Book Review: Shirley

SHIRLEY 1Shirley, by Charlotte Bronte. Published first in 1849 under the name Currer Bell, I picked up the 2006 version by Penguin Classics and later realized it was yellowed on the shelf for a reason: it is no longer in print. Not that my version is special, it’s just not available in its exact version. I couldn’t even find a photo for you.

I read this book as part of a rabbit trail begun at Jane Eyre. After this, I will still be reading and reviewing Charlotte’s Villette and The Professor, Anne’s Agnes Grey, Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell. Really hoping this last book will cover much of the whole family that intrigues me so, but either way, it looks to be a promising biography.

Shirley is such a nice surprise, because most of us have never heard of it. It’s not Emma or Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, but all arts and genres must have their hidden gems. Only so few of even the most wonderful writing (or other arts) get the publicity (and even the longevity) that make up the “tomes” or the “common household names.” I was also a little surprised, because even when I have found a book that I love, I have rarely followed the author to other equally lovable books (with the exception of Amy Tan and a few others). With Charlotte Bronte, so far, so good. Jane Eyre is not a favorite of mine, but it is quite good. Shirley is, in my opinion, at least as enjoyable, maybe even more so. I would think, at the least, that all those Victorian romance fans would want to try this out.

It has it’s flaws, not least of which is the Victorian longwindedness. I also found the obvious rabbit trails with minor characters who Bronte modeled after real people, most distracting and weakening. It took quite a time to warm up, too, and the story lacks some of the complexity of other books of its time. But I did enjoy the more playful tone, the characters (although the men could have been drawn out better), and the general plot (except for mere circumstance concluding our story). I strongly recommend that you don’t read about the story ahead of time. In the first sentence of the back copy I read, it revealed the main plot twist to me, which happens at something like two-thirds of the way in. I enjoy being talked to across the centuries by Charlotte Bronte, even if the main points are a bit obvious (to us now. Perhaps they weren’t, then). It is possible this whole book was just a way to hide the boring pill of social exposition. In that case, still fun.

But why name it Shirley? The book is more about Caroline than Shirley, and the love-square is–obviously–four-sided. It might have been a way to draw attention to the masculine qualities and strengths of one of the main characters. I understand that Shirley was exclusively a man’s name, at the time. However, there’s nothing farcical about the way the more feminine, domestic, reclusive Caroline is portrayed. In fact, she’s also bursting (but restrained) with her own “modern” ideas and plans. Furthermore, the book begins on a complete tangent, which–several chapters in–it abandons for happier characters. Shirley doesn’t enter until much later.

You have to compare Shirley with Jane Eyre, of course. But in many aspects, the two are so dissimilar they could have been written by different people. Except for the women in society thing, the stifled feminine strength bit, most things are both obviously and subtly different. To begin with, Eyre is famously first person, with a very close and intimate storytelling voice. Shirley is not only third person, but has a strong omniscient narration and bits and pieces of being lifted from the story for insight or comment. Eyre, too, is also a pretty dark book, both in tone and content. Even though Shirley is about feminist and industrial struggles, it is exceedingly lighter. It would make a fine Ang Lee film, if only a few more complications arose.

Over all, the book dragged on a little and lingered often off the point, but that’s normal for the time period. It is an enjoyable read, especially as the reader progresses. I wouldn’t hand it to a fan of science fiction as an introduction into Victorian classics, but for those weathered in the genre, there is absolutely no reason you shouldn’t run out and grab a copy, immediately.

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There are no film adaptations of this movie. Correction: there was one done nearly one hundred years ago in silent film, but I don’t fancy trying to find that. BBC did a radio series as recently as last year.

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“He could walk miles on the most varying April day, and never see the beautiful dallying of earth and heaven; never mark when a sunbeam kissed the hill-tops, making them smile clear in the green light, or when a shower wept over them, hiding their crests with the low-hanging, disheveled tresses of a cloud” (p19).

“So the unemployed underwent their destiny–ate the bread and drank the waters of affliction. Misery generates hate” (p30).

“It seems to me, reader, that you cannot always cut out men to fit their profession, and that you ought not to curse them because that profession sometimes hangs on them ungracefully” (p36).

“He said public patience was a camel, on whose back the last atom that could be borne had already been laid…” (52).

“Your heart is a lyre, Robert; but the lot of your life has not been a minstrel to sweep it” (p87).

“If her admirers only told her that she was an angel, she would let them treat her like an idiot” (p113).

“It is the boast of some of them that they can keep a stone in their pocket seven years, turn it at the end of that time, keep it seven years longer, and hurl it, and hit their mark at last” (p119).

“‘Enough is as good as a feast, is it not, Mr. Sykes?” (p127).

“Invention may be all right, but I know it isn’t right for poor folks to starve” (p133).

“For the sigh of the south wind, came the sob of the mournful east” (p168).

“Every path trod by human feet terminates in one bourne–the grave: the little chink in the surface of this great globe–the furrow where the mighty husbandman with the scythe deposits the seed he has shaken from the ripe stem; and there it falls, decays, and thence it springs again, when the world has rolled round a few times more” (p169).

“Sincerity is never ludicrous; it is always respectable” (p176).

“He is simply a man who is rather liberal than good-natured, rather brilliant than genial, rather scrupulously equitable that truly just–if you can understand such superfine distinctions” (p203).

“I tell you when they are good, they are the lords of creation,–they are the sons of God” (p206).

“The man would be half a poet, if he were not wholly a maniac; and perhaps a prophet, if he were not a profligate” (p225).

“…a herd of whales rushing through the livid and liquid thunder down from the frozen zone” (p232).

“Lina, you will haunt me” (p241).

“Men, I believe, fancy women’s minds something like those of children. Now, that is a mistake” (p333).

“‘Cool! Must I listen cooly to downright nonsense–to dangerous nonsense?” (p348).

“Oh, child! you have only lived the pleasant morning time of life: the hot, weary noon, the sad evening, the sunless night, are yet to come for you!” (p359).

“God surely did not create us, and cause us to live, with the sole end of wishing always to die. I believe, in my heart, we were intended to prize life and enjoy it, so long as we retain it” (p369).

“Of course, I should often be influenced by my feelings: they were given me to that end” (p380).

“…as her ideas returned slowly, each folding its weak wings on the mind’s sad shore, like birds exhausted” (p397).

“Oh, child! the human heart can suffer. It can hold more tears than the ocean holds waters” (p406).

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune, but, once let slip, never returns again” (p445).

“I approve nothing Utopian. Look Life in its iron face” (p462).

“Robert! this is a queer world, and men are made of the queerest dregs that Chaos churned up in her ferment” (p507).

“As to your small maxims, your narrow rules, your little prejudices, aversions, dogmas, bundle them off: Mr. Sympson–go, offer them a sacrifice to the deity you worship; I’ll none of them” (p521).

“He did not yet know how many commenced life-romances are doomed never to get beyond the first–or, at most, the second chapter” (p551).

 

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