Somehow we skipped daylight today and went straight from cloudy morning to darkening twilight, but that’s ok because today is a broody one at best.
I’m trying to find a way to talk about Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley without exaggerating or giving way to florid prose Miss Bronte would have regarded with horror and maybe a dash of morbid fascination.
It is, quite simply, a revelation. In the space of one novel, Ms Bronte manages to hold forth and convey her opinions on men, women, marriage, women’s rights and women’s equality, classism in British society, broken heartedness, resilience, Yorkshire, the weather, courage, male authors writing heroines, female authors writing heroes, novels generally, femininity, spinsters and bachelors, charity, suffering fools, the clergy, reforming England’s church, chivalry, general foolishness and industrial revolution. We don’t even meet the title character until Chapter 11 (uh, some of us may have forgotten that a character named Shirley was even supposed to be introduced, so caught up were we in the narrative), and another chapter shortly thereafter is entitled "Which the Genteel Reader is Recommended to Skip, Persons of Low Character Being Here Introduced."
Ms Bronte is queen of misdirection. At first you think the novel is all about unrest in the country populace, the violence inherent in the system, and the asinine behavior of local curates. Then you think it’s all about Caroline Helstone, a fluttery, unassuming, second-generation-Wuthering-Heights-esque resident. But you would be WRONG. Except that you’re not, quite. It’s just that Caroline isn’t truly Caroline until she meets Shirley.
Apparently this book is responsible for Shirley even being a woman’s name. I’d name my future hypothetical kid Shirley myself if I thought either of my closest male relatives would be able to avoid making the "Don’t call me Shirley" jokes every day of the kid’s future hypothetical kid’s life.
BTW Shirley? Kicks some serious 19th century ass. She’d kick ass by any century’s standards. She refers to herself as Captain Keeldar, as "Lord of the Manor," and is generally a woman in a man’s world who refuses to be meek and retiring. She wields pistols, she ignores awkward suitors, she is ferocious. She is sarcastic and hilarious. She is bold and fearless.
She is Jane Eyre with a happy childhood. A well-adjusted Catherine Earnshaw. A shade of Bronte herself sans Gaskell mythology, especially reminiscent of her exchanges with William Thackeray. Apparently based on Anne Bronte, the only Bronte child still living by the time the book was finished.
Reading this book on the subway, I frequently have to stop and close my eyes and just thank the universe (and my folks) for sending it to me.