Monday, 23 January 2012


Set in Yorkshire during the time of the Luddite unrest—a workers' movement that began in 1811-1812 in an effort to protect the interests of the working class—the novel consists of two narrative strands woven together, one involving the struggles of workers against mill owners, and the other involving the romantic entanglements of the two heroines.


Shirley begins as Robert Moore, a Yorkshire mill operator, awaits a shipment of machinery which arrives in pieces, smashed by angry workers protesting the loss of jobs to mechanization. Although he is determined to become successful in order to restore his family's honor and fortune, Robert's business difficulties continue, due in part to the continuing labor unrest, but even more so to the Napoleonic Wars and the accompanying Orders in Council which forbid British merchants from trading in American markets.
Robert is unmoved by the plight of workers whose jobs are being eliminated and is so completely focused on profits that he rejects the idea of marriage to his distant kinswoman, the penniless Caroline Helstone, in favor of a proposal to the title character, a rich heiress. Shirley Keeldar, a strong independent woman who relishes her role as land owner and mill owner, ultimately rejects Robert's proposal, but not before the unhappy Caroline has suffered through what she imagines to be the courtship of her beloved Robert and her dearest friend. 

Caroline, poor but respectable, has no other prospects for either marriage or employment, since all professions except that of governess are closed to women. The daughter of an absent mother and an abusive father, Caroline has found refuge, such as it is, with her clergyman uncle, who ignores her. After Robert's rejection, Caroline retreats to this loveless home and begins to waste away until Shirley restores her to health by reuniting Caroline with her long-lost mother, Mrs. Pryor. Shirley, meanwhile, is in love with Robert's brother Louis, a poor tutor, but her pride prevents her from expressing those feelings. Louis, in turn, is similarly restrained from declaring his love for her by pride and fear of rejection by a woman whose means are considerably greater than his own. Events on the industrial front are brought to a head when Robert is shot by a member of the opposing faction. During his recovery, he learns what it is like to be at the mercy of another, to be treated as an object, to be totally dependent—the very status of his workers in relationship to Robert himself. This role reversal, along with the end of the war and the revocation of the Orders in Council, both of which alleviate Robert's financial difficulties, bring about enormous changes in the man. By the novel's end, Robert is reunited with Caroline and is eager to provide work for all the poor and hungry who want it. The communication problems between Shirley and Louis are finally overcome, and the headstrong Shirley submits to Louis as her "master." 

Social criticism

Charlotte Bronte's first and only historical novel deals with the Luddite riots (1811-12), the working-classes’ violent attacks against the introduction of machinery in factories. She tries to link the unfair suffering of workers to that of women. This is the novel in which she  expresses more of her character : her conviction that women might be as well qualified as men to practise a profession (which sets her apart from most of her own contemporaries); her contempt for the market of marriage; her experience as a governess; her longing for a better past.
She avoids representing the suffering of workers as fully as she depicts that of women. Then the novel’s middle-class women are as complicitous in the oppression of the workers as they are in “the regeneration of the interesting coloured population of the globe”. She fails to make the direct connection between the women’s right to be heard and that of the workers.
For example, in the scenes in which Robert Moore, the mill-owner protagonist of SHIRLEY faces the crowd of furious workers both the heroines and the narrator side with the hero. 

The historical context

The author

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