Shirley, Paperback Book
4 out of 5 (6 ratings)


Struggling manufacturer Robert Moore has introduced labour saving machinery to his Yorkshire mill, arousing a ferment of unemployment and discontent among his workers.

Robert considers marriage to the wealthy and independent Shirley Keeldar to solve his financial woes, yet his heart lies with his cousin Caroline, who, bored and desperate, lives as a dependent in her uncle's home with no prospect of a career.

Shirley, meanwhile, is in love with Robert's brother, an impoverished tutor - a match opposed by her family.

As industrial unrest builds to a potentially fatal pitch, can the four be reconciled?

Set during the Napoleonic wars at a time of national economic struggles, Shirley (1849) is an unsentimental, yet passionate depiction of conflict between classes, sexes and generations.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 704 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Classic fiction (pre c 1945)
  • ISBN: 9780141439860

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Showing 1 - 5 of 6 reviews.

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Review by

Shirley begins as a "condition of England" novel, and is certainly a very sensitive portrayal of the plight of England and her citizens during the Napoleonic Wars. Bronte does an exceptional job of portraying the problems of the working class as they began to lose their jobs en masse, but also of the "rich" industrialists who were being squeezed to the point of bankruptcy. Rather than class warfare, Bronte shows the problems every class was facing. At the same time, she shines a light on some of the corruption and hypocrisy of the Church of England, though also showing the sincerity of many individual believers. All of this is done with brilliant handling of an ensemble cast of characters in the clergy and landowning class, some of whom, refreshingly, genuinely care about those in need.The novel also deals with many of the same issues as Jane Eyre (class, gender, generation, etc), but not only through a single person's eyes. The book feels less isolated. We actually see just about everyone's position. Shirley is an example of a "good" person of wealth, who genuinely wants to help those in need. Ample examples are also provided of wealthy individuals who couldn't care less. There are both "good" (Mr. Hall, Mr. Helstone to a certain extent) and "bad" (the curates) examples of clergy. There are steadfast defenders of the Establishment (Mr. Helstone, Shirley, and many many others) and bitter Dissenters (the Yorke family). The major characters of the novel are both men and women. In fact, there are four "main" characters, whose perspective the novel frequently shifts between (without disorienting the reader, happily). This enables Bronte to show things from different perspectives, and also gives the reader a fresh take on things, as the different principles have differing relationships with each other, other characters, etc. And the characters are genuinely different from each other. No one would accuse Shirley, Caroline, Hortense, or Mrs. Pryor of having similar personalities, any more than they would accuse Misters Helstone, Yorke, or either of the Moores. It's also hard to say who the narrator is. The narrator speaks directly to the reader, much like in Jane Eyre, yet the narrator's identity is never clearly identified, and almost certainly isn't one of the four principles -- nor does it seem to have been any of the characters portrayed in the novel.Bronte makes frequent allusions to other literary traditions in this text, including mythology, but by far her most frequent allusions are to the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare (always a good decision). Not only that, Bronte seems to have been channeling Shakespeare when she wrote this. Many characters actually seem to have soliloquies at the end of important scenes (in fact, this happens extraordinarily often). During some important scenes, the narration seems to disappear in favor of dialog (this especially seems to happen between Shirley and Louis), and one scene even has what seems to be a stage direction at the end ("Exit Shirley"). The rhythm of several conversations, as well as the abrupt shifts from dialog to soliloquy, can't help but remind one of Shakespeare. Bronte seems to realize that Shakespeare is our tradition, our inheritance as English-speaking people (and even more hers as an Englishwoman). We should take pride in him, cherish his works, and take ownership of that heritage.Anyone who has read Jane Eyre knows that Bronte is witty... but there's a linguistic cleverness in Shirley that Jane Eyre doesn't even touch. It's very obvious that Bronte was an even more mature writer by the time she penned Shirley, and that she was at the height of her abilities. The book, like its title character, possesses a "curious charm" (438, 444).It's worth mentioning that there are a ton of great speeches in this novel, a ton of great dialog, and lots of awesome narration. If I were to post my favorite quotes from the novel... I might attempt to do so later, but definitely not right now, because there's definitely enough for a completely separate entry.I'm not really sure how this book does what it does. You end up caring about the characters so much, that it just bypasses every defense, every analytical portion of your mind, and takes your heart captive. You stop caring about what commentary is being proposed about society, religion, etc, and start cheering for Shirley when she tells off her uncle, or admiring Robert when he realizes what an idiot he's been and waxes poetic/prophetic. The characters end up occupying your undivided attention. You desperately want to know what's going to happen. As you read, you are conscious of your brain slowly turning off, and your heart turning way on.I don't really know how to end this entry, which is kind of fitting, because the book ended rather abruptly. It was kind of like, "Okay, that's enough, now let's tell you what ended up happening to everyone." Honestly, though, that was a very authentic way to end the book, as it's being told from some point in the future. People's lives don't usually provide a definite end point, especially when you're dealing with multiple people. So the narrator had to pick a point to stop, and basically tell you what ended up happening between then and whatever point in the future they're describing. The last lines of the book are very appropriate:"The story is told. I think I now see the judicious reader putting on his spectacles to look for the moral. It would be an insult to his sagacity to offer directions. I only say, God speed him in his quest!"Thanks for the reminder, Charlotte. The book captured my heart so much that I almost forgot to apply my brain to that task. It's very difficult to get a single moral from this book. It sheds light on so many complicated aspects of life, so many moral issues, that a single moral wouldn't exactly seem to do the novel justice.

Review by

There are several well-written reviews below that state my thoughts better than I am able to at the moment. I would just like to add that for readers who expect another Jane Eyre when beginning Shirley should be warned that it is a very different type of book that Charlotte Bronte set out to write and what she accomplishes is marvelous. It is lengthy and seem incoherent or contradictory at times, but it bears a second close reading (like any well-written book, really) to understand better what Bronte is getting at. Hated it upon first reading, loved it after the second.

Review by

My favorite Bronte book. Not so dark and lonely as Jane Eyre (never really liked the Mrs. Rochester part) or Villette (never liked her delusions.) Shirley is an interesting character, a strong woman who makes her own, unconventional decisions in the face of a very convention-bound society. The hero (Robert) isn't perfect.

Review by

A meandering but enjoyable story. It covers the friendship and love lives of several people in an English community. Unrest among the local people occurs when the local textile mill begins to industrialize, which makes for some intense confrontations. Shirley is the title character, but a for a good deal of the book she is no where to be seen. Still enjoyed everyone else's stories though!

Review by

Unfortunately, this is no Jane Eyre. But if you want to spend 25 hours listening to a marriage plot where the heroines waste away because of unrequited love, then this might be the book for you. I was disappointed at the sexism in this book. Jane Eyre is such a great heroine and one of the things I really liked it that she is one of the plain-looking heroines in the classics - or any book for that matter. In this story, two of the main women characters, Shirley and Caroline Helstone are both beautiful and the men constantly harp about their appearance. Maybe it reflects the values of that century, but I felt that feminism really took a step backward with this book.

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