Charlotte Bronte’s novel Shirley is a must read for people interested in the topics of: economic justice; Occupy Wall Street ideas; women’s social history; feminism; war and peace; and charity. Bronte’s second published book, coming on the heels of the success of her Jane Eyre, is another masterpiece, full of drama and surprises, with some radical politics, and an extra heroine thrown into the mix.
Why haven’t many people heard of this book? One set of reasons can be traced to the structure of the book, while another set of reasons relates to suppression due to the political climate of the 1840’s, when it was published, through to today.
The book is set in 1811 and 1812. The opening chapter is somewhat laborious. And, the chapter is even more difficult for modern readers to wade through, because it is a character sketch of curates in England in the early 1800’s. Though, later in the story, this chapter will have laid groundwork to show political and romantic relationships. And, if you can muddle through the first chapter, there is great value and entertainment in the rest of this book.
Another structural problem with the novel is that there is so much going on in the story, the reader does not encounter the dazzling title character of Miss Shirley Keelder until Chapter 11. Still, Shirley is worth the wait. And, the first ten chapters introduce other interesting characters, such as the lovelorn Carolyn, and the prosperous Mr. York and his entire family.
The other set of reasons that you may not have heard of this book is due to its politics. The book is full of wisdom and revolutionary ideas which the elite in society may not want us all to learn – neither in 1849, nor today.
When the book Shirley was published, in 1849, the name “Shirley” was a decidedly male name. Bronte created this interesting character, Shirley, who was a bold woman, who had been given a boy’s name by her parents. And, the woman, as an heiress and free spirit, gleefully takes on some of the roles and identity of a man. Shirley even sometimes refers to herself (in jest) as “Shirley Keelder, Esquire”. Charlotte Bronte’s fiction was such a cultural success, that she spawned a new generation of girls named Shirley, and our current identification with Shirley as a female name.  That change is a powerful bit of feminism. Shouldn’t a book that has accomplished such a feat be in the feminist literary and feminist historical canon?
This book also has another value for literary historians. There are many admirers of Charlotte’s sister, Emily Bronte, author of Wuthering Heights. Emily died young, leaving only that one book behind. In reading Shirley, Emily Bronte fans can enjoy a glimpse of their favorite author: Charlotte Bronte told her biographer that the character Shirley was “what Emily Bronte would have been had she been placed in health and prosperity.”
Another political tension with this book, is that it explores, in a thoughtful and layered way, the battle between the businesspeople of the industrial revolution versus the Luddites and the Frame-Breakers. Luddites (some of whom were Frame-Breakers) rejected the new technology of the industrial revolution. Frame-Breakers broke the machinery of the mills as part of their rebellion.
By exploring this historical and moral crisis, the book could become a handbook for people immersed in struggle. It explores strategic and moral questions such as: Is violence justified in political struggle? Which group, class, or government entity should be responsible for taking care of the poor in times of economic upheaval? Should the rich help the poor, and why? Should church people involve themselves in the politics of justice? What are important communication and public relations strategies for groups in struggle?
In addition to these wider social and political plot lines, there are also heartfelt, people-centered plot lines. There is a family with roots in Belgium who tries to assimilate (or not) into English culture. There are Yorkshire characters from every background and class. And, the story contains many sets of lovers. Bronte even shares old love stories, played out until death, that arise from the many character sketches in the book.
The book truly has “something for everyone”, as it includes romance, politics, business, war, and personal struggle. And, if you are a devotee of Jane Eyre, it seems only fair to give Charlotte Bronte a second chance to win you over with a good book. Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley is truly an overlooked masterpiece, full of wisdom, fascinating characters, and dramatic entertainment.
Review and questions by Kimberly Wilder. Ms. Wilder is a poet and peace activist, who enjoys books by Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte.
Questions, battles, and plot lines in Shirley by Charlotte Bronte
Battle of the sexes. How the men and women do and don’t work together. Shirley as a liaison between the world of men and women.
Can a character succeed in her public and/or personal life as a man-like woman?
Examining views on women. The success, the motivations, and the outcomes of stances from: distrusting women, dismissing women, hating women, ignoring the feelings of women, being a woman seeking role models among women, being a woman who looks down on other women, being a woman immersed in patriarchy. How families react differently to young girls as opposed to young boys.*
The psychology of a woman raised without a mother.
Battle between the manufacturers and Luddites (frame-breakers). Includes comments on problems caused by war, poverty, and an unhelpful government.
Will the Napoleonic wars end in time for this community, and for the country, to prosper?
An examination of poverty. (With a well-written vignette of the classic image of a poor man crying because he cannot feed his family.) [ This thread would be of interest to Occupy Wall Street activists and theorists.]
A personal struggle with pride and ego, with references to Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.
Love between rich and poor. The economics of courtship.
Can men and women be friends?
Transgender issues. While this book does not offer a character who is physically or completely transgender, there are interesting passages where Shirley explores her identification with men. Also, suggestions of how men accept “manliness” from most women vs. Shirley, who is bolder and richer.
Demonstrates how various people or groups respond to patriarchy. Examples include: rich and poor (1% and 99%); men and women; young and old; powerful and powerless.
Love and bonding between two women.
Adjustment and reactions to immigrants (A Yorkshire community in England opposite a family from Belgium with French customs.)
How does fashion relate to: cultural assimilation, social class, domestic duties? (Note: This text does not allude to gender fashion reform. Shirley does not wear pants.)
Running thread of commentary about French language versus English language, and the impossibility of translation with some words.
Observations on the value and treatment of servants, tutors, governesses, and the lower classes.
Why might a revolution get violent?
How and to what extent can violence/violent revolution be prevented through charity, public relations, empathy, etc.?
Who, in a revolution, is likely to use violence?
Who has the moral duty to create justice in a broken economy? The rich, the manufacturers and business people, religious leaders, the government, the police, the military, the grassroots? [An interesting study for Occupy Wall Street activists.]
Is it fair/effective/moral/noble to desire an end to war in order to fix the economy? in order to preserve your own wealth?
Battle of the religious sects. Culture and prominence between The Church of England versus various dissenters – Baptists, Methodists, Weslyans, independents, etc.
Nurse versus patient. Comments on discipline and nursing, and coalescing versus the need for community.
Relationship between people and pets. Humor and reflections on loving a trusted dog.
Comments on how to do charity, fundraise, address poverty, and create abundance. With some specific examples, including how to (and not to) solicit donors, and a meeting to decide grant allocation.
Observations on domestic life; the physical structure of house, home and décor; the politics of family.
*Author Charlotte Bronte definitely expresses what we would consider now as feminist ideas. Shirley is considered one of the first models of an empowered woman in the Victorian novel. Though, in her writing (including Shirley and Jane Eyre) her feminism is mostly emotional and cultural. And, in real life, Charlotte Bronte was somewhat conservative on some specific political issues related to women.
 Emily Bronte quote by Elizabeth Gaskell
 Information on Luddites and Frame-Breakers