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Shirleyby Charlotte Brontë
Synopses & Reviews
Following the tremendous popular success of Jane Eyre, which earned her lifelong notoriety as a moral revolutionary, Charlotte Brontë vowed to write a sweeping social chronicle that focused on "something real and unromantic as Monday morning." Set in the industrializing England of the Napoleonic wars and Luddite revolts of 1811-12, Shirley (1849) is the story of two contrasting heroines. One is the shy Caroline Helstone, who is trapped in the oppressive atmosphere of a Yorkshire rectory and whose bare life symbolizes the plight of single women in the nineteenth century. The other is the vivacious Shirley Keeldar, who inherits a local estate and whose wealth liberates her from convention.
A work that combines social commentary with the more private preoccupations of Jane Eyre, Shirley demonstrates the full range of Brontë's literary talent. "Shirley is a revolutionary novel," wrote Brontë biographer Lyndall Gordon. "Shirley follows Jane Eyre as a new exemplar--but so much a forerunner of the feminist of the later twentieth century that it is hard to believe in her actual existence in 1811-12. She is a theoretic possibility: what a woman might be if she combined independence and means of her own with intellect. Charlotte Brontë imagined a new form of power, equal to that of men, in a confident young woman [whose] extraordinary freedom has accustomed her to think for herself....Shirley [is] Brontë's most feminist novel."
The Shirley of the title is a woman of independent means; her friend Caroline is not. Both struggle with what a woman's role is and can be. Their male counterparts - Louis, the powerless tutor, and Robert, his cloth-manufacturing brother - also stand at odds to society's expectations. The novel is set in a period of social and political ferment, featuring class disenfranchisement, the drama of Luddite machine-breaking, and the divisive effects of the Napoleonic Wars.
About the Author
Charlotte Brontë was born at Thornton, Yorkshire, on April 21, 1816. Her father, Patrick Brontë, became curate for life of the moorland parish of Haworth, Yorkshire, in 1820, and her mother, Maria Brontë, died the following year, leaving behind five daughters and a son who were cared for in the parsonage by their aunt, Elizabeth Branwell. The eldest daughters, Maria and Elizabeth, died in 1825 from tuberculosis contracted at the religious boarding school to which they (along with Charlotte and her younger sister Emily) had been sent. (All the Brontë children ultimately suffered from lung disease.)
Raised at home thereafter, Charlotte, Emily, their youngest sister, Anne, and brother, Branwell, lived in a fantasy world of their own making, drawing on their voracious reading of Byron, Scott, Shakespeare, The Arabian Nights, and gothic fiction, and writing elaborate poetic and dramatic cycles involving the histories of imaginary countries. Charlotte's early writings revolved around the kingdom of Angria, about which she wrote melodramatic tales of passion and revenge. She spent a year studying at Miss Wooler's school in Roe Head (later relocated to Dewsbury Moor), and went back there to teach from 1835 to 1838; subsequently she worked as a governess.
With Emily, Charlotte traveled in 1842 to study languages at a boarding school in Brussels; her close emotional attachment to her instructor, M. Heger, a married man, would later figure in her fiction. Charlotte and Emily went home after a year because of their aunt's death; Charlotte subsequently returned to Brussels for a year of teaching, 1843 to 1844. A joint collection of poems by Charlotte, Emily, and Anne--published pseudonymously as Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell--appeared in 1846. The three sisters had in the meantime each written a novel, of which Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Grey were accepted in 1847 for publication the following year. Charlotte's first novel, The Professor, based on her experiences in Brussels, was rejected by a series of publishers (it finally appeared posthumously in 1857).
Jane Eyre was published under Charlotte's pseudonym, Currer Bell, in 1847 and achieved commercial and critical success; it had gone through four editions by the time of Charlotte's death. Jane Eyre won high praises; William Makepeace Thackeray (who later became a friend) declared himself "exceedingly moved and pleased," and George Henry Lewes applauded its "deep significant reality"; it was also criticized by some for the rebelliousness of its heroine and for what the Quarterly Review called "coarseness of language and laxity of tone."
During this period the Brontës underwent repeated tragedies. Branwell, despite his early promise, had been ravaged by the effects of drink and drugs, and when he found work as a tutor in the same household where Anne was a governess, his involvement with his employer's wife led to his dismissal; he died in September of 1848, followed three months later by Emily and the following year by Anne. Charlotte, the sole survivor, published two more novels, Shirley (1849), a novel of Yorkshire during the Napoleonic period, and Villette (1853), a further fictional exploration of her Brussels experiences. In 1850 she met the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, with whom she formed a close friendship; Gaskell later wrote the classic biography of her friend, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857). Charlotte married her father's curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, in 1854, and died on March 31, 1855.
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