I loved the opening line of Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley (1849):
Of late years, an abundant shower of curates has fallen upon the north of England: they lie very thick on the hills… (1)
But it was all downhill from there for over a hundred pages. That’s a long way to wade through a book, but my interest was piqued enough to keep going and in the end I was glad. Mostly because of the soppy romantic bits, which I got quite caught up in, in spite of my better judgment.
You can tell this is a bit of tribute to Charlotte Bronte’s family, Branwell, Emily and Anne all died as she was writing this — I can’t even imagine how terrible that must have been. Shirley’s character and romance reminded me of Wuthering Heights, though I confess it is forever and a day since I read — and quite disliked — that book. So I suppose Caroline is more Anne’s style, and I am sad I haven’t read her yet. I will amend it.
It was a curious read, curious to feel an affinity in most things with the heroines and the narration (after that first dragging 100 pages and despite all the colons). They are lively and strong and say what they think and think deeply, though in very different styles. They love woods and wilds and hidden places and poetry and are kind and hate polite company without taste or understanding. But over and over again I stumbled over the ways that the hierarchies of their time’s beliefs around gender and class had deformed them. Charlotte Bronte does more in this novel than the others to explore the broader contours of society, the conflicts of the times, it sets her characters against their context, and that makes it harder for me to bear them.
There is such a gulf between us, it is the clear gulf between rich and poor, between rulers and ruled. I am afraid I have mostly pulled out the quotes that illustrate this — and the casual attitudes of Empire. It is a fascinating glimpse into those who celebrated the early heroism of capitalism — if only it were tinged with the paternal care that characterised (possibly, I myself am dubious) aristocracy at its best — but that’s what women are for in this novel.
Moore ever wanted to push on: ‘Forward’ was the device stamped upon his soul; but poverty curbed him: sometimes (figuratively) he foamed at the mouth when the reins were drawn very tight.
In this state of feeling, it is not to be expected that he would deliberate much as to whether his advance was or was not prejudicial to others. Not being a native, nor for any length of time a resident in the neighborhood, he did not sufficiently care when the new inventions threw the old work-people out of employ: he never asked himself where those to whom he no longer paid weekly wags found daily bread…(27)
I think the most revealing sentence is this one describing a conversation between the heiress Shirley Keeldar and Caroline about Shirley’s project of charity amongst the workers. Her goal is to reduce the danger to mill-owner Robert Moore through relieving the poverty of the unemployed enough to relieve their desperation. They have been shooting mill-owners, burning things down, destroying things. The novel is set in 1811-1812, the height of the Luddite rebellion against the new machines being introduced into Yorkshire mills, making employment even harder to come by though almost everyone is out of work. The war against Napoleon and a ban on exportation of cloth to the continent meant that cloth is piling up, and mass unemployment had brought starvation. Shirley is happy to do good works, but let the beneficiaries once challenge her and she will remind them of their place — this despite the fact that in the novel their plea is always work enough for them to feed their families honorably. Such demands and violence against machinery hardly seems such a terrible thing when people’s children are starving.
Yet here we have Shirley, as is right and proper, declaiming:
‘For, after all, if political incendiaries come here to kindle conflagration in the neighbourhood and my property is attacked, I shall defend it like a tigress—I know I shall. Let me listen to Mercy as long as she is near me: her voice once drowned by the shout of ruffian defiance, and I shall be full of impulse to resist and quell. If once the poor gather and rise in the form of a mob, I shall turn against them as an aristocrat: if they bully me, I must defy; if they attack, I must resist,– and I will …. If once they they violently wrong me or mine, and then presume to dictate to us, I shall quite forget pity for their wretchedness and respect for their poverty, in scorn of their ignorance and wrath at their insolence. (271-272)
Thus, while Caroline and Shirley converse kindly and happily with the best of the workers, they must know to yield to their privilege. Workers must accept their lower position, be grateful for friendships and petition for charity rather than demand respect or work or food for their starving children.
If they come together in groups of more than one or two, they become the mob.
Yet even this seems a relatively liberal attitude in comparison with some of the novel’s beloved characters:
Mrs Pryor, walking near, wondered how her daughter could be so much at ease with a ‘man of the people.’ … She felt as if a great gulf lay between her caste and his; and that to cross it, or meet him half-way, would be to degrade herself. She gently asked Caroline—‘Are you not afraid, my dear, to converse with that person so unreservedly? He may presume, and become troublesomely garrulous.’ (453)
I found the references to class so revealing, the fear of working men’s rioting so deep and combined with such anger at their presumption. This is the birth of capitalism we are watching, of industrialisation as well as the early resistance against it. Like now, the risings are also always blamed on outsiders, rabble-rousers leading good men who know their place astray. The connection with religion is telling here too, for they are all dissenters — which also somehow connects to their ranting and their alcoholism. There is an amazing scene where the procession of schoolchildren from the Church of England charity school meets with a procession of dissenters and immediately there is a fight — the battle of Royd-lane. The Church of England sends them running, and all is well with the world.
A few other curiosities. This interesting aside explaining the strange presence of a thing called the ‘Jew-basket’:
willow repositories, of the capacity of a good-sized family clothes-basket, dedicated to the purpose of conveying from house to house a monster collection of pincushions, needles, books, card-racks, work-bags, articles of infant wear, &c. &c. &c., made by the willing or reluctant hands of the Christian ladies of a parish, and sold perforce to the heathenish gentlemen thereof, at prices unblushingly exorbitant. The proceeds of such compulsory sales as applied to the conversion of the Jews, the seeking out of the ten missing tribes, or to the regeneration of the interesting coloured population of the globe. (114)
What better things for decent folk to spend their money on.
Another aside on the Irish (never a good thing in these novels)
That British love of decency will work miracles: the poverty which reduces an Irish girl to rags is impotent to rob the English girl of the neat wardrobe she knows necessary to her self-respect. (303)
One aside that actually called me on my own love of tudor wood paneling and my sadness that it has been stripped from so many old buildings, because while it seems beautiful and mellow, it is actually:
very execrable and inhuman. Whoever, having the bowels of humanity, has seen servants scrubbing at these polished wooden walls with bees-waxed clothes on warm May day must allow that they are ‘tolerable and not to be endured;’ (201)
Finally there is the bizarre romance between Shirley and Louis Moore, pupil and student, all about how Shirley needs to find a master, but it has to be someone she can respect as truly above her. The only good thing about this ‘need’ is that it is not based on rank (though obviously a certain breeding has to come into it) and there is Louis, a tutor only but in himself a masterful man. There are an equally bizarre few chapters containing all this stuff he has written down in a notebook about how he treasures all of her moods and her wildness and wants her to tease him so his taming of her is more sweet and blah blah. Then they play all these weird word games. He tells her of he and Robert’s plans to emigrate should Robert lose his gamble on the war ending in time to save the mill. They talk of his finding a wife among the Indians, she says:
‘…The savage is sordid” I think,–that is, I hope—you would neither of you share your hearth with that to which you could not give your heart.’ (631)
Ugh. There is more of course. Indians are beneath even Yorkshire workmen and dissenters. But here we have emigration as escape for failed mill owners. Romantic ideas of frontier and new lands to conquer.
And for all this I enjoyed the novel, and parts of it were most touching. It particularly struck me how terrible the lot of women was during these times, when marriage was all there was. There is a long section where Caroline almost dies, essentially of a broken heart and depression at a future empty of love or usefulness. As part of her trying to pick herself up out of this, she visits two known ‘old maids’ mocked and disliked for their ugliness and solitary state. She finds unknown depths to them… The tragedy of intelligent and bright women facing an uncertain future given a lack of dowry.
I picked this up off a shelf at the farm in an attempt to move beyond my usual reading just as I was doing with farming — though possibly I should have read Lee Child instead. Completed in all its length amidst the delights of Gloucestershire rather than Yorkshire, it was still a good companion read.