Derek Davis's Reviews > Shirley

Shirley by Charlotte Brontë
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Dec 02, 2010

it was amazing

It's not exactly a novel in the usual 19th century sense. It pretty much lacks plot, changes direction several times, loses track of characters, runs on way too long and is used as a platform for a platter-load of mini-essays. And the title character first appears on page 274.

So why 5 stars? Because it may be the most beautifully written work I've read. Every word is exactly chosen, exactly placed and adds to the cumulative effect of its sentence and paragraph. This may sound too precious or contrived, but for me at least–not so. What little I've read of Jane Austen has tended to annoy me. She's arch, distanced from her characters and on some level doesn't like most of them. Bronte, by contrast, can lambast a character with withering sarcasm and skewering satire, then go on to show that she has an abiding fondness for their inner being.

Something I didn't know previously: "Shirley" was originally a man's name, which Bronte deliberately gave to an extremely strong female character. She was making a point here, and made it so successfully that the novel actually changed the gender of the name from that time.

Caroline is the heroine of the first 273 pages, and was probably intended to be the major character throughout, but Shirley, once introduced, took over. Robert, Caroline's idolized cousin and overburdened mill-owner, starts off rather unlikable but ends up ... well, until the last section he's pretty much ignored, shoved into the background. When he returns, the last 100 pages or so drag with a succession of gorgeously written but over-the-top romantic dialogues among Caroline, Robert, Shirley and Robert's brother. You could put it down at this point – you know how it's going to end.

Early social commentary - brilliant stuff, by the way; Bronte's little essays on society, class structure and war rank with anything out there - peters out, and what looks like exploding class struggle over the mill fizzles out like a damp fire cracker.

Yes, structurally it's a mess. But what a magnificent mess.
9 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Shirley.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

02/07/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Cay (new)

Cay I agree with what you said about Jane Austen. I've been having difficulty reading her novels for that exact reason, and I love Charlotte even more simply because she appreciates her characters with every fibre of her inner being. Well said.

back to top