Set in Yorkshire toward the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when the Luddites rioted over the mechanization of mills and the mill owners suffered from the collapse of cloth exports. In spite of all this, the half-Belgian Robert Gerard Moore rents an empty mill and proceeds to introduce the latest "labor-saving machinery" -- much to the ire of the local poor who, after being stirred up by out-of-area agitators, attempt to destroy his work.
Certain inventions in machinery were introduced into the staple manufacturers of the north, which, greatly reducing the numbers of hands necessary to be employed, threw thousands out of work, and left them without legitimate means of sustaining life ... Misery generates hate; these sufferers hated the machines which they believed took their bread from them; they hated the buildings which contained those machines; they hated the manufacturers who owned those buildings.
Meanwhile, Moore's young cousin, Caroline Helstone, is in love with him ... but she senses that affection is not returned. And how could it be, she asks herself? She, the penniless niece of a country rector would be no great match for a mill owner desperately in need of capital. Better he should marry Shirley Keeldar, a wealthy and independent heiress very used to being the master of her own destiny. Better Caroline should quietly creep away and become a governess. (If only the governess she knows would stop telling her what a terrible idea that is!)
Take the matter as you find it: ask no questions, utter no remonstrances; it is your best wisdom. You expected bread, and you have got a stone: break your teeth on it, and don't shriek because the nerves are martyrized; do not doubt that your mental stomach—if you have such a thing—is strong as an ostrich's; the stone will digest. You held out your hand for an egg, and fate put into it a scorpion. Show no consternation: close your fingers firmly upon the gift; let it sting through your palm. Never mind; in time, after your hand and arm have swelled and quivered long with torture, the squeezed scorpion will die, and you will have learned the great lesson how to endure without a sob.
Add in dozens of secondary characters, subplots, and (possibly unnecessary) plot twists and you end up with a novel dense as a plum pudding (as Doris Lessing might say). And yet, dense as it is, I also found it wickedly compelling. This is probably not surprising as I love just about any novel that wants to discuss industrialization's impact on labor, the Napoleonic Wars, the social and economic plight of unmarried/unmarriageable women, and the institutionalization of poverty in 1800s England. And it has two unmarried women remaining good friends even though there's a totally marriageable man (kinda-sorta) standing between them.
I feel that I should warn prospective readers that Shirley is a decidedly different book from Jane Eyre and, if you approach it expecting to feel about it as you might feel about Jane Eyre, you are going to be disappointed. Even though I was forewarned and attempted to start Shirley with no Jane Eyre-influenced bias, I found the first few chapters hard going -- who cares about grasping, self-important curates and their dinner habits? But then I realized Caroline was a completely estimable heroine and quite fell in with the story.
Despite her seemingly gentle demeanor, Caroline's private thoughts are actually quite unconventional and satirical. As she grows into womanhood and realizes that marriage may not be in her future, she strives to embrace the mindlessly feminine tasks that are to make up her life ... while also clearly chaffing against them. Why, Caroline wonders, can't she be a useful spinster? Rather than some kind of genteel placeholder, sewing clothes for the Jew's basket and making visits until she dies? She's self aware enough to know her position is untenable, but she lacks the freedom or power to change it. (And I suspect her situation would have resonated with many a female reader of the day).
At heart, he could not abide sense in women: he liked to see them as silly, as light-headed, as vain, as open to ridicule as possible; because they were then in reality what he held them to be, and wished them to be,--inferior: toys to play with, to amuse a vacant hour and to be thrown away.
And then there's Shirley! A young woman of wealth, beauty, and breeding who cares little for traditional feminine tasks and enjoys referring to herself (and acting as) Captain Shirley Keeldar, Esquire! Is it any wonder she and Caroline should be great friends? Even though Caroline fully expects Shirley to marry Robert and lives daily with that heartache? But does she begrudge Shirley her beauty or wealth or love? No, because (and unlike the other unmarried ladies of her neighborhood) Caroline is not a husband-hunter who schemes, plots, and dresses to ensnare a husband. (Granted, I would really have liked Caroline and Shirley to talk about the elephant/man in the room and hashed everything out, but Shirley isn't that kind of novel).
If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but 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.
Anyway, I've still a third of the novel to get through and I have guarded hopes that Caroline and Shirley will somehow manage to make marriages of equals and turn Moore's impoverished mill into a worker's utopia.
Shirley is my first selection for the 2015 Victorian Bingo, Back to the Classics, and No Book Buying reading challenges. I claim it as a 19th Century classic for Back to the Classics and "name as a title" for Victorian Bingo.
Shirley by Charlotte Bronte (Penguin Classics, 2012)