Shirley – a feminist text?

Cross post

I’ve just finished reading Shirley, by Charlotte Bronte. It’s a fascinating book, and I think one that can fairly be read as a feminist text. No doubt someone, somewhere, has written an analysis of Shirley, as part of her Honours or Masters or doctoral work, possibly in Women’s Studies, or possibly in English. If so, I haven’t read it, and I haven’t even looked for it. What follows is my own, untutored response to the book. I say ‘untutored’ because although I have studied through to doctoral level in my own discipline, I am sadly untrained in English Lit, and even in Feminist Theory and Women’s Studies. (I’m learning on the blog.)

Shirley was published in 1849, but it’s set during the Napoleonic wars, when manufacturing was beginning to ‘modernize’ and labourers were losing jobs to machines. (Yes, yes, I know that in standard economic thought investment in new technology leads to an expansion of business and the gross domestic product, but that all takes time, and in the meantime the children still have to be fed.)

It is a puzzling book in some ways; the eponymous heroine doesn’t make her appearance until nearly one third of the way through the book, in Chapter 11 of 37 chapters. Until then the story has focused on Caroline Helstone. Caroline is a pleasant person – sweet, caring, uncomplaining, loving, thoughtful (in the sense of thinking about the world). She is dependent on her uncle, but when it seems that the man she loves, Robert Moore, has rejected her, she resolves to become a governess. So she has an interesting sense of wanting to be independent, to support herself, but her desire to do so is quickly squashed by her uncle, and when it becomes apparent that she will not be allowed to become a governess, she falls into a decline. Standard 19th century fare, and really, she is just a bit, well, boring. It’s almost as if Charlotte Bronte started writing about her, but after a while found her insipid, so introduced the much more interesting Shirley Keeldar.

Shirley Keeldar is an heiress, and she has recently come of age, so she now has her own estate, and an independent income. Like Caroline, she’s thoughtful (thinking) and caring, but she’s far more inclined to tell people to take a running jump, within the bounds of polite society, of course. Notably, she does this to her priggish, pompous, mind-in-a-rut, “what will people say” uncle, who wants to marry her off to someone suitable (read respectable, and preferably titled). Shirley rejects all her uncle’s candidates, and some other young men who present themselves on their own recognisance, much to her uncle’s huffing and puffing chagrin. Importantly, she has formed a friendship with Robert Moore, the man that Caroline loves, who happens to be running a mill, and importing new machinery to do so. His business is failing, but he could save it with Shirley’s marriage. He has been persuaded that she loves him, so even though he does not love her, he makes an offer, and is rejected. She likes him, she enjoys his company, but she knows that he and she do not suit each other.

Shirley is free to reject all these men, and free to choose someone quite poor, because she has her own money. The independence of action that this gives her is quite astonishing, in comparison to Caroline’s complete lack of freedom. It’s an object lesson in property conferring citizenship. Part of the reason that political theorists from Aristotle through to Machiavelli, Harrington, Hobbes and Locke, conferred citizenship on propertied men was that holding property gave a man independence, so that he could withstand the dictates of the ruler, and the caprice of the society in which he lived. Shirley holds property, so she is not subject to the caprice of of her nominal guardian, her uncle, and she can choose to live her life as she wishes.

This is a social novel, commenting on the social conditions of the day, and Charlotte Bronte spends of lot of the book explaining the hardships of labouring to her readers. It’s another portrait of caprice, but this time, the capricious shifts of trade that can remove a man’s or a woman’s livelihood, and so condemn them, and their children, to starvation. Running through the novel is yet another portrait of caprice in the treatment of governesses and tutors, a familiar theme in the Bronte sisters’ work. Not quite servants, not quite members of the family, genteel, but not good enough to be well treated by the wealthy families who employ them. Shirley has a companion, Mrs Pryor, her former governess, and she relates a number of tales from her life as a governess, trying to persuade Caroline not to become a governess. One is decidedly not ‘nice’.

‘I remember,’ continued Mrs. Pryor, after a pause, ‘another of Miss H.’s observations, which she would utter with quite a grand air. ‘We,’ she would say, – ‘We need the imprudences, extravagances, mistakes, and crimes of a certain number of fathers to sow the seed from which we reap the harvest of governesses. The daughters of tradespeople, however well-educated, must necessarily be underbred, and as such unfit to be inmates of our dwellings, or guardians of our children’s minds and persons. We shall ever prefer to place those about our offspring, who have been born and bred with somewhat of the same refinement as ourselves.

As I read it, Charlotte Bronte is arguing that women should have independence, and standing. She also makes a case for every person being treated with respect and dignity, whether they earn their wage through labouring or ‘knowledge’ work, or have an independent income. At least, that was my view of the book until I read this passage. Shirley’s uncle has just found that she has turned down marriage to a local baronet, and he demands to know why.

‘What, madam – what could be your reasons for refusing Sir Philip?’

‘At last, there is another sensible question: I shall be glad to reply to it. Sir Philip is too young for me: I regard him as a boy: all his relations – his mother especially – would be annoyed if he married me: such a step would embroil him with them: I am not his equal in the world’s estimation.’

‘Is that all?’

‘Our dispositions are not compatible.’

‘Why, a more amiable gentleman never breathed.’

‘He is very amiable – very excellent – truly estimable, but not my master; not in one point. I could not trust myself with his happiness: I would not undertake the keeping of it for thousands: I will accept no hand which cannot hold me in check.’

‘I thought you liked to do as you please: you are vastly inconsistent.’

‘When I promise to obey, it shall be under the conviction that I can keep that promise: I could not obey a youth like Sir Philip. Besides, he would never command me: he would expect me always to rule – to guide, and I have no taste whatever for the office.’

‘You no taste for swaggering, and subduing, and ordering, and ruling?’

‘Not my husband: only my uncle.’

‘Where is the difference?’

‘There is a slight difference: that is certain. And I know full well, any man who wishes to live in decent comfort with me as a husband must be able to control me.’

‘I wish you had a real tyrant.’

‘A tyrant would not hold me for a day – not for an hour. I would rebel – break from him – defy him.’

So despite being an independent thinker (see my most recent Friday Feminist quote), independent of action, and independently wealthy, Shirley still wants to be able to submit to a husband. My feminist soul was shocked.

The only way I can rescue this, I think, is to remember that Shirley has been very determined not to marry just anybody, not to marry even the sensible and attractive Mr Moore, because she knows it would not be a happy relationship. She is looking for someone who is her equal, for someone who sees her and loves her as she is, not someone who wants only a housewife and companion, or a place to live. She is looking for a true marriage, not just an arrangement.

Even so, she uses the word, ‘master’. Perhaps Charlotte Bronte is just reflecting the conventions of the day, or perhaps she sees that Shirley would take the word ‘obey’ in the marriage vows to be a serious commitment. Perhaps this was why Charlotte Bronte herself was so hesitant in marrying. Nevertheless, the word ‘master’ has upset my feminist sensibilities, and made me a little less enthusiastic about the novel. But only a little less – it’s still a fascinating read.

I usually only read the introduction to a classic book after I have read the book itself; I want to come to the text fresh, seeing it through my own preconceptions and presuppositions, rather than through someone else’s, no matter how learned that someone else. I have a Wordsworth Classics edition, which has just a short introduction, and no notes – perfect. So I read the introduction last, and shook my head in disbelief.

Shirley is a human as well as a social novel, dealing with the character and passions of the ambitious, stubborn, modernising mill-owner Robert Gerard Moore, his opportunistic attempt to ally himself through marriage with the wealthy Shirley Keeldar, his rejection by her in favour of her brother and his subsequent marriage to his cousin and true love, Caroline Helstone.

This is a novel that passes the Bechdel test in spades. The protagonists are female, many of the significant secondary characters are female, they all talk to each other, about many things other than men, and the novel is even named after one of the female leads. But as far as the anonymous writer of the introduction is concerned, it’s all about teh menz. FFS!

Finally, if you want to read someone doing some real English Lit analysis, have a look at what Pavlov’s Cat has to say about the first sentence of one of Annie Proulx’s short stories.

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3 responses to “Shirley – a feminist text?

  1. Re ‘man as master': I’ve always felt there is that same tension in Jane Eyre, to be honest. Jane loves Mr R partly because he’s strong, both physically and mentally/intellectually, can and does dominate her, she doesn’t seem to mind too much – she does have a tendency to do as he instructs. She ends up looking after him – in a way, that’s serving him, right? (And didn’t CB have an affair with an older man – an academic or a tutor or someone in that sort of role?)

    I wonder. CB’s putting those words into Shirley’s mouth could have been because it was what she was after, or it could have been because it was what she believed this platonic idea of an independent woman should want – or that it was what any woman who really had a choice would want. The idea that the man should be master is still socially strong now – given what it was like in the 1800s, it’s possible that even someone like CB believed that that was the “proper” way around.

    But I’m just playing devil’s advocate. Your way of thinking about it may well be on the money.

  2. In those days, legally, he was master. And if you married someone you didn’t respect, you would have to live with the odium of having to defer to them, plus them spending YOUR fortune on conspicuous consumption or poorly thought-out projects.

    In the 1840s, the Christian marriage paradigm still had a lot of clout. If you wanted in, you had to swear to “Love, honour, and obey”. Even Austen may not have been able to see beyond that one.

  3. Very enjoyable post, it’s been years since I read Shirley, but yes, shared your squeams at the wish for a dominant partner rather than an equal one. I agree with Jo Tamar’s comment there – it seems to be a trait of Charlotte Bronte’s, at least, it’s there in her other novels. Villette too, but for some reason there it doesn’t negate the novel’s feminism. It’s kinkier in Villette – more like private sexual masochism than being politically retrograde.

    The intros in the Wordsworth editions I’ve got are old stuff – I guess it’s cheaper for the publishers – from the 50s and 60s, when the only woman writer studied in English departments was George Eliot, or perhaps grudgingly a bit of Jane Austen.