Monday, January 10, 2011

Classic Lit - Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

Shirley seems to be one of Bronte's lesser-known works. It takes place in 1812, during the Luddite uprisings in Britain. Who were the Luddites? Most were textile workers who had lost their jobs when the Industrial Revolution struck and factories became dependent on machines. The Luddites smashed said machines and even went as far sometimes as burning factories in futile rages against unemployment. (Good thing North Carolina didn't have something like this happen when all the mills moved to China, right?)

But, despite its advertisement of being about the Luddites, Shirley is not. Sure, it features scenes where Robert Moore, one of the main characters, is defending his machines from irate Luddites, but the book mostly focuses on the love circle that includes Shirley Keeldar, Caroline Helstone, and Robert and Louis Moore. Caroline, the orphaned niece of a local curate, is in love with Robert. Shirley, who moves to her family's long-deserted estate at about page 100, is a wealthy, orphaned heiress who's in love with...well, she doesn't say until the end. It could be Robert, it could be Louis, or it could be one of the young idiot curates or the local young idiot nobleman. Robert is a mill owner who's only after money and who lives with his spinster sister, Hortense. Louis is a tutor to Shirley's cousin, the only bearable member of her extended family, who comes for a loooooong visit halfway through the book.

Shirley is slow reading. It's one of those books that you save for the few weeks or a month when you can just sit down for hours and savor Bronte's slow-paced writing. I love Bronte, but if I had read this during school and not during Christmas break, I would have been at it all autumn, not just two weeks. Also, while my reading of Jane Eyre was years ago, Shirley seems different from all of Bronte's other works. The characters seem so different. Shirley is impulsive, nothing like the rational characters of Villette and The Professor. To me, the romances between characters seemed more like something out of Jane Austen's novels than Jane Eyre. The novel features more political notes as well - after all, it's dealing with the Luddite uprisings and the Napoleonic Wars. It had its funny points, though. The scenes with the three young curates of the area were hilarious, and at one point a character discusses his love of Caroline, then tells his friend to hit him over the head and knock him off his horse for such thoughts. So, despite the extreme slowness of the plot, Shirley was a very enjoyable read. Charlotte Bronte, you have not failed me yet!

This Penguin Classics edition of Shirley was given to me for Christmas last year. I didn't read it until this December and was glad that I had waited, because some of the political stuff and little other references to British people, groups, and events made more sense after having gone through AP European History.

I'm not used to reviewing classic literature and I'm not sure how many people are interested in it. If you're into class lit and have made it to the end of this post, please let me know what your thoughts and comments are. Thank you!


  1. I thought you did a great job reviewing this book. I always wish I had more time to review classic literature (or at least had the willpower to make more time to read classics, I'm trying to read 1 a month in additon to ones for school).

    I've only read Jane Eyre but I didn't find it very funny and I love getting historical tidbits in my book so I think I'll like Shirley more than Jane Eyre :)

  2. Thanks for the comment! I love your goal of reading one classic a month; I actually don't have the time for that during most of the school year.

    I hope you enjoy Shirley!