Shirley: Charlotte Brontë, Luddites, and the Women in Her Life

Charlotte Brontë as Currer Bell

 Charlotte Brontë’s signature

Charlotte Brontë’s signature

Charlotte Brontë may be described as diverging from the “true woman” that is designated by popular culture and societal normalcy in 19th century England. Rather, Charlotte performed in contrast to the pursuit of domesticity - she removed herself from marriage until later in life, and busied herself with prose and poetry. The eldest of the Brontë sisters, Charlotte was born in 1816 as the third of six children to Patrick and Maria Brontë. All three of the Brontë sisters were accomplished writers and contributed to the literary circle under the pseudonym of Bell: Currer, Ellis, and Acton. Of her works, Jane Eyre and Shirley may be of the most notable, although she is also well known for writing the Villette of 1853 among her first novel, not published until 1857, The Professor.

Charlotte Brontë may be considered a figure of survival, having experienced death and solitude (much like Mary Shelley). In their youth, Maria Brontë passed away in 1821 of cancer, leaving her five daughters, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, and her son Branwell. In 1825, both Maria and Elizabeth passed from tuberculosis and in part from the poor conditions of the Clergy Daughters’ School in Lancashire. Although the eldest of the Brontë sisters to survive to adulthood, she experienced the death of Emily and Anne in 1848 and 1849 respectfully, both following the death of their brother Branwell Brontë earlier in 1848. Charlotte, sole survivor, pursued marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls after her initial denial of his proposal, in 1854, grew pregnant the same year, but passed in March of 1855 soon thereafter.

Charlotte’s Shirley must be heavily considered in terms of Luddite history; however, it is also important to note how the women, Caroline and Shirley, are characterized within the text. Similar to Charlotte’s own experiences, Shirley too denies various suitors, while Caroline marries a suitor, Robert Moore, whom she has loved all along. However, before delving into the categorization of Charlotte’s female characters, we must contextualize this as a piece correlating with historical Luddite events and Charlotte’s own purpose in pursuing the subject for her novel.

Luddite Lowdown

The novel takes place in 1811-2 during the industrial depression implicated by the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812, in Spen Valley of West Yorkshire. Many of the locations and events within the novel take place and replicate historical accounts Charlotte would have learned about as she pursued further knowledge on the Luddites. Briarmains is reflective of the Red House in Gomersal, now a museum, but at the time was owned by Charlotte's friend Mary Taylor; the Elizabeathan manor house, Oakwell Hall, was inspiration for Fieldhead, also a museum; and the attack on Robert Moore’s mill was inspired by the actual Luddite attack on Cartwrights’s Mill at Rawfolds, Liversedge.

Within the novel, it is apparent of the conflict arising surrounding Robert Moore’s mill and his inability to pay his workers and thus invests in machinery to perform the work of the workers he had to lay off. This was an event occurring simultaneously across England, primarily forging in Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire, and Lancashire. The layoff of textile workers to be replaced with industrialized mechanics caused irritation and uprising where these “Luddites” would fight back against the machines - literally destroying their replacements. They were also political and activists, forging a figure for themselves under the name King Ludd. Various Romantic era writers, such as Lord Byron, spoke in favor of what the Luddite’s were pursuing - their jobs and political representation. Robert Moore represents the textile mill owner that receives the retaliation of the Luddites as they storm his mill, shooting him in the process.

Female Representation, Relationships, and Procuring Identity

As mentioned previously, Charlotte Brontë may have very well written herself, or her life, into her novel through the characterization of Shirley and Caroline. However, it is also notable that Emily and Anne are just as recognizable within the two female characters: Shirley representative of Emily Brontë had she been born into a wealthy family, and Anne recognized as Caroline. However, regardless of these implications, female characterization is important within Charlotte Brontë’s works, and that is not an exception for Shirley. Not only did the title actually shift the gender of the name Shirley to become more feminized than previously masculine. However, the novel also promotes feminine agency, specifically in terms of domesticity and the pursuit thereof. As I mentioned before, Charlotte Brontë had denied various suitors throughout her life, finally marrying even after denying Nicholls’s original proposal; Shirley too experiences these pursuits throughout the novel. This is primarily because of her status, but that does not explain Charlotte’s experiences. Born into a lower class family, Charlotte, among her siblings, made a life for herself out of her prose and poetry - thankfully, they were raised with education and intelligence as a primary factor of their lives. Caroline, similarly to the Brontës, was born without the benefit of Shirley’s wealth and accommodation - in this way she is a better representation. She also experiences intense solitary and loneliness, something Charlotte may too have experienced as the eldest sister and the sole survivor later in life.

The female representation within the novel also speaks to different idealizations of female normalcy. While the actions of Shirley and Caroline may not be per the “true woman” societal perception of femininity, they are more progressive especially in terms of an industrial depression. Shirley is able to make decisions that protect her person, although her wealth allows her to make these decisions, yet she diverges from suppression. In fact, Caroline’s solemn situation of dependence upon her uncle changes once she meets Shirley, whom is described in the opposite of Caroline as well off, lively, giving, and idea-prone. She also displays concern for the textile industry, specifically Robert’s business, in regards to the Luddite uprising against the ever pressing industrial implementation within these mills. However, as the novel eludes to Shirley and Robert marrying, she refuses his proposal because she feels certain he is doing so for her fortune. Robert leaves, returns to his mill, and is shot by retaliating workers. Caroline aids in his recovery, and they marry in the end while Shirley marries Louis Moore, her nephew’s tutor and Robert’s younger brother.

The relationship between the characters is very complicated, specifically in contrast to their other relationships - Shirley acts different with Robert as with Louis, and Robert’s stray from Caroline is only reversed in her forgiveness of his actions towards her. Shirley’s openness and relinquishing her fears is only seen in her interactions with Louis, and Caroline slips into periods of sickness and solemnity otherwise in relationship with Robert or Shirley. The identification of Charlotte’s character is reflective of the health of their relationships with one another - similar to Jane Eyre, the complexities and returning-to specific characters in the end is representative of the growth she makes her characters endure.