Publisher: Penguin Classics
Genre: Classic, Victorian
Shirley is set during the Napoleonic Wars which gives this story a tumultuous backdrop amid all the personal drama that is happening. We are mainly following Catherine Helstone and later on, Shirley, as they navigate their lives and possible romantic inclinations. This book is well known for being incredibly feminist for when it was written and I have to say that I was impressed with how many different ways Brontë was able to ridicule society’s standards for women. Brontë also brings in a lot of political talk that I am sorry to say I didn’t understand very well because I am not well versed in the differing political parties in England. I did find all the talk fascinating and I wonder how much of her current events influenced her writing since Shirley is set roughly forty years before it was written.
The romance in this book took me by surprise which may be because I went into this story knowing nothing about it, but once the idea of a possible romance(s) was introduced it kept me guessing all the way through. Brontë showed us all different types of love in this one story and it was so well done. There was examples of when love goes right, when love goes wrong, unrequited love, and loveless marriages. I appreciated that while a lot of the plot involves romance it never took away from the quiet everyday nature of the overall story.
The last part of the book we unfortunately lose our framing narrative of Catherine or Shirley narrating the story and we switch to other character’s perspectives. This switch made the story lose all its immediacy and it made everything that we had been building up to fall flat. Although, it is important to note that Charlotte lost all of her siblings while writing this book and it undoubtedly changed things about the story. I can’t help but wonder if the loss of Anne (the last of her three siblings to die within a year of each other) as she was nearing the end of this story played a part in the shift of characters. I guess we can never know what Charlotte was originally intending for this story but despite the ending, it is without a doubt deserving of the long-lasting praise it receives.
Charlotte Brontë had a wonderful use of language and the setting (current day West Yorkshire) was so vivid. There is also so much humor infused throughout this story and I actually laughed out loud numerous times while reading. Overall, I found Shirley to be an insightful look into 1800’s England, the Industrial Revolution, and the daily impact and effects of war.
“(every character in this book will be found to be more or less imperfect, my pen refusing to draw anything in the model line)”
“Love can excuse anything except Meanness; but Meanness kills Love, cripples even Natural Affection; without Esteem, True Love cannot exist.”
“Am I to die without you, or am I to live for you?”