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Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Book Review: Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

Shirley tells the story of the titular heroine and her community during the Napoleonic Wars. Shirley Keeldar is a woman of independent means while her new friend Caroline Helstone is not. Caroline loves her cousin, Robert Moore, but he's aware that he needs money to keep his mill going during the problems caused by the Luddites and the war so his attention becomes fixed on marrying Shirley. For her part, Shirley has a secret love of her own which may upset Robert's plans. Surrounding them are vicars, curates and disgruntled mill employees, all struggling with their own problems as the country remains in turmoil.

I'm certainly not alone in saying that I found Shirley difficult. It's very episodic and starts at a dinner of curates, who we hear very little about for the remainder of the novel. Bronte jumps around from person to person, spending a tantalisingly short amount of time with some of them before leaping onto the next. It added up to a very tricky novel to follow but, on the other hand, it meant I could put it down and not be too confused when I got back to it. That's perhaps why it took me over a month to read it - the impetus to continue was sadly lacking.

What I'm left with after reading Shirley are fragments, flashes of events, which may well be what Bronte was aiming for. Certainly, there are some memorable moments within the novel that have lingered with me. The attack on Moore's mill, skilfully told from the point of view of the women and not the attackers or defenders, is one such moment, as is the amusing scene where one of the curates finds himself on the wrong side of Shirley's faithful dog. Some of the early conversations between Shirley and Caroline are fascinating, though I became frustrated by their lack of contact in later chapters. Equally, while there is one conversation between Shirley and Louis Moore that I thoroughly enjoyed, some of their other interactions are far too lengthy. There's a sense within this novel that Bronte is examining political and social debates through the mouths of her characters. While this, of course, common, it certainly feels more prominent in Shirley - the sheer amount of information and opinion Bronte seeks to impart is overwhelming, prolonging the novel far beyond the length its story would take it to.

Ultimately, Shirley is a complex work which could easily alienate readers in the first few pages. I'm glad I persevered and the introduction in my Penguin edition by Lucasta Miller was most helpful. I enjoyed, also, joining up various opinions in my mind with those of Bronte's family, especially her father. I'm still gradually wading through The Brontes by Juliet Barker and it's nice to make those connections.

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