Sunday, 23 May 2010

Shirley (Charlotte Brontë)

--The blurb--
"Set in the industrializing England of the Napoleonic wars and Luddite revolts of 1811-12, Shirley 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."
--The review--
One of the reasons I chose to cease the study of literature beyond undergraduate level was due to a cartel of overzealous lecturers who spent more time reading alleged contextual detail and authorial motive into works that I did not consider to be there, rather than concentrating on language, character, imagery and plot. While this arises simply on the basis of whether you are an extrinsic reader (who likes speculating on peripheral detail) or an intrinsic one (the opposite), it is still nevertheless a relief to find when reading Shirley that even though there is social commentary and context for the extrinsic camp to analyse if they should wish, the novel is also incredibly rich in visual and emotional tapestry, thus providing plenty of enjoyment all round.

The unrequited love experienced by Caroline Helstone is expressed excellently by Brontë; any young girl who has ever loved and not been loved in return will find a small piece of themselves in these pages. It is perhaps partly due to this that despite the book being entitled Shirley, it is in fact Caroline who feels more like the main character to us; it is also this human, "real life" element that perhaps makes Charlotte's work more accessible than that of her sister Emily. But the author's talents are not restricted to unrequited love, with her mastery of description (physical, emotional, and anything else) proving prevalent throughout the novel. Chapter 18 is particularly revolutionary, due to its use of extended metaphor and its pantheistic nature. It questions the authority of the Bible and inequality between the sexes, too, and yet Brontë is highly modest about her work (or perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek), as she recommends skipping this part in a note to the reader at the start of the chapter.

The novel is a little on the slow side to begin with, but soon picks up pace and ultimately means that Shirley is worth pursuing, even if this is more for its characters and descriptions than for its plot (gems hidden in the narrative are not inlaid in a constant stream, to say the least). The slowness in the novel's commencement is unfortunately reversed towards its end, where it feels like the author is rushing to finish the story, with any satisfaction given to the reader being only a subsidiary priority. Mastery in construction, then, is perhaps not the name of the game here: Shirley is worth reading - but primarily for the feast with which it provides the senses.

Other works by Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre (1847)
Villette (1853)
The Professor (1857 - posthumous)
Emma Brown (2003 - posthumous)

1 comment:

Shelley said...

I know as writers it's not surprising for us to have ups and downs in our private lives, but whenever I read about Charlotte Bronte, I wonder how on earth she kept her sanity.