Sunday, March 07, 2010

Charlotte Brontë – ‘Shirley’

There are several unusual things about Shirley, compared with Charlotte Brontë’s other books. Where usually there is a solitary protagonist, making her or his way in the world, here there are four: the brothers Robert and Louis Moore, textile mill owner and tutor respectively; Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar, vicar’s niece and heiress. Materially speaking, Shirley is the only one with no financial concerns, though Caroline is well enough provided for while her uncle is alive. Perhaps because there is no principal character, first person narration is not used, except for a few late chapters told through Louis’ diary entries. For the rest, the single viewpoint, so important in her other novels, and used even when not strictly necessary in Tales of Angria, is foregone, and she gives us an in-the-round narrative, with an unusually broad context stretching from community to society and the world beyond. In addition to the usual cast of upper class educated class (governesses, vicars), are mill workers – though they remain mostly an abstraction. Patricia Ingham’s book reproves this treatment as paternalistic, with justification. There is no governess at all, though there is a male tutor, and Caroline does contemplate the profession briefly. If there were a governess in the novel, there might be no room for this bald statement from Miss Hardman, in Mrs Pryor’s remembrance:
WE need the imprudencies, 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. (p. 377)
Though usually put more subtly than this, it is a theme which runs through Charlotte’s novels. As is unrequited love, here best – though not only – personified in Caroline (her existence becoming a ‘useless, blank, slow-trailing thing’ (p. 390)), and… I was going to say illness, but it is the story of the Brontës, rather than their own stories, which is dominated by illness. There is Jane Eyre’s Helen Burns, of course, echoed here in Jessie Yorke.

Echoed? There is no comparison. Because although Shirley is a very flawed book, all over the place in terms of social attitudes, over-full with its plethora of protagonists rehearsing too many variations on the themes of love and near-death, with a plot which was plainly altered as it went along, with characters which change with the wind, with a handful of interjections from its author reminiscing inappropriately about real life incidents... it is a mess, but it is brilliant. If Jane Eyre, as George Eliot and I contend, is hamstrung by its artificial language, and the absence of character in favour of dialectic, Shirley breaks free of its author and takes in several characters beside her own. Charlotte doesn’t quite know yet how to distribute them, but no matter. Shirley is Emily Brontë. Mrs Gaskell says so, and it rings true. Who else could this be about:
In her white evening dress; with her long hair flowing full and wavy; with her noiseless step, her pale cheek, her eye full of night and lightning, she looked, I thought, spirit-like, – a thing made of an element, – the child of a breeze and a flame, – the daughter of ray and rain-drop, – a thing never to be overtaken, arrested, fixed. (p. 630)
Caroline is an amalgam of Anne Brontë and Ellen Nussey, according to J. M. S. Tompkins’ excellent essay ‘Caroline Helstone’s Eyes’*, and this too seems plausible. She seems at first to be another Charlotte stand-in, but she is too placid, too neat, too readily drawn to the relatively conventional Robert Moore, for whom she pines and nearly dies. The pining is drawn from Charlotte’s own experience; Tompkins observes, ‘When Caroline and Shirley are with their lovers, we cease to think of Anne or Emily’. Charlotte wouldn’t love someone so straightforward, and one can’t help but think of her rather than Emily when Shirley declares, ‘I will accept no hand which cannot hold me in check’ (p. 551). The Pensionnat Heger looms over Shirley in its unguarded moments, for who could this be but Mme Heger / Mme Beck?
I remember once seeing a pair of blue eyes, that were usually thought sleepy, secretly on the alert, and I knew by their expression – an expression which chilled my blood, it was in that quarter so wondrously unexpected – that for years they had been accustomed to silent soul-reading. (p. 273)
It returns later on, too, during the schoolroom romance between Louis and Shirley – which is Not Dodgy because it is several years since he was her tutor; she is Just Helping Out with the lessons he still gives to her younger cousin Henry. Louis is M. Heger, just as surely as M. Paul in Villette is M. Heger, though he is not nearly as well realised. It may seem reductive to read Shirley in this way, but really it seems the only way to make sense of it. Even the setting of the story in 1811-12 can be seen as a tribute to the Duke of Wellington, Charlotte’s hero, battling Napoleon on the continent, which has knock-on effects for British / American trade and causes the economic unrest which twice leads to violence in Shirley. But try as it might, it is not a political novel. Instead it is a brave tribute to two sisters recently dead, it is Charlotte writing the Brontë myth before even Mrs Gaskell has had a chance, it is tender and dumb and blatant and outspoken, it abuses the author’s God-like privilege to construct a happier future for a family already gone (that is why the omniscient narrator), it is heartbreaking.


* ‘Caroline Helstone’s Eyes’ rebuffs the suggestion that Caroline was originally intended to die, and argues that it is more likely she was intended to end up a spinster.

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