[I decided to read this book in seven sections. I always wrote about each section before reading on, so I never knew what would be coming next.]
27 August 2017
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.
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 Moses and Noah – Bronte is so pleased with the names she adopts them for the title of the chapter – 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, Mr Hall, the rector of one of the villages. He’s nothing like the 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.
In a Charlotte Bronte novel, the past isn’t a foreign country, it’s a foreign planet. Nobody on earth ever spoke like her characters, even in novels. The situation she’s set up is common enough in fiction – shrinking violet, pining for her unattainable lover, thinks she must defer to the brilliant rich woman she considers her rival and, seeing a conversation that she (wrongly) assumes must be romantic, is confirmed in her pessimistic prognosis – but there’s nothing common about anything else. We meet Shirley Keeldar, who seems to have been parachuted in from central casting as the embodiment of everything a shy lover would dread in a potential rival, and… they become friends like no others before, ever. I can remember, when reading Jane Eyre, thinking that no lovers ever spoke like Jane and Rochester. Now I’m thinking no friends ever spoke like Caroline and Shirley. And no woman ever spoke about herself, often in the third person, as the male heir her parents wanted. Shirley, before this novel, was a man’s name, and Bronte has her female Shirley playing with the anomaly so she can question stereotypical gender roles. Sometimes ‘he’ is ‘Captain Keeldar’, mustering the troops he needs in order to get things done…. Fine – but even in novels as issues-driven as this one, there has to be at least a nod towards plausibility. It’s engaging enough, but I stopped believing a word of it a long time ago.
One last complaint. (As if.) I mentioned the way that Bronte’s engagement with the reader is far less nuanced than Jane Austen’s. Partly, it’s to do with how little work she asks the reader to do. Austen, along with other great English pre-20th Century authors like Fielding, Dickens and George Eliot, engages in a subtle process in which she lets us believe that we are somehow in collusion with her, observing the follies of the characters that they are not enlightened enough to see yet. She, like those other authors, often describes characters as they would like to be seen, so it’s only the reader’s sense of the ironic tone that lets us see through what is at best a lack of self-knowledge and at worst a deliberate sham. It lets us believe that we are making our own minds up – and feel good about an author who offers the tacit compliment that we aren’t like these poor innocents. We know how things really are.
It doesn’t happen in a Charlotte Bronte novel. With a couple of exceptions – important ones, and I’ll come back to those – we know exactly how we are meant to judge her characters. We know absolutely everything we need to know about Caroline, Helstone, the two inferior curates (one of them, it has turned out, is a good sort after all), Barraclough, Farren, Hall… etc., etc. If you are on the side of the angels, Bronte will keep reminding the reader of it. If you aren’t, she’ll keep piling on the disapproval. The latest victim is Donne, the curate from (spit) the south of England. We’ve already seen how smugly arrogant he is about his non-existent attractions. At the end of Chapter 15, after an afternoon of making himself completely insufferable in Shirley’s house – in his caricature of a southern accent, which Bronte helpfully transliterates for us – he gets himself thrown out by the hostess, and told never to come back. Oh dear – and he’d gone there imagining she would be happy to marry him if he asked.
In these chapters, there’s more of the arduous emotional journey Caroline is having to make before Bronte will consider her ready for the doubtful joys of adult life. There are also plot developments, the most important of which is Shirley’s arrival at last. Those two things – the tumult of Caroline’s emotional life and Shirley’s arrival – are soon inextricably linked, and become the main driver of these chapters. We’ve been watching Caroline following the well-trodden stages of unrequited love, but this a Bronte-esque – i.e. extreme – version. Whatever the weather – and sometimes it’s awful, obviously – she makes a nightly vigil at a secluded spot overlooking Moore’s house, Hollow’s Cottage. She waits for the tiniest sign of him, learns his usual night-time routine through scraps of candle-light silhouetting his shape at the window. He isn’t always there, of course, and those nights – well, you can imagine.
She decides that life without him is intolerable, and tells her uncle she is going to seek a job as a governess. He treats her with the amount of respect we expect from him, none, and tells her a spa holiday will sort her out just fine. She’s practically climbing the walls, and is fading away by the day. People begin to wonder when she’s likely to die. Indeed, ‘if her constitution had contained the seeds of consumption, decline, or slow fever, those diseases would have been rapidly developed, and would soon have carried her quietly from the world.’ But she’s in for the long haul, Bronte makes sure of that. ‘People never die of love or grief alone…’ but things are bad enough. People like her ‘are racked, shaken, shattered; their beauty and bloom perish, but life remains untouched. They are brought to a certain point of dilapidation; they are reduced to pallor, debility, and emaciation.’ Oh dear.
Enter Shirley. If Caroline hadn’t been at such a low point, they would have been instant friends. As it is, it takes a little time – but even after one meeting, it’s clear they have everything in common. Soon, each of them, especially the outgoing and ever positive Shirley, is garrulously frank about how dear a friend the other is, and so on. They talk about all kinds of things, and soon, unsurprisingly, Shirley mentions Moore. She owns Hollow’s Cottage and the mill, so he is her tenant. Which would be fine, if he didn’t intrigue her so much. At first there’s no hint of any attraction – or, of course, she’s deflecting any idea of such a thing, just as Caroline isn’t saying a word about how he’s the only man she will ever love. But Shirley does say a lot about him, and…
…it’s around this time that Caroline, on her nightly vigil outside his cottage, sees Moore with – gulp – guess who, ‘her countenance careless and pensive, and musing and mirthful, and mocking and tender…’ but ‘The pair speak softly; their words are not distinguishable –’ and, not wanting to be an eavesdropper, Caroline moves away. We are right inside her head during what is to be yet another dark night of the soul: ‘I gave Robert up, and gave him up to Shirley, the first day I heard she was come, the first moment I saw her—rich, youthful, and lovely…’ and away she goes. And – Bronte steps right inside the frame to remind us that even though Caroline doesn’t know she’s in a novel, we do: ‘The reader is privileged to remain, and try what he can make of the discourse.’ Inevitably, perhaps, the reader discovers that there’s nothing at all for Caroline to worry about. However much they look the hero and heroine of a romance, she with her curls and he with his ‘tall, young, stately figure,’ they talk of the mill, and an idea of Moore’s that he needs her to come on board with. As in so many romantic comedies, there’s something almost farcical about the mistake Caroline has made, which only the reader knows about.
Again, the first time Moore is together with both of them, Caroline trusts what she thinks she sees. He has brought some document to the house, no doubt to confirm their plans for the mill, and there he sits with Shirley before him: ‘There was something brilliant in the whole picture. It is to be supposed that Moore thought so, as his eye dwelt long on it, but he seldom permitted his feelings or his opinions to exhibit themselves in his face.’ Moore is one of the exceptions to Bronte’s rule of revealing everything we need to know. We definitely don’t know, even if Caroline thinks she does. As she watches them, they seem very easy with one another. But Bronte helps us through the treacherous waters of believing what we think we see. ‘What I have just said are Caroline’s ideas of the pair. She felt what has just been described. In thus feeling she tried not to suffer, but suffered sharply nevertheless.’ Of course she did.
Another twist comes straight away. Moore goes beyond mere gallantry when he escorts Caroline home. He sends the Helstones’ servant Fanny ahead, seeming determined to spend some private time with Caroline. He hangs about so long he has to hide from Helstone when he comes out to make his customary late-night inspection. Moore’s plight, ‘forced to hide full ten minutes, kneeling with one knee on the turf, his hat off, his curls bare to the dew…’ really is farce. It’s straight out of the rom-com pattern book and, even though Shirley only knows he escorted Caroline home, she teases her about it next day. Of course, Caroline has spent a sleepless night knowing, obviously, that he’s only being the polite cousin he’s always been. She decides that once Shirley has married the man they both clearly love, she will have to give up the best friend she has ever had. She will have to defy her uncle and become a governess far away.
Bronte has let us know something important about Moore’s feelings, however obliquely – but, for once, she’s making us do some of the work. She has set up a choice for her hero, between the heiress – who, against type, is also clever, charming and beautiful – and the woman he really loves. And she doesn’t stop there. The next chapter establishes that Shirley is a formidable rival in other directions, too. ‘Shirley Seeks to be Saved by Works’ goes the chapter title, and if sounds a little satirical, well, it isn’t really. She is going to start up a fund to help the local poor, using nearly a third of her annual income – and she wants to go much further. Whilst Caroline, as we know, does her best to make herself useful, Shirley is soon on track to be a serious force for good in the community. She invites the local clergy – Helstone, Hall and a Welshman from the third parish – plus the curates, plus Miss Ainley, the most useful of the ‘old maids’ that Caroline has been helping out.
The meeting she calls to set things up goes like a dream. Not only does the reader get to see the comic worthlessness of Donne and Malone (starting with a contretemps with the big, harmless dog), we also see that Hall’s curate, Sweeting, is on the side of the angels after all… and, let’s face it, so is Shirley. Soon the rectors are pledging big contributions to the new welfare fund, and Miss Ainley is doing sterling work making sure the money goes to the families who will make the best use of it. What on earth is Caroline going to do against such industrial-strength opposition? She’s already promised her rival that she won’t leave the parish after all – Shirley having let her know that she’s never been able to make such a good friend before and can’t bear the idea. And while she stews, so does the reader. We’ve no idea what’s going through Moore’s head, whatever we might think, and as for Shirley – what? She’s the other character that Bronte only reveals to us through what she says and does. And, although she mentions Moore a lot – Caroline notices, and Bronte draws our attention to it – she’s said nothing about him beyond the incontrovertible fact that he has a lot of admirable qualities.
I’m not quite half-way through this novel, and I think I know where Bronte is going with it. But I thought that about Jane Eyre and Villette, and she wrong-footed me both times.
What a difference a day makes – or not, in fact, this being a Charlotte Bronte novel. The day is Whitsuntide, and the 24-hour period from the dawn of the day to the beginning of the next takes up six chapters. Meanwhile, clandestinely running alongside the gathering of over a thousand people from the three parishes, are preparations for both an attack on Moore’s mill and for its defence. Shirley guesses why she and Caroline, the latter missing a church service probably for the first time in her life, are the only ones to spot half a dozen red-coated soldiers waiting in the woods in the evening. They both stay awake that night, hear the footsteps and some of the talk of 200 unemployed men making their way to the mill, and try to reach it before them. But their short-cut is no such thing, and they have to hide in an outbuilding while the men attack – and are repulsed.
Next morning, as Shirley has a cartload of provisions loaded to take to the soldiers and other men defending the mill, Moore arrives – and is as secretive with her as he ever is. Caroline is there too, but trying so hard to make herself invisible she almost succeeds. (Lucy Snowe in Villette would have pulled it off.) And… there are some other conversations, none of them offering any major surprises. Which, despite the unusual amount of plot activity, is why I said that the day hasn’t made a lot of difference. Moore is still a closed book, Shirley is still just as closed, despite Yorke’s efforts to make her declare that she sees Moore as a future husband… and Caroline is Caroline.
As well as the plot, and very long descriptions of (among other things) a Yorkshire church feast, there’s a lot of exposition. I mentioned right at the beginning of the first section that two of this novel’s big themes are gender politics and the crisis of Christianity. In these central chapters – Whitsuntide comes exactly half-way through – both of them come up time and again. Often the exposition comes in the form of musings by a character, Shirley becoming at least as much of a mouthpiece as Caroline, and the agenda-driven conversations these appear in are no more plausible than any others on Planet Bronte. You never need any reminders that this is a novel, or of what this novelist is really interested in. And if, occasionally, things happen that we can imagine in novels by other authors – like the hint we’ve just had that there might be a possible future suitor for Shirley, one Harry Sympson – it seems little more than a polite nod to readers’ expectations.
The ‘Whitsuntide’ chapter, and the one that follows, give Bronte the chance to describe everything that’s both good and bad about the Church at the local level. She celebrates the generosity and real effort of a huge number of people in the parish, with Caroline and Mr Hall, on coffee duty, almost coming to symbolise the thankless, tireless work they do. You could write a thesis on the social history of the event – people probably have – which is described in all its stages. And Bronte seems even more determined than usual to present a glowing picture of her county, particularly in the way the people of these Yorkshire parishes all pull together for the sake, mainly, of the children. There’s Helstone in his pomp, of course, but that’s OK, isn’t it? Except… on their annual march around the lanes, he’s led an almost military-style repulse of a rival march organised by the ruffian-like Dissenting chapels. Bronte makes the analogy explicit, and it’s almost comic. But not quite, because at its centre is the real schism at the heart of the Church.
Meanwhile, she is very careful what she shows us of the interior lives of her characters. Actually, as has become the pattern, it’s only Caroline’s innermost thoughts that we gain access to. We don’t know anything of Shirley’s because Bronte doesn’t tell us. We know she’s generous, impulsive, optimistic, definitely on the side of the angels…. But aren’t her enthusiasms girlish? Hasn’t she had things a bit too easy to satisfy such a demanding author? The questions seem almost irrelevant, because Bronte doesn’t subject her to the same kind of scrutiny as Caroline. It’s as though this isn’t really Shirley’s story, despite the huge part she plays. She talks a lot, takes the lead with Caroline on the night of the attack, is mortified that her companion Mrs Pryor has been slow to send the provisions needed at the mill. But…
…doesn’t she only want to make a good impression on Moore? She might always want to do the right thing, but her impulses never seem very mature. She needs Caroline and Miss Ainley to work out the details of her philanthropic plans, and Moore is satirical about the inordinate amount of food and drink she has made her servants load on to the cart. Unlike Caroline, she sleeps late and only makes it to the Whitsuntide feast because Caroline practically dresses her. And, in the chapter following the eventful day and night, we see how short her attention-span really is. Sewing? Reading? She can’t settle to anything. She seems to tread lightly over the attractive surface of things, an impression Bronte adds to by only really showing Shirley from the outside. She is one of life’s fortunates, and I can’t help thinking that Bronte isn’t always going to let things go her way. She isn’t an interfering snob like Jane Austen’s Emma – quite the opposite, in fact – but, somehow, she has a lot to learn.
As for Moore… the reader hasn’t been alone with him once since his vow of renunciation at the end of Chapter 6. We’ve only ever seen him in his encounters with other people, usually (but not always) Shirley and Caroline. So, of course, we know nothing about what he feels beyond what he chooses to show. Which is usually very little. For instance, everybody in the parish, including Caroline, is certain he will marry Shirley. But, just now and again, Bronte lets us have a glimpse of another possibility. Shirley uses all her feminine wiles to make sure he sits next to her at the feast, but he arrives late, he’s restless, and he’s very glad to speak to Caroline. He’s late because of the novel’s other plot thread. He’s really at the feast to meet up with other men who are going to help him, and Shirley spots him outside, deep in conversation. He leaves without saying goodbye…
…which is how Bronte brings the gender politics thread back to centre-stage. Shirley, against Caroline’s far better judgment, decides they will take a short cut (a different one) to head him off so they can say goodbye properly. He is clearly very annoyed. His thoughts appear to be firmly in the male world of business – which is ironic, when we consider that he can only keep going because of a loan from Shirley. As it happens, Helstone is one of the men drafted in to help against the attackers, as Shirley guesses when he plans to stay away that night. They’ve seen the soldiers, twice, and luckily, he’s asked her to stay over to keep Caroline company at the rectory. (For months, he and Moore had been at such loggerheads politically that Helstone had forbidden Caroline her lessons with Hortense. So Hortense had been aloof at the feast when Moore had brought them together, although that doesn’t last long. It’s Bronte making a side-swipe at the way men interfere in women’s lives….)
What about those conversations? There’s always a point to them, like one that comes almost at the start of Chapter 16. Moore, his mouth described with its ‘remarkable cast of sweetness’ as Shirley looks on, treats her (and the reader) to a whole page of exposition about the way her loan is keeping the mill afloat, a quick résumé of the industrial unrest in the major manufacturing cities of the north, and some fairly high-key meteorological analogies to the state of Europe. Shirley gets two sentences, before he describes his optimism for the future, ending in a paradise in which he sees ‘a vision, that I like better than seraph or cherub, glide across remote vistas.’ (They all talk like this.) ‘Do you?’ asks Shirley. ‘Pray, what vision?’ What vision indeed… but we never get to know, because ‘The maid came bustling in with the tea-things.’ The mean old maid – and the timely interruption is straight out of the rom-com writer’s handbook.
Other conversations are almost as short, like the one in which Helstone teases Shirley about the up-coming battle of the parades: ‘who talks of giving way? You, boys, mind what you are about. The ladies, I know, will be firm. I can trust them. There is not a churchwoman here but will stand her ground against these folks, for the honour of the Establishment.—What does Miss Keeldar say?’ There we have the issue, spelled out for us. And next? Longer conversations, one of them with ‘our old friend Farren’ – who hasn’t been mentioned Chapter 9, and we’re at 18 now – outside the church in the evening. There’s another issue that Bronte needs to remind us of, the plight of the unemployed, and she has Farren say it in several helpful paragraphs. Basically, ‘there is many an honest lad driven desperate by the certainty that whichever way he turns he cannot better himself; and there is dishonest men plenty to guide them to the devil.’ We think back to Barraclough, and the soldiers the women see in this chapter. Don’t blame the ‘honest lad,’ blame the agitators from outside. Yep.
Am I being fair? Sure, this novel’s conversations aren’t all exposition and the setting of agendas, but there is a slight problem. There aren’t a lot of conversations in any one chapter – it isn’t how Bronte moves things along, unlike, say, Dickens or Austen – so when they do come they’re often heavy on her favourite issues. So when Yorke meets Shirley after the battle of the mill, it turns into a different kind of battle. Yorke objects to Helstone and Malone playing such a large part in it, and Shirley takes him to task – in exactly the way, I’m sure, that Bronte herself would like to do. ‘All that cant—excuse me, but I repeat the word—all that cant about soldiers and parsons is most offensive in my ears. All ridiculous, irrational crying up of one class, whether the same be aristocrat or democrat—all howling down of another class, whether clerical or military—all exacting injustice to individuals….’ If you’re going to write a Condition-of-England novel, you have to get the issues in there somewhere. But my God.
And what of that most burning of issues, the plight of intelligent women in a male-dominated society? We know all about Shirley and her man’s name, her fondness (not so evident recently, I notice), for referring to herself as ‘he.’ But Bronte is making her far more explicit in her complaints now. She beats Joe Scott, who holds ‘supercilious theories about women,’ in an argument about the intelligence of women in general, and her own in particular. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel when he comes out with howlers like ‘Women is to take their husbands’ opinion, both in politics and religion,’ but why, she wonders later, does their presence near the mill during the attack have to be kept secret from more intelligent men? ‘We know they little conjectured where we were. Men, I believe, fancy women’s minds something like those of children. Now, that is a mistake.’ Well, yes.
Further on, we get Bronte’s undiluted opinions about women as portrayed in literature written by men. She puts the words into Shirley’s mouth: ‘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. Then to hear them fall into ecstasies with each other’s creations—worshipping the heroine of such a poem, novel, drama—thinking it fine, divine! … If I spoke all I think on this point, if I gave my real opinion of some first-rate female characters in first-rate works, where should I be? Dead under a cairn of avenging stones in half an hour.’ Caroline tells her off – ‘Shirley, you chatter so’ – but we know what we know. Bronte might be describing almost any novel by Dickens in the 1830s and 40s.
But whilst patronising male attitudes are bad enough, worse are the obstacles facing women that these attitudes inevitably lead to. This has come up often, mainly in connection with Caroline’s plight, and it comes up more now. In Chapter 21, entitled ‘Mrs Pryor’, the main conversation is between Shirley’s companion and Caroline. I had been wondering whether her name might offer some sort of clue to her, and now I’m almost sure of it: she’s already lived the life that Caroline contemplates. Caroline has been talking about how ‘it is scarcely living to measure time as I do at the rectory. The hours pass, and I get them over somehow, but I do not live. I endure existence…. For a reason I cannot explain I want to go away from this place, and to forget it.’ Mrs Pryor does everything she can to put her off the idea of becoming a governess: ‘I have been a governess myself,’ she says, and describes the misery of it. She had lived with a family in which she had been treated like Jane Eyre is treated, when an orphan child, by the appalling Mrs Reed and her equally appalling children. Mrs Hardman – I’m not making this up – had been a terrible snob who saw absolutely nothing wrong with a status quo she considered God-ordained, and was pleased to say so, often.
It was marriage that had saved her from a seemingly inevitable decline, and the prospect of an early death. But, despite Caroline’s protests, she insists that was just as bad. Those notions Caroline has are based on romantic novels, which ‘cannot be too strongly condemned. They are not like reality. They show you only the green, tempting surface of the marsh, and give not one faithful or truthful hint of the slough underneath.’ And she offers an alternative. She talks about buying a little house once Shirley marries, and she asks Caroline if she would become her companion. ‘I could not endure to live in solitude.… To you, my dear, I need not say I am attached; with you I am happier than I have ever been with any living thing…. Your society I should esteem a very dear privilege… a comfort, a blessing. You shall come to me, then. Caroline, do you refuse me? I hope you can love me?’ And Caroline says she will.
So are there no choices at all for women? If not becoming a governess, or marrying, then what? Spinsterhood, alone like the self-contained Mrs Ainley (or the terminally embittered Miss Mann) or, if you’re lucky, with a female companion? It would seem so. And it turns out – as in every significant conversation in this novel, apparently – that this one is setting the agenda for further clarification. The one who does the clarifying this time is Caroline, spending the weeks of summer alone. That projected trip to Scotland or the Lakes isn’t going to happen, because Shirley is busy with the Sympsons, who have come for an extended visit. (Harry Sympson isn’t with them, but ‘of him she had formerly been fond; but he was not coming to Yorkshire—at least not yet.’ So he might, I guess.)
Caroline has been climbing the walls again. Unlike Miss Ainley, whose advice she seeks, she isn’t able to find solace by thinking only of ‘the bliss of the world to come.’ It isn’t good enough for her. ‘I feel there is something wrong somewhere. I believe single women should have more to do—better chances of interesting and profitable occupation than they possess now.’ And further on: ‘Look at the numerous families of girls in this neighbourhood—the Armitages, the Birtwhistles, the Sykeses. The brothers of these girls are every one in business or in professions; they have something to do. Their sisters have no earthly employment but household work and sewing, no earthly pleasure but an unprofitable visiting, and no hope, in all their life to come, of anything better. This stagnant state of things makes them decline in health. They are never well, and their minds and views shrink to wondrous narrowness.’ We can be absolutely certain that all of this – these thoughts come in a single paragraph that extends to over a thousand words – is Bronte giving us her own thoughts verbatim.
As she takes us from high summer into autumn, Bronte narrows the focus right down. We see Moore for only a single evening early on, highly unsatisfactorily for Caroline, and hear almost nothing of the mill. We see the other male characters just as infrequently: Helstone revealing a slightly more sympathetic side to himself when Caroline becomes ill enough for him to take it seriously, Yorke doing nothing much beyond reminding us of his existence, and Farren now popping up as a kind of John Clare, rough around the edges but as besotted by the restorative powers of nature as Caroline herself during her convalescence. Otherwise… aside from the occasional impact of events that have happened offstage or in the past, everything after Chapter 23 takes place in the Helstones’ house or Shirley’s. A long time ago, I wrote that in the Bronte universe the melodrama all happens inside the characters’ heads. That might seem truer than ever now, with both Caroline and Shirley going through the worst psychological crises of their lives. But at the same time there have been more melodramatic plot developments than anything we’ve seen before. You never quite know where you are when you’re reading a Charlotte Bronte novel. Except… you couldn’t be anywhere else.
I’ll start with the plot developments. On her first visit to see Hortense in a very long time – Bronte has fixed it so that everybody interesting in the parish had been away for the summer – Caroline gives as good as she gets from Mrs Yorke, whose opinionated pronouncements on middle-class women border on bigotry. We’ve never seen Caroline so forthright before, and Mrs Yorke is impressed… but that isn’t the main development. This is Chapter 23, ‘An Evening Out,’ and guess who’s expected home at Hollow’s Cottage. There’s some of that low-level teasing Bronte sometimes goes in for, as Caroline is first fooled by the entrance of Joe Scott before she hears someone else: ‘“Et tu te portes toujours bien, bonne sœur?” inquired another voice—Robert’s, certainly.’ After all, who else could it be? Then comes half a page of confusion: why is Hortense so excited? Why, when Caroline goes to greet him as he stands ‘tall and dark against the one window’ – Bronte loves these little set-ups – it’s ‘as though they had been utter strangers….’
Reader, do you remember that brother of Hortense and Robert’s, the one who was educated in England and is now a tutor? The one I neglected to mention in the early chapters because there was so much else going on, and we never see him anyway? It’s another of Bronte’s favourite devices, mentioning a character who seems marginal, but later appears unexpectedly. (I can’t remember how many times it happens in Jane Eyre.) This is Louis, older than Robert but not as outgoing or immediately attractive, and… guess whose tutor he is. Henry or ‘Harry’ Sympson – of whom Shirley had become ‘very fond’ (we remember the tease) when they were both living at the Sympsons’ big place in Somewhere-shire. You couldn’t make it up.
But these revelations are as nothing compared to the two that are yet to come. The first comes about as a result of the illness that Caroline falls into at the end of the chapter. I’ve already suggested that Helstone isn’t a great deal of help at first, and Caroline pretends it’s no more than a cold. So Shirley only visits briefly, and… who else is going to look after her as her condition worsens? Mrs Pryor, that’s who, and she moves in to become her full-time nurse. The care she takes of Caroline is extraordinary, and we might remember how eager she had been a few chapters back to get Caroline to commit to living with her in the future. She had ended with ‘I hope you can love me?’ – a big ask under any circumstances. Reader, can you guess what’s coming? Do you remember why Caroline has lived with her uncle since the death of her father? How her father had been a terrible man, but that ‘Caroline had never known her mother, as she was taken from her in infancy’? A chapter later, ‘that she was alive she knew. This mother was then the drunkard’s wife. What had their marriage been?’ She speaks to her uncle, who has never spoken of her: ‘If my mother suffered what I suffered when I was with papa, she must have had a dreadful life….’ Which makes him very uncomfortable. It’s in the same chapter as the one when he slams his hand on the table to stop her ‘babyish’ talk.
Caroline is right. She has heard about the marriage from Mrs Pryor herself because, of course, she now admits she is her mother. Bronte spends some time explaining away any objections we might have. She hadn’t taken Caroline back after her husband died because, when she saw the eight-year-old, she couldn’t bear that she had his good looks, and assumed she would have as bad a disposition. And anybody who had known her then wouldn’t recognise her now, she makes so little of herself and dresses to look old. And Shirley, who did recognise her, decided not to tell Caroline because… because who cares anyway? Bronte has brought about her narrative coup, and that’s what counts. (And I’ve just noticed, while looking at those early chapters, that Caroline’s mother was ‘the half-sister of Mr. Moore’s father; thus, though there was no mixture of blood, she was, in a distant sense, the cousin of Robert, Louis, and Hortense.’ Half-sister… some blood, surely? They must share a grandparent, I think?)
That’s enough of the industrial-strength reveals for now. I mentioned two examples of a device that is treated so seriously in Charlotte Bronte novels – they are important in Jane Eyre and Villette too – that I see it as Charlotte Bronte’s gift to serious fiction: the industrial-strength psychological crisis. The illness Caroline goes through in the weeks following her ‘evening out’ is definitely not physical. The doctors can do nothing, but it sends her into such a decline that I can only think of it as some kind of mental breakdown. It prevents her from eating, and this is why she is in such danger of death that only the presence of her birth mother can save her.
As for Shirley… hers is just as serious, but altogether weirder. She’s been affected by different plot developments that have come her way – tell you later – and she’s responded in her usual optimistic, can-do fashion. She’s getting on with her life, people are speculating that a marriage is in prospect – neither to Moore nor his brother – but, quite unaccountably, everything changes. She does her best to hide it, but something seems to be preying on her mind. Her mysterious visit to see a solicitor turns out to be so that she can make a will, and she starts to lose weight. Nobody can get to the bottom of it, or why it had happened so suddenly. And then someone can – someone she knew once and has come back into her life. And he – for, reader, this mentor-figure is a man – is able to get her to tell him what she has told nobody else in the world: she thinks that a bite she received in town was from a rabid dog.
This isn’t the second of the big revelations. But it is one of those moments that reminds us that we are in a Charlotte Bronte novel. She needs Shirley to – to do what, exactly? Why would she need the more vivacious of her two heroines, one who is also bright, good-looking and rich, to change direction? While Moore has been busy elsewhere – and Bronte has always been careful not to let the reader assume that she felt anything for him anyway – a conveniently eligible young baronet has appeared on the scene. We have only heard Sir Philip Nunnely’s name mentioned once before, in the very first chapter, and Bronte seems to have brought him in now to do a particular job. Shirley has been behaving as though life with him would suit her just fine, but Bronte isn’t satisfied with that. She has revealed no more about Shirley’s feelings for Sir Philip than she did about any she might have had for Robert Moore, but it had been looking as though a marriage was in the offing. What Bronte needs is for Shirley to realise that this isn’t what she wants at all. What she really wants is…
…the man she has always loved. It’s as simple as that but, unfortunately, Shirley doesn’t understand who that is. Bronte decides she needs a calamitous event in order to shake her out of her complacency. What better, if you are this author, than to contrive a bite from a raging dog that everybody assumes to be suffering from rabies? (I won’t be at all surprised if there turns out to be a different explanation, like it had toothache.) She needs Shirley to start taking her own life more seriously – that sunny optimism of hers is all well and good, but where’s the suffering? – and there’s nothing better to bring about a re-evaluation than a brush with death.
I realise I’m doing what Bronte does in these chapters, saving the big reveal. Who is the mentor figure Shirley turns to, the only man in the world who can get her to tell him what is troubling her? (He hasn’t got as far, yet, in breaking down her reluctance to reveal the truth about her innermost thoughts, probably because she doesn’t want to reveal them to herself.) Who is the man from whom she has kept up a haughty distance from the moment he appeared in her house? Who is the man who…?
I could go on, but it’s Louis Moore, of course. That fondness for Harry Sympson that Shirley mentions long before we meet him isn’t just a tease to make us wonder about a possible future lover. When Caroline asks her about the Sympsons before they come for their long stay, she simply fails to mention the man she had spent two years of her life learning from. ‘She had nothing in common with them, she replied. Little Harry Sympson, indeed, the sole son of the family, was very unlike his sisters, and of him she had formerly been fond.’ It’s cleverly contrived, because it allows not only the disorientating lead-up to the revelation at Hollow’s Cottage, but for a revelation of a different kind, one that is a very slow burn.
Shirley’s first visit to the schoolroom is perfectly plausible: she genuinely likes her young cousin – he is weak and lame and if it suits Bronte’s purpose, will very possibly die before the end of the novel – and why wouldn’t she spend a pleasant hour there? And, not long after (if I remember rightly) an impromptu lunch. And some French practice with Louis Moore – she had been a brilliant student – for old time’s sake. And… other things. Why would he have kept her old ‘cahiers’, accidentally discovered in a desk drawer he usually keeps locked? How come he remembers, word-for-word, a strange fantasy story she wrote about a girl at the dawn of time who grows into the (very female) embodiment of Nature? And why is the time they spend together so enjoyable she almost misses dinner? Is it simply because anything at all is better than time spent with the appalling Sympsons, especially the uncle who is trying to marry her off to all comers?
Don’t be ridiculous. Shirley, in her usual unthinking way, is doing what she finds enjoyable. When this other Mr Moore first appeared on the scene she treated him so aloofly he simply kept his head down. He is a very patient man, as Bronte keeps reminding us, and expects nothing anyway. How, in his impoverished state, could he possibly hope to marry a woman of such wealth and prospects?
At the point I’ve reached, we can start to guess. Louis knows her better than anybody else – the Sympsons are religious bigots and Mrs Pryor, though a good woman, is emotionally closed-down – and he has the patience not to rush her into anything. Eventually he decides the time is right, and he contrives to make it seem harmless by getting Henry to ask her to speak to him. Will she, won’t she come to the schoolroom? ‘He waited. Many minutes passed.’ Will he have to spend his life carrying a torch for the only woman he ever loved? ‘She will refuse me. Henry is entreating her to come; she declines.’ Yeh, yeh…. Then he hears something: ‘a step approaches, and not Henry’s.’ Does he want to see her, sir? For days now, their old teacher-pupil relationship has been back in place, and it works for him. It seems to work for her too, because she tells him everything.
Or, of course, not quite everything. Louis is very aware of what was being said about her and Robert Moore before he went away, and he notices the effect on her when he brings it up: ‘“what has caused his long absence I cannot tell. To speak the truth, I thought none in Yorkshire knew better than yourself why he was reluctant to come home.” A crimson shadow passed across Miss Keeldar’s cheek.’ We’ve already had an example of another of Bronte’s favourite tropes, the unflattering visual comparison. (Jane Eyre makes portrait drawings of herself and the woman she assumes Rochester will marry; Lucy Snowe in Villette stands before a mirror next to the beautiful Ginevre.) A few moments before, he had invited a comparison between himself and his brother: ‘Imagine Robert’s clear-cut, handsome face looking over my shoulder. Does not the apparition make vividly manifest the obtuse mould of my heavy traits?’ But the dinner-bell went before she could reply. The mean old dinner-bell.
But Louis is bolder now: ‘he had an interview with you the evening before he left, and I saw him quit Fieldhead afterwards. I read his countenance, or tried to read it. He turned from me. I divined that he would be long away. Some fine, slight fingers have a wondrous knack at pulverizing a man’s brittle pride. I suppose Robert put too much trust in his manly beauty and native gentlemanhood.’ He knows there’s no love between Shirley and his brother because she seems to have refused his proposal… and now the reader knows too. She seems to have prevented him from doing the very thing he promised never to do, to marry for money rather than love.
So, what have I neglected to mention, and what could possibly be the outcome in the remaining chapters? I’m not sure about the first question, and whilst I think that we know the answer to the second I might well be wrong.
It looks as if I’m not wrong – there might still be four chapters yet to go, and they will probably be as dense as the rest, but it seems inconceivable now that the two Moore brothers will fail to marry the women who love them. It also looks as if the best thing you can do if you want to make love happen on Planet Bronte is nurse somebody back to health. We’ve seen how Mrs Pryor confirmed herself as the best person in the world for Caroline before announcing her true identity. We have also seen how Shirley, having been in a situation that she thought might end in her death (placed there by an author who contrives to make things happen by whatever means it takes), gives Louis Moore the opportunity to say all the right things to comfort her. And now there’s another chance for somebody to put things on a better footing….
Robert Moore has genuinely been brought close to death – tell you later, if you can’t guess – and the peremptory nursing he has so far received has left him recovered, but weak and depressed. Bronte, for some unfathomable reason of her own, has decided that in order to bring about the necessary visit from Caroline she needs two chapters of flat-footed comedy involving one of Yorke’s sons… and now Caroline has suggested, to Moore’s delight, that he should come to be nursed at the Rectory. She’ll have her work cut out to make that happen, but love will find a way – and it’s clear from the scene in the sick-room that there’s plenty of love about. Moore is a changed man in more ways than the merely physical and, although nobody has said anything out loud, it’s clear that he’s seeing things properly at last. A few chapters back, on the ride home that ended with him being shot – there, I’ve told you – he was describing the kind of woman who would be his ideal. Does Yorke actually recognise who it is he’s talking about? I’ll have to check it out.
But I need to back-track even further. It’s December now, but back in the autumn it was looking as though Shirley was all set to marry. But marry who? Louis Moore is sure it won’t be him, because in the chapter following the dog-bite conversation he’s left on his own while she, along with the whole tribe of Sympsons, goes for dinner at Sir Philip’s. Bronte doesn’t allow us inside Louis’s head but, typically, she lets us hear what he says aloud to himself, and to peer over his shoulder as he writes down his thoughts. And not only are people on Planet Bronte incapable of having a recognisably human conversation with another person, they can’t talk intelligibly to themselves either: ‘I worship her perfections; but it is her faults, or at least her foibles, that bring her near to me, that nestle her to my heart, that fold her about with my love, and that for a most selfish but deeply-natural reason. These faults are the steps by which I mount to ascendency over her.’ Whoa. File that one away, because it chimes with something Shirley says later. But I rather like the sexual innuendo, whether deliberate or not, of his next couple of finely-honed sentences: ‘If she rose a trimmed, artificial mound, without inequality, what vantage would she offer the foot? It is the natural hill, with its mossy breaks and hollows, whose slope invites ascent, whose summit it is pleasure to gain.’ Mound? Hollows? Pleasure? Goodness me.
So in the next chapter we’re off with Shirley to see Sir Philip, yes? Don’t be ridiculous. The reader is going to have to wait a while yet, a) because it’s the sort of thing that Bronte loves to put us through – I’ll come back to that – and b) she needs to do some catching up in the Robert Moore storyline. By way of Louis’s remark at the end of his chapter with Shirley, the reader has already been given a broad hint that Robert’s proposal was not welcome. Since then, something – perhaps Shirley’s response – has kept him away long after the conviction of the ringleaders he was chasing. Some time ago, he had seen them with his own eyes board the transportation ship – but it’s only a letter from Louis urging his return that finally brings him back. Hiram Yorke accompanies him on his ride home from Stilbro’, the local town, which is when we get to know why the chapter is subtitled ‘Rushedge – a Confessional’….
Unlike Louis, Yorke knows nothing of Moore’s meeting with Shirley just before he left. He asks him when they are going to tie the knot and, after what turns into a long conversation about the rights and wrongs of marrying for money – Yorke admits he probably would never have married the woman who eventually became Helstone’s wife – Moore comes clean. He describes in the sort of forensic detail you only get in Victorian novels not only his proposal but Shirley’s outrage and disgust. She is silent at first… and then she isn’t. ‘You spoke like a brigand who demanded my purse rather than like a lover who asked my heart,’ she says, before going on (at great length) to tell him what she really feels. ‘You conceived an idea obnoxious to a woman’s feelings. You have announced it in a fashion revolting to a woman’s soul. You insinuate that all the frank kindness I have shown you has been a complicated, a bold, and an immodest manœuvre to ensnare a husband.’ It’s no use Moore trying to justify his error in thinking she loved him – ‘Whatever my own feelings were, I was persuaded you loved me, Miss Keeldar’ – because he never pretends he loved her in return.
Does she go too far? Anybody would think such a proposal had never been made before – and he explains how he had mistaken for love the clear signs of how much she likes him. In particular, he reminds her that ‘often, when she spoke to me, she blushed, and that the sound of my name moved her.’ Only in a Charlotte Bronte novel, surely, would there be such a tragical-farcical misunderstanding. And only in a Charlotte Bronte novel would you get the torrent of opprobrium she pours on his head: ‘Lucifer, Star of the Morning, thou art fallen! You, once high in my esteem, are hurled down; you, once intimate in my friendship, are cast out. Go!’
But, luckily, that isn’t the end of it. Eventually, the penny must have dropped for her, because she understands something she can’t yet explain, but which the reader can guess at: she had blushed not at his name, but that of the man she loved. And at last, she shows some signs of not being Moore’s moral executioner. ‘Some day we shall be friends again, when you have had time to read my actions and motives in a true light, and not so horribly to misinterpret them. Time may give you the right key to all. Then, perhaps, you will comprehend me, and then we shall be reconciled.’ But he’s feeling pretty wretched, and we understand perfectly why he leaves immediately afterwards. And then, just as he has finished his story, he gets shot.
Charlotte, what are we going to do with you?
We’ll carry on reading, that’s what we’ll do. ‘The die was cast. Sir Philip Nunnely knew it; Shirley knew it; Mr. Sympson knew it. That evening, when all the Fieldhead family dined at Nunnely Priory, decided the business.’ It’s one of Bronte’s teases, of course. It’s a thing I first noticed when I read her flawed first novel, The Professor: obstacles that are occasionally shoved into a character’s path – in this case, it seems, Louis Moore’s – are overcome within a chapter or two. By the time she’s writing Jane Eyre, she knows how to make the reader stew for chapter after chapter, and she’s doing it in Shirley too. But sometimes it seems as though she’s set a hare running – until she catches it almost immediately. In the case of Shirley and Sir Philip, within only two pages it’s clear to the reader – if not to her obtuse uncle – how she has responded to the offer of marriage. Mr Sympson ‘drew his own conclusions. Had he been as acute as he was meddling, as profound as he was prying, he might have found that in Sir Philip’s face whereby to correct his inference.’ His inference, as we find out immediately, makes him ‘cock-a-hoop.’
So when Shirley ‘knew it,’ she didn’t at all – it was just what everybody thought, including Louis. Fooled again… or not. Maybe Bronte really is doing a Jane Austen here, offering the reader a truth that is universally acknowledged about Shirley’s plans, but whch isn’t really true. Whatever… it means Bronte can now indulge in a different sort of tease, far more enjoyable for the reader (she hopes) because she and Shirley are in cahoots with us, at the expense of the appalling Mr Sympson. He gets the come-down he deserves – and Bronte forces Shirley to do a big part of her job for her. She, Bronte, wants to set things up not only so that he has to stew but that there can be a comic set-piece scene to round it off. So she has Shirley behave towards Mr Sympson exactly like a teasing author. Instead of acting according to type, with her customary frankness – as we saw her doing with Robert Moore when he proposed – she says nothing.
The reader might only have to wait for another two pages over a single evening, but Sympson has to wait days. He ‘seemed to sit on pins, and his gait, when he walked, emulated that of a hen treading a hot girdle.’ Never mind what a girdle might be (I looked it up – it’s a griddle), Bronte is clearly enjoying herself. She doesn’t do many comic characters, always made grotesque by their appalling opinions and attitudes, and she wants to make the most of this one. After two days, no ‘chariot’ arrives with a joyful suitor, but a letter does. When Shirley carries on as before, he asks her if she has replied to it. She says (and I quote), ‘Yes.’ Desperate, he stoops to asking Louis Moore, but he ‘looked like a student for whom grammars are blank.’ Sympson can’t stand it. When he tells Shirley she must have a ‘strictly private interview’ with him – we’re nearly two pages into his misery by now – she has to agree. Over a further two pages, by refusing to give a straight answer, she wrings every last drop of mortification from him. No, she didn’t know Sir Philip had left the Hall and, after further exchanges, he cries in italicised exasperation, ‘Sir Philip is gone!’ Her reply: ‘Bon voyage.’ Later, yes, Sir Philip had proposed. Later still – at last – yes, she had refused him.
That’s the end of that tease, all four pages of it, but Bronte doesn’t let Shirley end the interview there. She doesn’t discard the faux innocence of her earlier replies, and lets her uncle wind himself up into a frenzy. We haven’t seen a great deal of him before this chapter, ‘Uncle and Niece,’ but now we see him in all his bigoted, hypocritical glory. It’s Shirley who is in charge of this, despite her telling him, often, how tired the interview makes her feel. As his questions become more pressing – why did she refuse Sir Philip? – she attempts to play a straight bat at last. ‘He is very amiable—very excellent—truly estimable; but not my master—not in one point. I could not trust myself with his happiness. I would not undertake the keeping of it for thousands. I will accept no hand which cannot hold me in check.’ And there we have it. This is the moment when it becomes clear that what Louis Moore wants in a woman is exactly what Shirley wants too. To use his metaphor, she wants a man who can ‘mount to ascendency over her.’
Her uncle doesn’t understand a word of this. It becomes clear that he is incapable of listening to anything outside his own tiny bubble of understanding, and she knows that. She continues to play with him, leading him to force her, after many pages, to tell him the name of the man she admires more than any she has so far refused. ‘Arthur Wellesley, Lord Wellington.’ By now, we’re used to her uncle’s way of dealing with his frustration: ‘Mr. Sympson rose up furious. He bounced out of the room, but immediately bounced back again, shut the door, and resumed his seat.’ It’s only when she can go no further with this, after she has refused to deny any feelings she might have for Robert Moore, ‘handsome, and manly, and commanding’ as he calls him, that Sympson plays exactly the wrong trump card. He reminds her who is brother is: ‘my son’s tutor. Would you let the usher call you sister?’ Oh dear.
For her, now, the gloves are off: ‘I am sick at heart with all this weak trash; I will bear no more. Your thoughts are not my thoughts, your aims are not my aims.’ And, following a silly reply from him – and because Bronte always wants to make sure we’ve got it – ‘You annoy me with small meddling, with petty tyranny; you exasperate my temper, and make and keep me passionate. As to your small maxims, your narrow rules, your little prejudices, aversions, dogmas, bundle them off. Mr. Sympson, go, offer them a sacrifice to the deity you worship; I’ll none of them.’ It’s a highly satisfying moment. Sympson, pretending that her disbelief in his ‘deity’ makes her an atheist, says she is too dangerous for his wife and daughters to be around. (They are all as bad as he is, as we’ve often seen.) They will pack up immediately and go.
Why have I spent so long on this chapter? Because it shows Bronte at her best, I suppose – whilst she shows how reliant she is on that narrative device I’ve mentioned, forcing a character to behave rather (or very) oddly in order to suspend the disclosure of information. Usually, withholding the full truth is an entirely conventional technique. Any novelist will have an adult narrator, just as he or she would if writing in the third person. But Bronte takes this a step further. In Jane Eyre Bronte has Jane keep us guessing about the identity of the man she helps when he falls from his horse. She only realises he is Rochester when she recognises his dog back at the hall, and this small beer compared to some of the others. Jane, a (presumably) first-time narrator, manages her revelations as well as any seasoned writer of gothic-inspired melodramas. Lucie Snowe in Villette goes further still, so that when the revelations come they feel like a rending of the fabric of reality. (That moment when, having collapsed in a fictionalised version of Brussels she wakes up in a room she recognises as one she knew well in England, is an early instance in that novel.)
If we wonder why Lucy Snowe does this, it’s only explicable if we step outside the framework of the narrative and ask ourselves what Charlotte Bronte thinks she’s playing at. No more than a novelist’s trope, taken to extremes? Or an indication of a deep-seated psychological scar in Lucy, determined to put the reader through some of the traumas she’s lived through? And what about Shirley, not a first-person narrator at all but, in her case, withholding information for no better reason than – what? She is tired of her uncle’s ‘small meddling, petty tyranny’ and the rest, and wants to teach him a lesson? Or is it because Charlotte Bronte wants Shirley’s final break from Sympson to be a spectacular narrative set piece? Her torture of him, even after she has told him of her refusal of Sir Philip, goes on for another seven pages of mortification for Sympson, and entertainment for the reader. Good old Charlotte, making Shirley behave in this way for the only time in the novel in order to give us such a good time.
And then comes the chapter about the seriousness of Moore’s wound – although we don’t know where he was wounded – and the slowness of his recuperation. The doctor is highly competent medically, but understands nothing about the love that is also required for full recovery on this planet. Mrs Yorke is no good – Moore is at Yorke’s house because he was near there when he was shot – and Hortense, bless her, does more harm than good when she tries to help Mrs Yorke change a bandage. Moore nearly dies of this interference, so the doctor bans them and installs a terrifying nurse to take sole charge. She would be a wonderful comic grotesque if this were a Dickens novel, but it isn’t. So she’s merely grotesque. In the sequence of plots that enable Yorke’s youngest son Martin to get Caroline into Moore’s room – despite the adolescent misogyny we saw in that earlier chapter when he declared he would never marry, he finds nothing to dislike in her and, we find out, helps her so she can pay him with a kiss – this nurse is installed in a downstairs room with a bottle of the liquor she loves. Laugh? No.
And we get a long scene between Caroline and the man who has only been waiting for this visit to turn him from a disheartened shell of his former self back to something we might recognise as Robert Moore. But… I need to stop this now and read to the end. Caroline wants to nurse him back to health, he wants her to do it, he’s nearly had enough of commerce… and meanwhile there are no obstacles to Shirley and Louis’s happiness that I can see. The sixty or so pages remaining are barely enough for Charlotte Bronte to describe a walk in the park. What can possibly go wrong?
Chapters 34-37 – to the end
Only four chapters, but at least one of them is very long. It’s the one in which Louis and Shirley grapple with one of the obstacles I took to be non-existent. It’s never, ever as easy as a walk in the park for this novelist, and I’ll come back to their epic grappling session soon. But, really, to answer my question at the end of what I wrote last time: nothing. Nothing at all goes wrong although, to use the title of one of the chapters: ‘Wherein Matters make some Progress, but not much.’ The important facts can be summarised in a sentence. After Robert Moore – not ruined after all, thanks to the convenient intervention of history – lets Caroline know he is full of remorse for his mistake, and that he would love it if she’ll have him, and while his brother proves to Shirley, despite her leopard-like nature, that he really is more than a match for her, they all get married. The end.
So why does it take over 60 pages to reach this happy conclusion? First, we have to get through a chapter in which Martin, the younger Yorke boy who had arranged for Caroline to visit Moore in his sick-bed, gleefully plots how he will give her a hard time before it happens again, and how he’ll get his kiss this time. As chapters go, it is mainly only useful as a source of how Bronte’s characters speak like nobody else on Earth, because Martin’s schemes are immediately thwarted: the next chapter opens with one of Bronte’s dire warnings to us mortals – nobody on Earth does warnings like she does, either – that ‘older and wiser schemers than he are often doomed to see their finest-spun projects swept to annihilation by the sudden broom of Fate, that fell housewife whose red arm none can control.’ (Why does Fate have to be a female Incredible Hulk, except not green? Red-armed after all that laundering and sweeping, but otherwise… it’s too late to ask now.)
I’ve realised that Martin’s way of speaking – to himself as much as to others – is a soften us up for all the other conversations in these final chapters. He speaks like an extra-terrestrial, for instance to his mother about ‘a complication of motives, the intricacies of which I should as soon think of explaining to you as I should of turning myself inside out to exhibit the internal machinery of my frame’ – I’m not making this up – or to himself when he thinks the snow has kept Caroline away from church: ‘Worthless thing! vapid thing! commonplace humbug! Like all other girls—weakly, selfish, shallow!’ That’s our Martin.
But as soon as Bronte has reminded us about what Fate tends to do to human schemes, his plans turn into another of those narrative dead ends she goes in for. Robert Moore, tired of being kept prisoner by the grotesque nurse, decides it’s time to go home. He gives her and the other servants big tips, arrives home unannounced, and tells Hortense it would be nice to invite someone over for tea. How about… guess. And, once sent for, Caroline arrives before the cook has time to burn the toast. Cue the next bonkers conversation, full of the usual beating about the bush. (This is the chapter in which we’ve been told not to expect progress, but not much.) Moore’s idea of a compliment is to tell her that ‘the head which owns this bounteous fall of hazel curls is an excellent little thinking machine,’ and Caroline’s assurance that his bad behaviour is forgiven comes in the form of a sermon: ‘We will remember that with what measure we mete it shall be measured unto us, and so we will give no scorn, only affection.’ But after something like ten pages of this badinage, they are ok with one another. He jokingly pretends she wants to marry Mr Hall – ‘I owe more than one twinge of jealousy to that quarter’ – and she jokingly pretends he has been ‘flirting with Miss Mann.’ It leaves the reader not laughing, but appreciative that Charlotte Bronte should have made the effort.
Then comes the chapter containing the 23-page written account – yes, really – in which Louis Moore describes the titanic battle of wills between him and Shirley. He wins, so that’s ok. But my God. On the way… what? Double-negative alert: I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t like it. Having warned people off this novel at first, now I am completely engaged by the Charlotte Bronte project. She demands to be taken seriously, I wrote right at the beginning, and I’m more than happy to do that. She is always interesting (ok, except when she isn’t) and, I think, is genuinely trying to take the novel in new directions. Things that I usually present as faults, such as those long digressions early on in which she stops to describe a character, or the often unnecessary focus on the mind-set of highly unconventional characters like Martin Yorke, seem to be deliberate attempts to disrupt the reader’s expectations.
(Along the way, Martin becomes one of the most interesting characters in the novel. Bronte presents him as a product of the male-dominated 19th Century, but she goes much further than that. In his attempts to be original, he behaves according to his own logic in a way that seems recognisable in our own century – I wonder if we might try to put him on the autism spectrum? – and, for that matter, in a way I don’t remember having been portrayed in fiction before. I bet Bronte knew people like him, and I’m not surprised that she’ll give us a chapter in which we see far more of him than of the character we might expect to be the focus, Caroline. He’s just more interesting.)
So what’s Bronte doing in the epic struggle between Louis and Shirley? I’ve already hinted that she’s a leopard in his eyes and, in a way, that idea dominates the chapter. She is a creature designed to be in control, which is exactly the challenge that Louis wants. We know this because he’s told us, possibly in that earlier chapter in which we read his written thoughts. The paradox is, it’s what Shirley wants as well – and we know this because she’s told her uncle. She refuses Sir Philip because, as she says, he’s ‘not my master—not in one point.… I will accept no hand which cannot hold me in check.’ And those italics are Bronte’s. So… she has to demonstrate how a woman who will fight almost to the death to keep the upper hand will allow herself to be ‘tamed.’ This is a word that comes at the end of the chapter, and it’s Louis who writes it – knowing that by this point it is the simple truth.
Before this, the struggle reaches a crisis. Shirley is about to leave his presence because he hasn’t gone far enough and, interestingly, it has to get physical. He reaches the door first and grasps the handle – and what happens next is hard for a 21st Century reader to accept. At first, she doesn’t realise that she’s about to lose: ‘What dare you expect me to say?’ Then, as he refuses to let her pass: ‘Mr. Moore…. You are not like yourself,’ and he muses on this: ‘I suppose I hardly was like my usual self, for I scared her—that I could see. It was right: she must be scared to be won.’ She grasps his hand, still on the handle, and that’s the pivotal point. ‘She might as well have tried to loosen, by her soft touch, metal welded to metal. She felt she was powerless, and receded; and again she trembled.’ Now we’re getting there, and I consider it a failure on Bronte’s part. In case we’re in any doubt about it, after he has finally declared how much they mean to one another – ‘Our lives are riveted, our lots intertwined’ – she still manages to get it wrong: ‘And are we equal, then, sir? are we equal at last?’ Hah. ‘You are younger, frailer, feebler, more ignorant than I.’ And instead of scratching his eyes out, she crumbles: ‘Will you be good to me, and never tyrannize?’
And that’s as far as I want to go with that. For some time after, she tries to put on that cloak of haughtiness that has been so helpful in the past…. But no. He isn’t having any of her games now, and… and so on. She seems to go all limp, somehow – when, months later, he finally ties her down to a date, she seems incapable of offering any suggestions about the wedding plans. As Mrs Pryor says, ‘I cannot tell whether she is melancholy or nonchalant. If you rouse her or scold her, she gives you a look, half wistful, half reckless, which sends you away as queer and crazed as herself.’ Later it’s Caroline, having to be her usual helpful self, who realises that it’s a different game: Shirley is testing out Louis’s resolve, making sure he can handle everything she can throw at him. More significantly, she loves to see him taking charge, and can only allow this if she goes on strike. (I’m paraphrasing.)
And the rest? Bronte plays a few final games, usually fairly light-hearted, to remind us that she isn’t just any old Victorian novelist. She describes the curates’ later lives, except for Malone’s. Why? ‘Were I to give the catastrophe of [his] life and conversation, the public would sweep off in shrieking hysterics.’ And Donne, against all expectations, turns out all right in the end. Meanwhile, many months have passed since that evening Caroline spent with the recovering Robert. From November of 1811 until the summer of 1812 – there can’t have been a single reader who wasn’t waiting for the repeal of the Orders in Council in June of that year – he had despaired of being able to avoid bankruptcy. He had planned to emigrate, had been about to leave in the same week that international trade is suddenly possible again, and… now he and Caroline are fine.
Bronte calls this final chapter the ‘winding-up,’ but It’s Robert who is given the job of giving us that favourite feature of Victorian novels, a description of how the characters’ lives turn out. Bronte herself has been looking after some of this, but she lets him take over: ‘Caroline, I foresee…’ and he tells her. Not that this ends it. The final section, just over a page long, reintroduces us to the intrusive author who made her presence felt in the early chapters. ‘I suppose Robert Moore’s prophecies were, partially at least, fulfilled. The other day I passed up the Hollow…’ and she describes the village now, the far bigger mill, the cottages and streets that he had foreseen.
And still she hasn’t finished. She plays one last game of pretend, just as she had pretended something different at the beginning, to do with how there would be no romance and melodrama. This time it’s the m-word: ‘The story is told. I think I now see the judicious reader putting on his spectacles to look for the moral. It would be an insult to his sagacity to offer directions. I only say, God speed him in the quest!’