the minor characters, who give a sense of the wider world of the novel, than on Robert and Louis Moore.
The characters in Shirley can be divided into four different groups—through their lives, beliefs, the values they embody, and through their interactions, the women’s condition question is explored. The first group consists of Joe Scott, Mr Helstone, Martin Yorke, Mr Sympson, Mr Donne…, “the sexists”, who embody the patriarchal values and discrimination against women in society (in a sense Robert and Louis seem to have a similar attitude about women, but they are not the same, which can be discussed later). Complementary to them is the second group, the “conformists” upholding these values, such as Hortense Moore, Hannah Sykes, Misses Sympson, Misses Nunnely… Protesting against these values are “the rebels”, consisting of Shirley Keeldar, Caroline Helstone, Rose Yorke… Finally, in the fourth group are “the suffering women”, who are not progressive but whose lives are testimonies to the gender inequality and injustices against women, such as Miss Mann, Miss Ainley, Mrs Pryor, Mrs Yorke, Mary Cave…  
The heroines of the novel, Caroline and Shirley, are categorised as “the rebels”. They are strong and independent women like Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe, despite some differences. Caroline is young and inexperienced, showing none of the strength, endurance and determination of Jane and Lucy, mostly because she lives a sheltered life and does not have to earn her living. While Jane and Lucy can be alone and independent, Caroline becomes so depressed that people think she may die when there is a strain in her relationship with Robert, until Shirley comes into her life; and later becomes seriously ill, on the verge of dying, when she thinks Robert and Shirley are in love and may marry, until Mrs Pryor reveals herself to be her mother. Besides, Caroline is generally quiet and passive. She never goes to Robert’s cottage unasked, and never initiates anything.  
However, while she is not independent in the sense of supporting herself, she is independent in her mind. Once, talking about Cowper, Caroline expresses her thoughts and Shirley asks “Who told you this?”, to which she responds “Why should anybody have told me?”[1]. Like Jane and Lucy, she reads poetry, enjoys mythology, possesses a rich inner world and has her own opinions.
G. H. Lewes finds her soliloquy on the condition of women “ludicrously out of place”, thinking that Caroline is only being Charlotte Bronte’s mouthpiece[2], but that is not necessarily the case. Caroline is quiet because she is introverted; passive because she is modest, but she is neither shallow nor submissive. She feels the emotional void when alone and twice loses the will to live not because she is spoilt, weak-willed or vulnerable but because she has nothing to do that gives her a sense of usefulness “Existence never was originally meant to be that useless, blank, pale, slow-trailing thing it often becomes to many, and is becoming to me among the rest.”[3] Rose Yorke feels the same, wanting her life to be a life, not “a black trance” or “a long, slow death” and bemoaning the limited choice for women[4]. Caroline wants to work, but Mr Helstone considers it unnecessary, without understanding her feelings, and Robert strikes down her wish to become his apprentice. Having nothing to do, feeling useless, finding her voice unheard, perceiving the sufferings of other women, she understandably recognises the unfair treatment of women in society and falls into depression.
Compared to Caroline, Shirley is stronger, more independent and outspoken—her wealth and social status allow her to do as she pleases. Having a man’s name and holding a man’s position, she talks business and politics, calls herself Captain Keeldar, treats Robert on equal footings, does charities, galvanises others into participating in her project, supports Robert and his people, expresses her opinions, throws Mr Donne out, makes no effort to “ensnare” a husband, refuses Robert Moore, Sam Wynne and Sir Philip Nunnely… She talks about powerful female figures such as Mother Nature, woman-titans and mermaids, and criticises Milton’s depiction of Eve. She influences the people around her, makes Caroline more active and open, teaches Robert a lesson by refusing him, makes Mr Helstone, who generally does not think highly of women, follow her in her project. Whereas in Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte only argues through Jane that women are equal to men in feelings “I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart!”[5], Shirley and Caroline show that women have as much sense and capability for deep thoughts.
Ironically, to Shirley, Joe Scott says “It is rayther difficult to explain where you are sure not to be understood.”[6] and “I cannot argue, where I cannot be comprehended.”[7] He alludes to politics “there is naught agate that fits women to be consarned in”[8]. Inferior to her in social status, wealth and certainly intellect, he still sees himself as superior because he is male, and supports his own viewpoint by referring to Christian doctrines “Let the woman learn in silence, with all subjection. I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve.”[9]
Similarly, the boy Martin Yorke has a strong prejudice against girls and women, referring to them as “womenites” and saying “I wonder what they were made for”[10], whom he thinks are “weakly, selfish and shallow”, “vapid”[11] and “spiteful”[12]. He speaks of Caroline “A thread-paper, a doll, a toy—a girl, in short.”[13]
The men with greater intellect and/or more experience than the lower-class man Joe Scott and the boy Martin are not less prejudiced. Mr Helstone “could not abide sense in women. He liked to see them as silly, as light-headed, as vain, as open to ridicule as possible […] inferior, toys to play with, to amuse a vacant hour, and to be thrown away.”[14] Mr Sympson has no respect for Shirley’s right to say no, remarking that her mind “is poisoned with French novels”[15]. Mr Donne thinks all women must like lapdogs and says “All ladies are alike in those matters: that is universally allowed”[16]. Even Robert has similar thoughts, dismisses Caroline’s wish to become his apprentice, disregards her feeling and Shirley’s feeling… though he later learns a lesson, realises his own foolishness and egotism, and changes. To these men, women cannot think on their own and have no individuality.
Some female characters in Shirley do fit and prove these ideas of women—Charlotte Bronte does not only depict intelligent, thoughtful women with critical thinking. Hannah Sykes “demanded no respect, only flattery. If her admirers only told her that she was an angel, she would let them treat her like an idiot.”[17] Hortense Moore does not like “an occasional something” in Caroline that “is not sufficiently girlish and submissive”[18]. Misses Sympson fear “that unutterable Thing in the characteristic others call Originality”[19] and Misses Nunnely disapprove of Shirley’s singing because “[t]hey never sang so” and “[w]hat was strange must be wrong; what was unusual must be improper”[20]. Content with their lives, they stand beside the men who treat them with little respect, and object to the women who think they deserve better.
In a sense, Mrs Yorke appears to be similar. Asking “Do you think yourself oppressed now? A victim?”[21], she prefers her daughter Rose to do her duties and wish for no more, and mocks Caroline as “sentimental”[22] and “bookish”[23]. Nevertheless, there is truth in her words “I would advise all young ladies to study the characters of such children as they chance to meet with before they marry and have any of their own to consider well how they would like the responsibility of guiding the careless, the labour of persuading the stubborn, the constant burden and task of training the best.”[24] Mrs Yorke may not advocate ambition and demand for change, but she points out Caroline’s inexperience and naiveté for believing that love is enough, unaware of “the rough, practical part of life”[25]. In this aspect Mrs Yorke resembles Mrs Pryor, who warns Caroline that “life is an illusion”[26] and that she should not wish for change because she may “change for the worse”[27]. Life is not all evil, but Mrs Pryor’s cynicism results from her lonely, humiliating life as a governess and long suffering as a wife. Their points of view present a different side of the argument and thus contribute to the exploration of the women’s condition question in Shirley.
Another character that has an unhappy marriage is Mary Cave. If Mr Helstone sees women as toys and pays no thought to the feelings of his wife Mary, Mr Yorke, despite not being said to be a cruel husband, also misjudges women, in a different way, and would not make Mary happier than Mr Helstone does, according to Susan Gubar[28]. Let us consider a quote by Shirley: “… the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women. They do not read them in a true light; they misapprehend them, both for good and evil. Their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend.”[29] Mr Yorke has such an illusion, and Mary, perceived as a “stately, peaceful angel”[30], would suffer as much with him as with Mr Helstone. Mary may not seem important, having died long before the story begins, but she haunts the imagination of Caroline, whose experience parallels her loneliness and feeling of neglect. More importantly, Gubar remarks that Mary Cave is “an emblem, a warning that the fate of women inhabiting a male-controlled society involves suicidal self-renunciation”[31]. Her silence, in my opinion, is symbolic of the silence of women in history and literature.
Clearly, Shirley is a novel about women’s condition. However, the ending with the double marriage is seen by some critics as unsatisfactory. For example, Harriet Bjork says “Shirley and Caroline adapt themselves to the female sphere after their time of protest”[32], which counteracts the protest effect and causes “a jarring note”[33]. Susan Gubar stresses Shirley’s submission, saying that Shirley “succumbs to Caroline’s fate”[34]. Indeed, the ending is problematic. If Caroline can find happiness with Robert because he changes, Shirley is spoken of as a “lioness” that “has found her captor”[35], “tamed”[36], Caroline’s “fellow-slave”[37] and “conquered by love”[38]. “She abdicated without a word or a struggle”[39], letting Louis become the master. However this can be interpreted in a different way. Firstly, Shirley generally treats men as equal, so/ but she likes a man who can make her feel that he is superior, that she can admire. She says “My husband is not to be my baby […] I shall insist upon my husband improving me, or else we part.”[40] Even if it seems inconsistent, it is not unnatural, and human beings are inconsistent. Secondly, Louis calls her “my pupil, my sovereign”[41] and says that he protects and serves her, which means that he does not only dominate her. In return Shirley calls him her “pet and favourite”[42]. Thirdly, the ending does not contradict the theme of the novel—having depicted the unhappy governess (Mrs Pryor), the unhappy wife (Mrs Pryor, Mary Cave) and the unhappy spinsters (Miss Mann, Miss Ainley), Charlotte Bronte shows that the only happy ending for her heroines is a happy marriage (they cannot become writers, for example), whilst making us aware that not all women are so fortunate, and thus stresses more strongly the limited choice for women.
In short, Charlotte Bronte may not write explicitly about reforms or offer solutions, but in the sense that Shirley examines and protests against the prejudice against women and the limited choice for them, it is, even without the theme of Ludditism, a political novel.

[1] Charlotte Bronte, Shirley (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 255
[2] G. H. Lewes, “Currer Bell’s Shirley” in Critical Essays on Charlotte Bronte, ed. Barbara Timm Gates (Massachusettes: G. K. Hall& Co., 1990), 222
[3] Bronte, Shirley, 441
[4] Ibid., 451
[5] Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre: An Autobiography,
[6] Bronte, Shirley, 369
[7] Ibid., 370
[8] Ibid., 368
[9] Ibid., 370
[10] Ibid., 176
[11] Ibid., 670
[12] Ibid., 178
[13] Ibid., 671
[14] Ibid., 130
[15] Ibid., 625
[16] Ibid., 314
[17] Ibid., 130
[18] Ibid., 77
[19] Ibid., 512
[20] Ibid., 619
[21] Ibid., 453
[22] Ibid., 454
[23] Ibid., 457
[24] Ibid., 454
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid., 426
[27] Ibid., 429
[28] Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and The Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, 2th edition (The US: Yale University Press, 2000), 376
[29] Bronte, Shirley, 395
[30] Ibid., 613
[31] Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, 376
[32] Harriet Bjork, The Language of Truth: Charlotte Bronte, the Woman Question and the Novel (Lund, 1974), 63
[33] Ibid., 109
[34] Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, 383
[35] Bronte, Shirley, 689
[36] Ibid., 697
[37] Ibid., 689
[38] Ibid., 729
[39] Ibid., 730
[40] Ibid., 706
[41] Ibid., 711
[42] Ibid., 712 

Bjork, Harriet. The Language of Truth: Charlotte Bronte, the Woman Question and the Novel. Lund, 1974.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre: An Autobiography
Bronte, Charlotte. Shirley. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and The Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, second edition. The US: Yale University Press, 2000. 
Lewes, G. H. “Currer Bell’s Shirley”. In Critical Essays on Charlotte Bronte, edited by Barbara Timm Gates, 217- 223. Massachusettes: G. K. Hall& Co., 1990.


  1. This is a very interesting question. I'm not sure-- I'd have to re-read many of these books. Are you familiar with the Mansfield Park movie version where they merged Fanny Price with Austen herself?

  2. I suppose you've submitted it? You left out a few paragraphs, I think, judging from the ellipsis? You could mention that the political is personal. We are often political for banal, self-centred reasons - that explains the phenomenon of swing voters. Charlotte Bronte's father was what you would call a High Tory - very right wing. Charlotte herself was a moderate Tory, like Jane Austen. Mr Helstone is an extreme Tory, Shirley a moderate Tory. Robert Moore a moderate Whig. Mr Yorke is a Radical. There's a lot about Whigs and Tories, and if you count Mr Yorke, he would be on the Radical side. That era was very political. The Tories wanted war against Napoleon. The Whigs were against war. Londoners, city merchants and the upper aristocracy were often Whigs. Churchmen, the gentry and rural folk were often Tory.
    There's also a scene where Shirley tells Mr Yorke he is impractical to be so firm a Radical because to run a country you cannot be too idealistic.
    19th century British politics is really fascinating. Even I don't fully understand it. If you want to understand it better you should try reading about the history of the Edinburgh Review in the early 19th century - generally a Whiggish journal, but books on that Review will also talk about the Tories as well.
    What's interesting is those days educated liberal Londoners thought Tories were frightfully insular and dumb. Today many educated liberal Londoners think the same thing - and openly hate them. Except now we've got UKIP which makes the Tories seem very left wing by comparison.
    Apart from the gender politics, there is a great deal of conventional politics in Shirley as well. I find it funny she's a Tory because Shirley is an enlightened, unconventional person - the intellectual type in that era was often a Whig. Of course there were intellectual Tories who could be rippingly hilarious (see Thomas de Quincey, and the staff of Blackwood's Magazine) but they were generally more insular and sexist, and very British and not so international. They were also in favour of Church and King, and they would roundly condemn Whigs and Radicals for being against the war and exposing the Prince Regent's scandals.
    (Of course not all Tories loved the Prince Regent, even though many of them supported him against his wife. Jane Austen detested him).

    1. Oh yeah, there are 2 aspects. The more obvious political theme is about Tories vs Whigs and about the Luddites, but I preferred to focus on the woman question and it's not possible to write about both.
      Funnily enough, before writing the essay, I intended to criticise the ending, because Charlotte Bronte annoyed me so much with those words "tame", "captor", etc. but after seeing so many people attack her, I decided to defend her.
      That era was certainly interesting in terms of politics. So was Charlotte's era. The book came out in 1848, the same year The Communist Manifesto was published.
      I still don't know, and would like to know, Charlotte's view on the Chartists. Writing about the Luddites was, well, easier.

    2. No idea. Elizabeth Rigby was convinced she was pro-Chartist, but Rigby got many things wrong about her. I think you would have to pretend to be Charlotte Bronte to know. Find out her tendencies. Play-act a bit.
      Of course it's easier to decide what side you'd be on when you look at the past. You can see things in retrospect. I think she would have sympathy, but was disgusted by violence. The Chartists were quite loud I think, which would not have appealed to her. She would have seen why they had a point, though. She was the sort of person who could have a firm opinion on something and yet see the other person's side.
      The 2ndhand bookseller whose shop I sometimes go to mentioned the Rebecca Riots. Men dressed up as women I think. I forget whether it was Chartist though but think it was 19th century.
      I have to say for a Tory, Charlotte certainly had interesting, enlightened, sometimes even Radical ideas. I think it's this paradox that has made her a classic. The radical instinct is good for writing books but the more restrained side of us would not appreciate it. An interesting comparison would be George Eliot, politically more liberal probably, but whose ideas seem relatively tame compared to Charlotte's for her era and her position. Remember Charlotte was a more rural inexperienced person. Revolution is fun but sometimes gets tiring. You have to temper it with some restraint. Like Frankenstein was the product of an author with more radical ideals. Yet her warning against over-expanding science seems conservative. Going either revolutionary or conservative is too one-sided. And so I have a theory the ideal novelist should either be a restrained liberal, or an enlightened conservative.
      what's strange is that despite not being particularly well-read for the sort of novelist she was, she anticipated certain things. Almost visionary, in fact. Anyway if you want to talk about Whigs and Tories you can ask me about it. I've been reading a book about the Edinburgh Review and it is fascinating. Still trying to understand the motivations behind Whigs and Tories. Those days wealthy city merchants were Whigs. Nowadays they are Tories. The same goes for hereditary Lords. Tendencies are very hard to predict, and you have to read about policies they had those days.

    3. Hard to say.
      The difference between the Luddites and the Chartists is that Ludditism was mostly about being against technical changes, against machines because those machines replaced men, whereas Chartism was more about political rights for the working class. So it would have been easier to write about Luddites, because one could on the 1 hand sympathise with their conditions, on the other hand disapprove of their violence. But Chartists demanded more rights, more equality, so Charlotte Bronte might not have such radical views, and I don't know.