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Sponsored Post: Shirley (Part 0.5)

I owe osprey_archer a post about Shirley in exchange for a donation to the ACLU. This is not that post! I thought I would be able to burn through Shirley before I had to go out of town, but I can’t do it and still do justice to the book, which is very dense and deserves a lot more justice than I’m accustomed to providing. So I want to go through Shirley a little more slowly, but I also want to put something up before it gets too much later.

The two opening paragraphs together are so wonderfully Charlotte Bronte-like that reading them felt like meeting an old friend. Here, why don’t you just read them both?

Of late years an abundance of curates has fallen upon the north of England: they lie very thick on the hills; every parish has one or more of them; they are young enough to be very active, and ought to be doing a great deal of good. But not of late years are we about to speak; we are going back to the beginning of the century; late years – present years are dusty, sun-burned, arid; we will evade the noon, forget it in siesta, pass the mid-day in slumber and dream of dawn.

If you think, from this prelude, that any thing like a romance is preparing for your, reader, you never were more mistaken. Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry, and reverie? Do you expect passion, and stimulus, and melodrama. Calm your expectations, reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool, and solid lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake with the consciousness that they must rise and betake themselves thereto. It is not positively affirmed that you shall not have a taste of the exciting, perhaps toward the middle and close of the meal, but it is resolved that the first dish set upon the table shall be one that a Catholic – ay even an Anglo-Catholic – might eat on Good-Friday in Passion Week; it shall be cold lentiles and vinegar with oil; it shall be unleavened bread with bitter herbs and no roast lamb.

Why am I overjoyed to be warned off my expectations like this? It's not just that I’m mistaken, but that I was never more mistaken! This book will be superlatively down to earth, and will subvert expectations beyond my wildest dreams. It’s a beautiful piece of author confidence masked as self-deprecation, and I guess I have a weakness for that sort of thing. Besides which, Charlotte Bronte knows perfectly well I didn't come here for melodrama; I came here for cool wit and intelligence and guess what I got.

The three curates are introduced – they will keep coming back at key points in the book, cluttering our heroine Caroline's parlor with comedy when she is at her most beset by sentiment and despair - and so is the frame-breaking plot, which I think is going to be the largest wheel in the novel's clockwork. All around the country, men have been smashing the labor-saving machines that cost them their jobs - a target more responsive to being hit by a hammer than the Napoleonic Wars and the general depression. Robert Gerard Moore, the local ruthless/sympathetic mill owner, recruits men to help him watch the mill, but as it turns out the new machines have already been smashed on the road in. The frame-breaking plot might turn out to be a weakness of the book, or it might not – it's too soon to tell, though not too soon to worry.

Shirley takes a long time to develop. It's almost seventy-five pages before we meet Caroline, the shy niece of Mr. Helstone and cousin of Robert, and a little longer before she comes fully into focus. The title character doesn't show up at all until almost a hundred pages later. But this isn't a fault – it's much more like a series of curtains being drawn back to reveal successively brighter and more complex layers of a landscape than it's like a cart with too many melons at just one end.

Caroline is in love with Robert and this love reveals itself in what I thought was a delightfully Bronteesque way: she gets him to read the entirety of Shakespeare's Coriolanus aloud with her, ostensibly to improve his English (he and his sister are from Antwerp) but actually, as we learn along with Mr. Moore, to impart a valuable lesson about character and management. Awww. Caroline's dream is to work for Mr. Moore as his accountant – she is sure she could help make him rich, and maybe she could! - but since that seems impossible, she only wants a change. In my notes I called her the “excessively gifted future governess,” and sure enough, she soon decides that she wants to become a governess and get out of town. Everyone else is violently opposed to this idea, and can't understand it – being a governess is terrible, they keep telling her. But Caroline isn't interested in whether or not it's terrible; she isn't out for a good time, she just wants to get away and to fill up her days and her mind with something.

Shirley is a rich heiress who is accustomed to doing what she likes, and when she befriends Caroline the book suddenly becomes a feast of witty, serious conversation about men and women, and money, and friendship and how best to live. In this book, “Shirley” is an unambiguously masculine name that Shirley's parents gave her because they were hoping for a boy, and Shirley delights in calling herself “Captain Keeldar” and striking masculine poses. This was probably the origin point of “Shirley” as a girl's name, and I can't say I blame the parents of 1850 for running with it.

There will be much more to say about everything soon, including a whole bunch of things I haven't even mentioned – or possibly not so soon; I'm about to hit a busy patch and can't guarantee anything for about the next three weeks. But I'll try to make it soon!

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
heliopausa
Jun. 12th, 2017 02:25 am (UTC)
:D Yes, that's wonderfully her! In full, powerful stride, and (when she wants to be) very amusing.
Looking forward to your further remarks, whenever the busy patch eases off.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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