Before this novel, published in 1849, between Jane Eyre and Villette, Shirley was only a man’s surname. In the introduction to the Wordsworth edition that I read, Sally Minogue informs us that Brontë’s novel, Shirley, “is, according to The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, the earliest usage of ‘Shirley’ as a first name, for man or woman”(XI).

Based on her sister Emily Brontë (1818-1848) who died when Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) was writing the novel, the character of Shirley Keeldar is bold, outspoken, happy, willful and independently wealthy. She reads the newspaper, keeping herself informed on political and social issues. She also understands financial markets and asserts her economic power within her community, helping Robert Moore out financially with his Mill and creating a fund and distribution system for financial gifts to community members in need.

She has independence in a way most women of the time did not, but she still gets caught by the political and social mores of the time, (she must marry) and in the end succumbs. It is a marriage of her choosing — after several refusals of other proposals, and fiery arguments with her uncle who raised her — to a man whom she loves. Shirley is reluctant even then.

While researching and writing other posts about Emily and Charlotte Brontë for Nasty Women Writers, I saw several references to the novel, Shirley and the character Shirley being modeled after Emily Brontë. A large part of the reason why I wanted to read it was to encounter the often-mysterious Emily, author of Wuthering Heights and learn more about her. I was not disappointed. Charlotte Brontë spends a lot of time describing Shirley—her inner life, and her mannerisms. Some are fictional for sure, but one feels as though she is also painting a picture of her lost sister for herself to keep fresh in her memory and not forget.

What I didn’t know until after I read the novel is that the other main protagonist, Caroline Helstone, is modeled after her sister Anne Brontë (1820-1849). Anne is the  author of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, who also died while Charlotte was writing Shirley, not long after her sister Emily.

Read Nasty Women Writers posts about the Brontë’s:

Woman Writer Anne Brontë: The Youngest, Most Shocking Brontë Sister (1820-1849)

Being Poor While Female in 19th Century Woman Writer Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853)

Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre’s Righteous Anger, British Woman Writer (1816-1855)

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights: A 19th Century Woman Writer Calling Out White Supremacist Patriarchy

Caroline, though not as bold and brash as Shirley, is also a strong and willful person. However, she is not independently wealthy, and so has fewer options than Shirley. Caroline longs for a job, an occupation, and much of her inner turmoil explores this feeling and lack of will to live for lack of a feeling of purpose.

“Caroline,” demanded Miss Keeldar abruptly, “don’t you wish you had a profession—a trade?”

“I wish it fifty times a day As it is, I often wonder what I came into the world for. I long to have something absorbing and compulsory to fill my head and hands and to occupy my thoughts.”

“Can labor alone make a human being happy?”

“No; but it can give varieties of pain, and prevent us from breaking our hearts with a single tyrant master-torture. Besides, successful labour has its recompense; a vacant, weary, lonely, hopeless life has none.”

“But hard labour and learned professions, they say, make women masculine, coarse, unwomanly.”

“And what does it signify whether unmarried and never-to-be married women are unattractive and inelegant or not?”(171).

Caroline is terminally bored and wishes for adventure and occupation. There is none for her. She is already a teacher but she wants something more.

In the beginning of the book, she is in love with Robert Moore, her dashing  neighbor and cousin from Belgium who has moved to Yorkshire to try to regain his family’s lost fortune by opening a textile mill. It seems Robert shares Caroline’s affections but he stops himself from entertaining such ideas since he is poor and Caroline is poor and he must focus on his business.

He turns abruptly cold to Caroline who spirals into deep depression.

The novel is set during the Napoleonic Wars, 1811-1812, a difficult time for Yorkshire, economically and politically. Brontë covers the politics of the time. A large part of the book is dedicated to the ongoing struggle between Robert Moore, the mill owner and his desire to modernize which the locals believe will put them out of work.

Then Shirley Keeldar enters onto the scene. She and Caroline become fast friends.

“Shirley Keeldar (she had no Christian name but Shirley; her parents, who had wished to have a son, finding that, after eight years of marriage, Providence had granted them only a daughter, bestowed on her the same masculine family cognomen they would have bestowed on a boy, if with a boy they had been blessed)—Shirley Keeldar was no ugly heiress. She was agreeable to the eye. Her height and shape were not unlike Miss Helstone’s; perhaps in stature she might have the advantage by an inch or two. She was gracefully made, and her face too, possessed a charm as well described by the word grace as any other. It was pale naturally, but intelligent, and of varied expression. She was not a blonde, like Caroline. Clear and dark were the characteristics of her aspect as to colour. Her face and brow were clear, her eyes of the darkest gray (no green lights in them—transparent, pure, neutral gray) and her hair of the darkest brown”(151).

Shirley Keeldar describing herself as “Lord of the Manor of Briarfield,” is Robert Moore’s landlord.

Caroline and Shirley’s “relationship is depicted as natural and deeply felt —reflected in their outdoor wanderings—and it is one of the strongest depictions of female friendship in the nineteenth century novel”(Minogue in intro XIII).

This book passes the Bechdel test with flying colors and it was written in 1848. Bechdel tests whether or not a work of art is sexist with the requirement that it have at least two female main characters who speak to one another and have conversations about something other than a man.

“In Caroline, Miss Keeldar had first taken an interest because she was quiet, retiring, looked delicate, and seemed as if she needed some one to take care of her. Her predilections increased greatly when she discovered that her own way of thinking and talking was understood and responded to by this new acquaintance. She had hardly expected it. Miss Helstone, she fancied, had too pretty a face, manners and voice too soft, to be anything out of the common way in mind and attainments; and she very much wondered to see the gentle features light up archly to the reveille of a dry sally or two risked by herself; and more did she wonder to discover the self-won knowledge treasured and the untaught speculations working in that girlish, curl-veiled head. Caroline’s instinct to taste, too, was like her own. Such books as Miss Keeldar had read with the most pleasure were Miss Helstone’s delight also. They held many aversions too in common, and could have the comfort of laughing together over works of false sentimentality and pompous pretension”(167).

Shirley and Caroline have many scenes and conversations alone, and their relationship exists outside of men. The “Old Maids” in the village are given a large segment of text as well. As Caroline is sure she is to become one, she seeks them out and interviews them. They prove to have voice, character and agency. Then there is Hortense (Robert’s sister), and Caroline’s friendship, and Caroline and her long-lost mother who reappears mid-novel.

Caroline and Shirley speak of a day trip to a fabled, wooded area near their properties that is magical and referred to as a place where fairies and Robin Hood once lived. Brontë makes sure to let us know that it was once also the location of a nunnery.

“We will go—you and I alone, Caroline—to that wood, early some fine summer morning, and spend a long day there. We can take pencils and sketch-books, and any interesting reading-book we like; and of course we shall take something to eat. I have two little baskets in which Mrs Gill, my housekeeper, might pack our provisions, and we could each carry our own. It would not tire you too much to walk so far?”

“Oh no; especially if we rested the whole day in the wood. And I know all the pleasantest spots. I know where we could get nuts in nutting times know where wild strawberries abound; I know certain lonely, quite untrodden glades, carpeted with strange mosses, some yellow as if gilded, some sober gray, some gem-green. I know groups of trees that ravish the eye with their perfect, picture-like effects—rude oak, delicate birch, glossy beech, clustered in contrast; and ash trees stately as Saul, standing isolated; and superannuated wood-giants clad in bright shrouds of ivy. Miss Keeldar, I could guide you.”

“You would be dull with me alone?”

“I should not. I think we should suit; and what third person is there whose presence would not spoil our pleasure?”

“Indeed, I know of none about our own ages—no lady at least; and as to gentlemen—“

“An excursion becomes quite a different thing when there are gentlemen of the party,” interrupted Caroline. “I agree with you—quite a different thing to what we were proposing.”

“We were going simply to see the old trees, and old ruins; to pass a day in old times, surrounded by olden silence, and above all by quietude”(159).

Still the women hide things from each other. Caroline hides how much she is in love with Robert even though she believes that he and Shirley will be married. Indeed Robert proposes to Shirley who refuses him on no uncertain terms saying she knows he is only after her money, but she does not tell Caroline until well after.

Shirley suffers on her own with her uncle ’s abuse and her decline of several proposals. She also does not admit to Caroline until the end to whom her heart truly belongs: Robert’s brother, Louis who has been her tutor earlier in life.

Shirley’s revolt against her uncle is something to behold.

“Uncle, you tire me. I want to go away.”

“Go you shall not! I will be answered. What are your intentions, Miss Keeldar?”

“In what respect?”

“In respect of matrimony?”

“To be quiet, and to do just as I please.”

“Just as you please! The words are to the last degree indecorous.”

“Mr Sympson, I advise you not to become insulting. You know I will not bear that.”

“You read French. Your mind is poisoned with French novels. You have imbibed French principles.”

“The ground you are treading on now returns a mighty hollow sound under your feet. Beware!”(409)

In the end Brontë contrives (and it does seem a bit of a stretch) to have the two heroines marry brothers and so they shall remain close in their association and affiliation. We can be happy to know they will have one another to console and confide in, even rebel with.

For women in the patriarchy, that is often the only redeeming thing that can save and assuage — the female friend.

As in all her novels, Charlotte Brontë makes us feel the discomfort, unfairness, and absolute lack of choice for middle class English women in the 19th century.  She ends them all with marriage but it is always clear she is doing this only because that is the plot ending that was required of her heroines.

To modern women I say, for Charlotte Brontë and her sisters Emily and Anne, we must live. For Charlotte Brontë and women of the past, of all races and classes, we must all appreciate the freedoms we have (if we have them). We have them in part because of these brave sisters.

With their own unique perspectives, they chose to raise their voices, say the unsaid. Charlotte, Emily and Anne, when they made their appearance onto the scene as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, because they expressed their passion and rage through their characters and storylines were called vulgar and obscene. Before anyone even knew they were women, they were abused and shamed. For Charlotte it only got worse once her identity and the identity of her sisters was revealed after their deaths.

But that did not stop Charlotte Brontë.     

Yes, she is of a certain class, 19th century middle class English; a certain race, white; a certain religion, Christian; but she was poor, the only option open to her was teaching.

In spite of her limited point of view Charlotte Brontë, in her novels and writing gives voice to and represents anyone who has experienced themselves as the repressed, fire burning within, passionate artist. Anyone who has a burning desire to create, to write, to sing, to paint, to dance, yet has to work a day job.

She expresses, in achingly clear language, what that does to creativity. How one suffers from it. Caroline longs for occupation. Shirley has money and strength but knows she still will never be taken seriously because of her sex and writes and rewrites the story of Eve, claiming her as a Titan equal to Adam.

Caroline decides to starve and almost kill herself. Shirley is more fiery and self destructive than that. Her repression turns into anger and even rage.

Readers: Charlotte Brontë couldn’t work it out. She couldn’t figure out how to free herself and her passions and desires nor those of her characters.

Just listen to this journal entry from Charlotte Brontë after a morning of teaching in her job at a girl’s school before she wrote her novels:

“I sat sinking from irritation and weariness into a kind of lethargy.

The thought came over me: am I to spend all the best part of my life in this wretched bondage, forcibly suppressing my rage at the idleness, the apathy and the hyperbolical and most asinine stupidity of those fatheaded oafs, and on compulsion assuming an air of kindness, patience and assiduity? Must I from day to day sit chained to this chair prisoned within these four bare walls, while these glorious summer suns are burning in heaven and the year is revolving in its richest glow and declaring at the close of every summer day the time I am losing will never come again?                . . .

Then came on me, rushing impetuously, all the nightly phantasm that this had conjured from nothing to a system strange as some religious creed. I feel as if I could have written gloriously. I longed to write. The spirit of all Verdopolis, of all the mountainous North, of all the woodland West, of all the river-watered East came crowding into my mind. If I had time to indulge it, I feel that the vague sensations of the moment would have settled down into some narrative better at least than anything I ever produced before. But just then a dolt came up with a lesson. I thought I should have vomited”(qt’d in: FLTC 76).

Though she never figured out how to free her characters or herself from marriage, she blazed a trail for others to follow and work further toward that end, and so we must continue to blaze this trail.

Feel, she encouraged. Feel, she gave permission. I feel, she wrote and illustrated. Her characters feel, they burn and they invite us to feel and burn. It is as though she lit and continues to light the long end of a fuse connected to a pile of dynamite. When we read her, we feel it. It begins to smolder and burn within us. “Insupportable! Outrageous!” we call out as we read her novels. And though we can reduce it to the institution of marriage, it is really the patriarchy she is constantly taking to the mat. Where Austen tends to jest and joke, Charlotte Brontë is dead serious. There is no lightness here. Only a testament to torture endured. A testament of truth.

Charlotte Brontë is a Nasty Woman Writer.

© Theresa C. Dintino 2023

Works Cited

Brontë, Charlotte. Shirley. Wordsworth Classics. 2009.

Gubar, Susan and Sandra M. Gilbert. Feminist Literary Theory and Criticism: A Norton Reader. W.W. Norton & Co. 2007