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Shirley and Villette

Shirley was written in circumstances very different from any of the Bront¨ s’ e previous works. It was not merely that its writing was interrupted by the deaths of Branwell, of Emily, of Anne; that this was the first of the extraordinary productions of that extraordinary family to be completed outside of that intimate circle of excited, hopefuldiscussion of which Charlotte Bront¨ ’s e first biographer was to tell. Less striking, in retrospect, but perhaps no less significant is the fact that Shirley was the first of the Bront¨ novels to be e written by a famous author. Charlotte’s long apprenticeship in literature had culminated in success. One, at least, of those youthful ‘scribblemaniacs’ now had an established place amongst the writers of theday. ‘There has been no higher point in the whole history of English fiction’ writes Raymond Williams of the year in which Shirley was conceived.1 Dickens’ Dombey and Son, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and Kingsley’s Yeast were all appearing in parts; Mrs Gaskell’s Mary Barton was to be published before Shirley was complete. And it was against her famous contemporaries that its author measured herself.‘Mr Thackeray, Mr Dickens, Mrs Marsh, & c., doubtless enjoyed facilities for observation such as I have not’, Charlotte Bront¨ had written to her publisher just before the appearance of e Jane Eyre. ‘Certainly they possess a knowledge of the world, whether intuitive or acquired, such as I can lay no claim to – and this gives their writings an importance and a variety greatly beyond what I can offerthe public.’2 If the next novel she was to write is markedly different from The Professor and Jane Eyre, the difference might seem to bespeak an attempt to give her own work something of this ‘importance’ and ‘variety’. Shirley is set, like Vanity Fair, in the period of the Napoleonic wars; concerned, like Dombey and Son, with technological change, like Mary Barton with the workers’ ‘starvation’,and like Yeast with schemes for progress and for social reform. Its panoramic scope and its pronouncements on public issues seem to suggest that for this one at least of the Bront¨ s that ‘talking over’ with her sisters of ‘the stories e they were engaged upon’3 had been replaced by a different kind of dialogue
Cambridge Companions Online © Cambridge University Press, 2006

Shirley andVillette

with the eminent novelists of the day. Yet much that is most distinctive in Shirley has its origins in Haworth Parsonage: not in that ‘consultation about plan, subject, characters or incidents’ which its author had so recently enjoyed with Ellis and Acton Bell,4 but in the more distant time of their shared literary apprenticeship, when four excited children had declared themselves powerfulGenii and created the fictional world of Verdopolis, or Glass Town. When Shirley was two-thirds completed, Charlotte Bront¨ wrote again e to her publisher: ‘Currer Bell – even if he had no let or hindrance and if his path were quite smooth, could never march with the tread of a Scott, a Bulwer, a Thackeray or a Dickens . . . calculate low when you calculate on me.’5 Shirley has none of the easyauthority of Thackeray, or the moral eloquence of Kingsley; nothing like Dickens’ imaginative vision of social systems and institutions, or Mrs Gaskell’s detailed knowledge of the living conditions of the poor. That ‘making of connections between fragmentary and divided experiences’ which Williams (speaking of Dombey and Son) calls ‘the achievement, in the novel, of a new dimension of socialconsciousness’ is notably absent here.6 One finds instead a peculiar pot-pourri of subjects – the curates and their absurdities; Robert Moore’s entrepreneurial ambitions; the dispute between masters and men; the story of Caroline Helstone’s lonely decline, and of the aristocratic heiress, Shirley; the Yorke family and their concerns – interspersed with extended reflections upon such themes as the...
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