Shirley – Charlotte Bronte

[I’m reading this book in seven sections, and so far I have read one. I always write about each section before reading on, so I never know what will be coming next.]

27 August 2017
Chapters 1-6
Charlotte Bronte demands to be taken seriously in this novel. It might open with a paragraph about how many curates there seem to be now, but she quickly becomes satirical about how they are ‘an abundant shower… lying thick on the hills.’ Perhaps it’s a dig at the novels of the time and, in case we’re still holding out any hopes, the second paragraph contains a stiff warning: ‘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.’

Jane Eyre, published only two years before, contained all those things while pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved in romantic fiction. Now Bronte seems to have set herself new challenges. She presses on with the earlier novel’s gender politics and the insurmountable obstacles facing women, but in Shirley this isn’t the central theme. She broadens the scope: unregulated industrial capitalism, the politics behind the depression of the early 19th Century, the ethical issues thrown up, for instance, by mill-owners who choose to ignore the plight of men, women and children who are now unemployed. And this is a Charlotte Bronte novel, so the crisis of Christianity is in there too. The possibility of justice on Earth as well as in Heaven? Church-going without a thought of living a Christian life? Theological disputes for mere argument’s sake? All here, constantly chewed over. This is shaping up to be a bona fide Condition-of-England novel.

If this all sounds a bit heavy, well, perhaps it is for a modern reader. Every chapter so far has included the introduction of at least one character, almost always representing some archetype. These aren’t Bronte’s contemporaries in the 1840s, but from the England of thirty-odd years previously. It’s ‘eighteen-hundred-eleven-twelve,’ the Napoleonic Wars are at their height, and the ‘Orders in Council’ have imposed impossible restrictions on trade not only with France but also with the United States. This context would be very well known in the 1840s, but…

…just now, I’m more interested in how Bronte introduces her characters. Unlike Jane Eyre (and Villette, 1853), this novel is not written in the first person by the central character. Instead, we have a variation of third-person omniscience, in which Bronte is not at all averse to using a grand authorial ‘I’ in order to address the reader directly. She has a lot of ground to cover, including descriptions of the main characters, which she often chooses to do during pauses in the action. Robert Moore, for instance, has been at the centre of things for several pages before we get this: ‘It is time, reader, that you should have some idea of the appearance of this same host. I must endeavour to sketch him as he sits at table.’

This is Chapter 2 and, despite being a main character, Moore isn’t even mentioned until the last few lines of Chapter 1. It might be a deliberate nod to Shakespeare – a big copy of his works is brought down from the shelves later on – that Bronte starts with a conversation between minor characters. The three curates within walking distance – this early in the century they aren’t so thick on the ground – let us know what a waste of space they are. They polish off of their landladies’ food and drink and their conversation, instead of focusing on urgent matters of religious interest, consists mainly of barbed comments about one another’s failings. Bronte doesn’t want us to like any of them, but the focus towards the end of the chapter is on one, Malone. He seems to be a stock Irishman, quick to take offence and get into shouting-matches or worse. So he is the one who enthusiastically joins the rector, Helstone, to provide extra muscle in sorting out a little local difficulty. Helstone appears near the end of the chapter and, apparently looking forward to a fight himself, smiles ‘sardonically’ at the two English-born curates’ nervous excuses. Meanwhile Malone ‘took his hat and cudgel, and saying that he never felt more in tune for a shindy in his life, and that he wished a score of greasy cloth-dressers might beat up Moore’s quarters that night, he made his exit.’

And so to Chapter 2, and the activities of those ‘greasy cloth-dressers.’ Bronte seems to have introduced them so negatively for a reason: these early chapters focus, among other things – there are always other things in a novel by Charlotte Bronte – on the rights and wrongs of the Luddite protests of this period. All the characters in Chapters 1 and 2 see the protestors, the ‘frame-breakers,’ as a mindless mob. Robert Moore, who has recently taken over his family’s failing textile-mill, has ordered new machinery to increase efficiency. In a world in which those Orders in Council have made a lot of foreign trade impossible, he knows that the factory’s survival depends on cheaper production. Fine. But Bronte makes it absolutely explicit that he never spares a thought for his workers: ‘he did not sufficiently care when the new inventions threw the old workpeople out of employ. He never asked himself where those to whom he no longer paid weekly wages found daily bread; and in this negligence he only resembled thousands besides.’

The new equipment he is expecting today is late arriving, and it is feared that frame-breakers might have ambushed the load being carried to the town. This has happened to other owners, and so have personal assaults and even an attempted shooting. We have had time to see Robert Moore organising a posse, all the time hoping that it won’t be needed… but they are too late, because wagon-loads of broken frames arrive. Before running off, the unemployed man driving the first wagon tells them that Moore’s foreman Joe Scott and his men are tied up in a ditch on the moor.

In the 24 hours between the end of Chapter 2 and the end of Chapter 6, not a great deal happens. Helstone and Moore agree on the criminality of the frame-breakers, but have plenty to disagree about in their politics. (I ought to mention that Moore is half-Belgian, speaks with a French accent, and until recently had venerated Napoleon as a European hero.) Another mill-owner, Hiram Yorke, brings home Joe Scott, having rescued him and the other men. Yorke, a strange mixture of gentleman and blunt Yorkshireman – he speaks in two distinct dialects – invites Helstone and Moore back to his house, where they talk a lot. This late-night soiree is interrupted for ten pages by Bronte’s description of Yorke, with some extra background on Helstone. Eventually tiring of their company Yorke, in Yorkshireman mode, sends them home unceremoniously at midnight.

Next morning, Moore and Joe Scott talk about stuff before the workers arrive. Moore goes home for breakfast, and we are introduced to his sister Hortense and another new character, Caroline Helstone. The sister is proudly Belgian in every way, believing that the 18-year-old Caroline has everything to learn from her. We know different, of course, and Bronte makes it clear on every page that Hortense is proud and rather foolish, whereas Caroline – the ward of her uncle, the rector – is modest and full of common sense.

It’s time for the next set-up. Caroline is distantly related to the Moores, because her father was the cousin by marriage (or something) of Moore’s English father. In the two or three years that Moore and Hortense have been in the district, she has been giving Caroline lessons in French, sewing and arithmetic. Meanwhile it’s clear that Moore rather likes his young ‘kinswoman’ – he’s 30 – and she clearly dotes on him. He is doing his best to resist – there’s just too much to do, and he hasn’t got the time – but before he leaves for the textile market, he still invites her to stay for supper. The deliberate way he speaks is a first – and, despite an anxious page or two during which Hortense is certain that the bad weather will keep him in town, he arrives home in good time. And it seems that even Hortense is bearable if you handle her properly, which both Caroline and Moore know how to do, so they are able to have a fine old time reading Coriolanus. (I’m not making this up.) But, after he has escorted her home, he ‘abruptly’ recites the classic rom-com lines to himself: ‘This won’t do! There’s weakness—there’s downright ruin in all this. However… the frenzy is quite temporary. I know it very well; I have had it before. It will be gone to-morrow.’ Hah.

So far, any immediate crisis is quickly resolved – the frame-breakers don’t harm Moore’s men, merely tie them up, and Caroline’s anxiety about Moore’s return proves unfounded – but it’s clear that Bronte is playing a much longer game. The destruction of new machinery is going to continue… and, a mere fraction of the way through a novel in which the title character hasn’t even appeared yet, it seems unlikely that Caroline is going to win Robert over any time soon, if at all. It isn’t enough that he likes her, wants her to respect him – and is impressed by her confidence and frankness towards him. (After the reading of Coriolanus, she points out what she sees as its moral: ‘you must not be proud to your workpeople; you must not neglect chances of soothing them; and you must not be of an inflexible nature, uttering a request as austerely as if it were a command.’) He’s a strong man – Bronte, unwilling to let his actions speak for themselves, has told us often enough – and his decision not to be tempted will be hard for Caroline to break. She is strong too – sometimes I wonder if she is Bronte’s alter-ego – but her high-minded talk is no more the stuff of conventional flirtation than we saw between Jane and Rochester in Jane Eyre. She wants to change him, but first he’s going to have to want to change. Maybe he will – but I can imagine it won’t happen much before the end of the novel.

I realise that what I’m finding most interesting about this novel are the ways Bronte pushes the boundaries of what a novelist might be able to achieve. I shouldn’t be surprised by this, because this is what she does in both Jane Eyre and Villette. She stops the action in order to offer descriptions of characters and pages of background detail – for instance the woman Helstone married, and treated with so much indifference it seems to have killed her, had first been the love of Yorke’s life. It’s as though Bronte wants the reader to be wrong-footed. She’s offered that long list of what not to expect – ‘romance… sentiment, and poetry, and reverie… passion, and stimulus, and melodrama’ – perhaps defying us to disbelieve her. But, indeed, she’s offering us a story firmly embedded in the grim economic facts of one of the most difficult times in recent history, in a depressed industrial village called Briarfield. And even though that evening of Coriolanus contains a lot of elements of romantic fiction, right down to Moore’s typical denial of the danger he is in, I would be surprised if Bronte takes her two possible lovers on anything like a conventional romantic journey. Why else, for goodness’ sake, is the title character someone we haven’t even met yet?

And she does other interesting things with the narrative. She tells us very explicitly – she makes a lot of things unusually explicit – that ‘every character in this book will be found to be more or less imperfect, my pen refusing to draw anything in the model line.’ In fact, there’s more to most of them than the broadly-drawn flaws we see in a minor figure like Malone…. But even he, now I think of it, is described in one long passage in terms of what he isn’t. There’s something I can only think of as Bronte-esque about the way she describes the many beauties of nature that are a closed book to him: ‘He could walk miles on the most varying April day and never see the beautiful dallying of earth and heaven—never mark when a sunbeam kissed the hill-tops, making them smile clear in green light, or when a shower wept over them, hiding their crests with the low-hanging, dishevelled tresses of a cloud….’ There are another seven or eight lines of what he is simply too blind to see – enabling Bronte, paradoxically, to indulge herself in the most romantically sublime visions.

She likes describing what her characters don’t have. The curates have neither a religious thought in their heads nor an ounce of fellow-feeling. Moore, by no means a wicked man, has no thought for his former workers who are no going hungry. Helstone, meanwhile, has no sense of vocation, and should have sought a career in the army. (He also has no sense of the lives of women: ‘He thought so long as a woman was silent nothing ailed her, and she wanted nothing. If she did not complain of solitude, solitude, however continued, could not be irksome to her…. He made no pretence of comprehending women, or comparing them with men. They were a different, probably a very inferior, order of existence.’ It’s no wonder his wife died.)

And then there’s Hiram Yorke. Like the other main characters, he seems pulled in at least two directions. He is much fairer to his workforce, but is nonetheless an outright capitalist. Working men respect his Yorkshire directness, but this is highly calculated. He literally speaks their language, when he chooses. And when his bourgeois acquaintances begin to bore him, as they often do, he affects the same manner with them. I suspect that, like Moore, he is going to have to learn some lessons about how to treat people properly.

There’s plenty more to write about, but it’s time to read on.

8 September
Chapters 7-10
Four long chapters. Last time, I was trying to get to grips with how there isn’t much going on in terms of plot – and I remember Bronte’s warning about reducing our expectations of romance, melodrama and the rest ‘to a lowly standard.’ In fact, there have been important romantic developments – although, this being Bronte country, it’s mainly about denial and self-sacrifice. Which leads to high drama, even melodrama – but, in this universe, it’s all happening inside the characters’ heads. Especially Caroline’s. I haven’t changed my mind about her being Bronte’s alter-ego, and it’s the progress of her inner turmoil that we get to follow. And, despite Bronte’s determination only to reveal Moore’s state of mind through external signs, we know that things are just as bad for him. As for the other ingredients in Bronte’s proscribed list – sentiment, poetry, reverie, passion – they’re in there too, in their Bronte-esque way…

…but she writes novels that aren’t quite like anybody else’s. Sure, there are a couple of occasions when I can begin to see why people say she’s doing a Jane Austen in this novel, but these are hedged around by so many typical Bronte flourishes that they become something quite different. The first follows immediately on from Moore’s reassurance to himself that he will be able to control his feelings: ‘the frenzy is quite temporary. I know it very well; I have had it before. It will be gone to-morrow.’ These resounding words end Chapter 6, and Chapter 7 opens with Bronte’s truly awful warning of the shock waiting for Caroline just around the corner. She is eighteen, and…

‘…at eighteen… Elf-land lies behind us, the shores of Reality rise in front. These shores are yet distant; they look so blue, soft, gentle…. Could we but reach this land, we think to hunger and thirst no more; whereas many a wilderness, and often the flood of death, or some stream of sorrow as cold and almost as black as death, is to be crossed ere true bliss can be tasted. Every joy that life gives must be earned ere it is secured; and how hardly earned, those only know who have wrestled for great prizes. The heart’s blood must gem with red beads the brow of the combatant, before the wreath of victory rustles over it…. At eighteen we are not aware of this.’

Whoa. Death, sorrow, shedding beads of blood…. It means that for the reader, the night of blissful speculation that follows for Caroline is no more than a sad vision of Elf-land. She arrives home, exchanges a few typically no-nonsense words with her uncle, and for most of the next two pages she builds a whole future for herself. ‘“When people love, the next step is they marry,” was her argument.’ Soon, in her fantasy, she is beside Moore, properly improved by what she is able to teach him about his dealings with those less fortunate than he is. She is the beautiful young mother – she isn’t usually vain, but she isn’t blind as she examines her own face in the mirror – and Moore, now properly set up as a respected and prosperous employer… et cetera.

Did we really need Bronte’s warning? Without it, would we have been as shocked as Caroline by Moore’s coldness next morning? Of course not, and Jane Austen wouldn’t have felt the need to offer it like that. The way Austen engages with the reader is altogether more nuanced – so we would be in just as little doubt that Caroline’s dreams are a fantasy, but without all the talk of sorrow and blood. There are further warnings before the inevitable come-down – no nuance here – as Caroline tries to prove to her misogynist uncle that marriage is not only for fools: ‘why… should it be pure folly? If two people like each other, why shouldn’t they consent to live together?’ As she offers more objections, he slams his hand on the table and ends the conversation: ‘Your questions are stupid and babyish. Ring the bell, if you have done breakfast.’

Sure enough, the come-down is brutal. And after Moore’s manner is politely distant, the rest of her day is as tedious as it could possibly be. There are unwelcome visits not only from the curates, whom Caroline can avoid, but from the Misses Sykes and their mother, whom she is forced to entertain. It’s awful – and once the womenfolk hear that the curates are on the premises, a dinner-party follows and the misery is extended into the evening. Caroline finds herself sitting between the clownish Malone on one side and the tediously conceited Donne on the other. So far, so Bronte-esque…

…but our crusading author hasn’t finished with her hapless heroine yet. Just as Caroline takes a much-needed rest away from the company at table, guess who arrives. He needs to get a message to Helstone – there’s a whole other plot going on in the background – but he doesn’t seem at all sorry to see her in the hallway. After dashing off his note ‘Moore, to act consistently, should have let her go; whereas he stood in the doorway, and, holding out his hand, gently kept her back. He did not ask her to stay, but he would not let her go.’ The conversation that follows is more than enough to restore her hopes. Hah. In the next three chapters, as winter turns to spring, she sees nothing of him. By the final sentence of Chapter 10, after doing all she can to lose herself in helping the poor and lonely of the village, she’s in a bad way: ‘These efforts brought her neither health of body nor continued peace of mind. With them all she wasted, grew more joyless and more wan; with them all her memory kept harping on the name of Robert Moore…. Winter seemed conquering her spring; the mind’s soil and its treasures were freezing gradually to barren stagnation.’

Good old Charlotte, making sure there’s plenty of that sorrow as black as death to test poor Caroline. There’s no more comfort for her in these chapters… but Bronte keeps the love interest in the reader’s mind in the only way you would expect. Moore has been getting on with his business affairs – things are looking bad – and he isn’t the one to raise the topic of his marrying one of the local women. Everybody else has been talking about it, of course, especially the local women – not necessarily a nod to Jane Austen, although it might be – and Yorke tackles him about it. Moore is visiting Yorke’s house, where we’ve already been getting another take on marriage and family life. One of Yorke’s little daughters constantly reminds Moore that he’s promised to marry her but, seriously, ‘I am not tempted now, at any rate. I think these are not times for marrying or giving in marriage.’ Is there some uncertainty there? Not now, he’s said… but, later, Yorke’s young sons argue about marriage. One of them comes down firmly against – ‘I’ll never marry. I’ll be a bachelor’ – only for his father to prophesy that soon he will do everything he can to make himself ‘pleasing and charming to the ladies.’

We might well remember this when, in a later chapter, Yorke can’t get Moore to admit that he would marry for money. Not even ‘an honest, good-natured, and wealthy lass, though a little hard-favoured, couldn’t you put up with the high cheek-bones, the rather wide mouth, and reddish hair?’ ‘I’ll never try, I tell you. Grace at least I will have, and youth and symmetry—yes, and what I call beauty.’ ‘And poverty, and a nursery full of bairns you can neither clothe nor feed, and very soon an anxious, faded mother; and then bankruptcy, discredit—a life-long struggle.’

‘Let me alone, Yorke,’ says Moore. Yorke calls him ‘a romantic,’ and we might begin to think that there is a ray of hope for our heroine. Except… is she really the heroine? We still haven’t met Shirley, whoever she is, and the idea of marrying for some motive other than love has been raised in our minds. Is she the one that Yorke has been describing? Rich, but ‘a little hard-favoured?’ (I’ll come clean. I know Shirley really does appear soon, and I have heard her described as an heiress. I don’t know where Bronte will go with that, but I can begin to guess.)

Enough of love and marriage. There’s that other plot going on, in connection with Moore’s travails at the mill, and there’s a set-piece scene early on. Moore has discovered that the ringleader of the attack on his consignment of frames is Moses Barraclough, a local tub-thumping lay preacher. When we meet him, we realise he really is as bad as his enemies say he is – which is a thought worth storing away for later, I think, when trying to gauge Bronte’s own attitude to the frame-breakers. He is a drunken rabble-rouser, and his sidekick Noah is a prototype of the stupid union man who would love to make a rousing speech but keeps fluffing it. There are maybe ten or so other men behind them, but all except one of these are shadowy figures. And that one, William Farren, is about to become important in the novel.

Later in the same scene, following the arrest of the Moses and Noah – Bronte is so pleased with the names names the chapter after them – Farren approaches Moore. We know all we need to know of his merits from our first introduction to him – ‘This man looked very different from either of the two who had previously spoken… modest and manly-looking’ – and he speaks politely to his ex-boss. But we see Moore at his most obdurate: ‘I will have my own way. I shall get new frames in to-morrow. If you broke these, I would still get more. I’ll never give in.’ These final words leave ‘a bad, a harsh impression’ on Farren, leaving him completely alienated: ‘By speaking kindly to William Farren… Moore might have made a friend. How could Moore leave him thus, with… not a whisper of good-will, or hope, or aid?’

We follow Farren to his cottage, denuded to the last sticks of furniture by the hardship he and his family are facing. Bronte is doing everything she can to make us outraged that this good man is having to face penury in this way. But there seems to be hope: another character is introduced, Hall, the rector of one of the villages. He’s nothing like any of useless curates, speaks considerately to Farren – and he offers his former parishioner a no-strings loan. But there’s an ominous ring to the way Farren speaks to him about Moore: ‘I’ve sich an opinion of him now that I think if he’d tak me on again to-morrow I wouldn’t work for him.’ ‘It is not like you to say so, William.’ ‘I know it isn’t; but I’m getting different to mysel’; I feel I am changing.’

It seems that Moore has cast himself down from any hope of occupying the moral high ground. Except… it seems he didn’t mean to seem quite so nasty to Farren, who he knows to be a good worker. But, as he explains to Yorke, he was forced into a confrontational stance by the circumstances: ‘straitened on all sides as I am, I have nothing for it but to push on. I thought it would be idle to palaver long with them. I sent them away….’ It’s the only way he can think of to show the strength of his resolve. He is trying to persuade Yorke to do him a big favour, and find some work for Farren. But there is no work, as Yorke is keen to remind Moore… but then there is. Yorke says he will do his best to find him some work on a farm he owns.

It might be a step in the right direction for Moore, and Bronte makes it clear that the urgent creditors’ letters he receives at exactly this time threaten the mill with imminent closure. He is a man struggling against impossible odds – in other words, nothing is black-and-white in this novel. Moore, inexperienced in the arts of negotiation, has made an unnecessary enemy of a good, hardworking man – and we can be sure that if Yorke does take Farren on, Moore won’t get any credit. Yorke, the arch pragmatist, will get a good worker at a low rate of pay, while Moore’s reputation plummets. Yorke, who doesn’t do anything based on principle, also reminds Moore that in making the worthless Moses Barraclough into a martyr, he might only have done himself more harm. I’m sure that Bronte is hoping that we are asking ourselves, who would be a mill-owner in 1812?

There are other things going on, including the image of family life offered by Yorke and his immovable wife, she of the Gorgon stare. They both have a favourite among their three sons – Matthew, the oldest, the least reasonable but the one who always gets his way. And the youngest child, Jessy, is always favoured over the next youngest, and the most sensible person in the house, her sister Rose. There’s more to say about all of them, and the other people we’ve met in these chapters. But not just now.

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