Young Caroline Helstone is in love with her cousin Robert Moore, but he is too busy attempting to publicly defend his decision to replace workers with more efficient machines in his Yorkshire mill to notice her affections. Caroline is sinking into depression when Shirley Keldar, a wealthy and independent landowner, returns to her estate and befriends Caroline. But will Caroline lose Robert to her new friend?
Several years ago I began Shirley and didn’t make it past the first chapter; I found it slow, and the characters were obsessed with a mill and labor relations, which didn’t seem typical of Brontë’s work. So I didn’t pick Shirley up again until 2014, on the recommendation of a professor who assured me it is the most romantic of Charlotte Brontë’s works. Although I cannot particularly explain my reaction, I was baffled and a little skeptical that the book could be about how a guy runs his mill and the resulting social unrest and yet have a secret romantic Brontë gem buried inside. Looking back, I ask myself: Why can’t both those things be true? And it turns out that they are.
Shirley will certainly be surprising to those used to associating Brontë’s work with governesses and teachers. Jane Eyre, Vilette, and The Professor all have one as their protagonist. However, Brontë manages to write about the workings of a mill, and the generally male workforce, with as much skill and realism as she ever writes about governesses. The events of Shirley are based on historical ones, and Brontë clearly knows what she’s talking about. And as the novel presents the different viewpoints on what employers owe employees and how much machines should be allowed to take over the jobs of men, readers will find themselves asking the same questions and entering debate; after all, these are problems that businesses still struggle with today.
Despite the focus on the mill, the miller is not really the protagonist. In some sense, Shirley herself is not either; many chapters pass until she enters the book. Until then, the novel is really the story of Caroline, who ties everyone together by being the miller’s cousin and Shirley’s friend. Although Caroline in many respects appears to be the “typical” demure nineteenth century woman, she does throw some surprises readers’ way (or perhaps not, if one is used to Brontë). Readers are treated to the complexities of her interiority, including the fact that does not wish to be forever entirely dependent on men but to somehow find fulfillment by doing her own work.
Shirley questions the role of women in this society perhaps more obviously. She wants more independence than Caroline does and, in many ways, has it. She lives without male relations and runs her own estate. Because of the power she wields, she occasionally refers to herself in the masculine. Nonetheless, Shirley complicates her own picture of female independence by revealing that what she wants most is a man who can manage to control her. (Admittedly, it sounds bad when phrased that way. In the novel, however, one gets a more nuanced sense of what Shirley means by it; she wants someone who can balance her, who will tell her no when it needs to be said, who will give her help instead of assuming she has everything completely under control. And those aren’t bad things at all.)
So is there a romance for Shirley? Yes. And one for Caroline, as well. My professor was not wrong when she labelled this novel romantic. The love stories burn slowly but ultimately burn brightly. Readers get tons of romantic tension and then a satisfying ending. On a personal note, I like the romances in Shirley better than that in Jane Eyre. The men in both stories take questionable actions that are ultimately forgiven by the women—but the offenses in Shirley seem, well, more reasonable to me and more likely to be forgiven.
Villette is still my favorite Charlotte Brontë novel, but I did really enjoy Shirley. With its focus on labor relations and its portrayal of the strong female friendship between Caroline and Shirley, it has a lot that is new for Brontë to offer readers. Yet it also has swoon-worthy romances and broaches the questions about women’s roles and behavior that Brontë fans know to expect. Altogether, an excellent work.