Shirley (novel)

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Shirley a tale - Page n8.jpg
First edition title page
Author Charlotte Brontë
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre social novel
Victorian fiction
Set in Yorkshire, 1811–12
Publisher Smith, Elder & Co.
Publication date
Media type Print: hardback
Pages 572, in three volumes
LC Class PR4167 .S4 1849
Preceded by Jane Eyre
Followed by Villette
Text Shirley at Wikisource

Shirley, A Tale is an 1849 social novel by the English novelist Charlotte Brontë. It was Brontë's second published novel after Jane Eyre (originally published under Brontë's pseudonym Currer Bell). The novel is set in Yorkshire in the period 1811–12, during the industrial depression resulting from the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. The novel is set against a backdrop of the Luddite uprisings in the Yorkshire textile industry.

The novel's popularity led to Shirley's becoming a woman's name. The title character was given the name that her father had intended to give a son. Before the publication of the novel, Shirley was an uncommon – but distinctly male – name and would have been an unusual name for a woman.[1] Today it is regarded as a distinctly female name and an uncommon male name.


While Brontë was writing Shirley, three of her siblings died. Her brother Branwell died in September 1848, and her sister Emily fell ill and died in December. Brontë resumed writing, but then her only remaining sibling, her sister Anne, became ill and died in May 1849.[2]

Some critics believe that the character of Caroline Helstone was loosely based on Anne and it has been speculated that Brontë originally planned to let Caroline die but changed her mind because of her family tragedies.[2] However, Ellen Nussey, Charlotte's lifelong friend, claimed that the character of Caroline was based on herself. Charlotte Brontë told Elizabeth Gaskell that Shirley is what she believed her sister, Emily Brontë, would have been if she had been born into a wealthy family. Again, Ellen Nussey, who knew Emily as well as anyone outside the family, didn't recognise her in Shirley.[3] The maiden name of Mrs. Pryor is Agnes Grey, the name of the main character in Anne's first novel.[4] She was based on Margaret Wooler, the principal of Roe Head School, which Brontë attended as both student and teacher.[5]


The novel is set in and around the Spen Valley area of West Yorkshire. This area is now known as "Shirley country" to some locals. In the novel, Briarmains is based on the "Red House" in Gomersal; Mary Taylor, a friend of Charlotte, lived here. The house is now open as a museum. Fieldhead in the novel is based on the Elizabethan manor house, Oakwell Hall, which is now also a museum. The attack on Robert Moore's mill was based on the Luddite attack on Cartwright's Mill at Rawfolds, Liversedge, though it is believed also to take some inspiration from Taylor's Mill at Hunsworth. Patrick Bronte had lived in the Hightown area of Liversedge for a while, and Charlotte knew the area well.


Robert Moore is a mill owner noted for apparent ruthlessness towards his employees. He has laid off many of them, apparently indifferent to their consequent impoverishment. In fact he had no choice, since the mill is deeply in debt. He is determined to restore his family's honour and fortune.

As the novel opens, Robert awaits delivery of new labour-saving machinery for the mill which will enable him to lay off additional employees. Together with some friends he watches all night, but the machinery is destroyed on the way to the mill by protestors. Robert's business difficulties continue, due in part to continuing labour unrest, but even more so to the Napoleonic Wars and the accompanying Orders in Council which forbid British merchants from trading in American markets.

Robert is very close to Caroline Helstone, who comes to his house to be taught French by his sister, Hortense. Caroline worships Robert. Caroline's father is dead and her mother had abandoned her, leaving her to be brought up by her uncle, Rev. Helstone. To keep himself from falling in love with her, Robert keeps his distance since he cannot afford to marry for pleasure or for love.

Caroline realises that Robert is growing increasingly distant and withdraws into herself. Her uncle does not sympathise with her 'fancies', and she has no money of her own, so she cannot leave, which is what she longs to do. She suggests taking up the job of a governess but her uncle dismisses it and assures her that she need not work for a living.

Caroline recovers somewhat, however, when she meets Shirley. Shirley is a landowner, an independent heiress whose parents are dead and who lives with Mrs. Pryor, her former governess. Shirley is lively, cheerful, full of ideas about how to use her money and how to help people, and very interested in business concerns. Caroline and Shirley soon become close friends. Caroline becomes convinced that Shirley and Robert will marry. Shirley likes Robert, is very interested in his work, and is concerned about him and the threats he receives from laid-off millworkers. Both good and bad former employees are depicted. Some passages show the real suffering of those who were honest workers and can no longer find good employment; other passages show how some people use losing their jobs as an excuse to get drunk, fight with their previous employers, and incite other people to violence. Shirley uses her money to help the poorest but she is also motivated by the desire to prevent any attack on Robert.

One night, Rev. Helstone asks Shirley to stay with Caroline while he is away. Caroline and Shirley realise that an attack on the mill is imminent. They hear the dog barking and realise that a group of rioters has come to a halt outside the rectory. They overhear the rioters talking about entering the house, but are relieved when they decide to go on. The women go the mill together to warn Robert but they are too late; the ensuing battle being witnessed by Shirley and Caroline from their hiding place.

The whole neighbourhood becomes convinced that Robert and Shirley will marry. The anticipation of this causes Caroline to fall sick. Mrs. Pryor comes to look after her, and learns the cause of Caroline's sorrow but is helpless; she continues her vigil in the sick room even as Caroline worsens daily. Mrs. Pryor then reveals to Caroline that she is Caroline's mother. She had abandoned her because Caroline looked exactly like her father – the husband who tortured Mrs. Pryor and made her life miserable. She had little money; when her brother-in-law offered to bring up the child, she accepted it, took up a family name of Pryor and went off to become a governess. Caroline now has a reason to live – her 'mamma'. She begins to recover slowly, since she knows that she can go and live with her mother.

Shirley's uncle and aunt come to visit her. They bring with them their daughters, their son, and their son's tutor. He is Louis Moore, Robert's younger brother, who had taught Shirley when she was younger. Caroline is puzzled by Shirley's behaviour towards Louis – she is always haughty and formal with Louis. Two men fall in love with Shirley and woo her, but she refuses both because she does not love them. The relationship between Shirley and Louis, meanwhile, remains ambivalent. There are days when Louis can, with the authority of an old teacher, ask Shirley to come to the schoolroom and recite the French pieces that she learnt earlier. On other days, Shirley ignores Louis. However, when Shirley is upset, the only one she can confide in is Louis. When a supposed 'mad dog' bites Shirley and makes her think that she is to die early, no one except Louis can make her reveal her fears.

Robert returns one dark night, first stopping at the market and then returning to his home with a friend. The friend asks him why he left when it seemed so sure that Shirley loved him and would have married him. Robert replies that he had assumed the same, and that he had proposed to Shirley before he left. But Shirley had at first laughed, thinking that he was not serious, and cried when she discovered that he was. She had told him that she knew that he did not love her, that he asked for her hand not for her but for her money and this decreased her respect for him. Robert walked away from that room filled with a sense of humiliation, even as he knew that she was right. This self-disgust drove Robert away to London and he realised there that restoring the family name was not as important as self-respect. He returned home, determined to close the mill if he had to, and go away to Canada and work hard and make his fortune. Just as Robert finishes his narration, his friend hears a gunshot and Robert falls from his horse – the laid-off workers are finally avenged.

The friend takes Robert to his own home and looks after him, and after a turn for the worse, Robert slowly gets better. A visit from Caroline revives him but she has to come secretly, hiding from her uncle and his friend and his family. Robert soon moves back to his house and persuades his sister that the very thing the house needs to cheer it up is a visit from Caroline. Robert asks for Caroline's forgiveness.

Louis finally makes his declaration – he proposes to Shirley, despite the difference in their relative situations, and Shirley agrees to marry him. At first, Caroline is to be the bridesmaid for Shirley, but Robert proposes and she accepts.

The novel ends with Caroline marrying Robert and Shirley marrying his brother, Louis.

Illustration by Thomas Heath Robinson


Unlike Jane Eyre, which is written in the first person and narrated by the title character, Shirley is narrated by an omniscient but unnamed third-person narrator. For her third novel Villette, Brontë returned to first-person narration.


The novel has only been filmed once to date, in 1922. The silent adaptation was done by A. V. Bramble, and Carlotta Breese starred as the title character.

In March 2014, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a 10-episode dramatisation by Rachel Joyce in the station's 15 Minute Drama slot. Narrated by Lesley Sharp, the series starred Joanne Froggatt as Caroline and Jemima Rooper as Shirley.[6]

Critical reception[edit]

Coming soon after Jane Eyre, which was extremely successful, Shirley originally received a muted reception from critics.[2]


The four central characters are studies in contrast: the two friends Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar, and their loves, the brothers Robert and Louis Gérard Moore.

  • Robert Gérard Moore – An industrialist whose textile mill is idle because of the war. Perceived as an outsider because he comes from Antwerp, even though he is a cousin of Caroline. During the novel, Robert Moore installs new labour-saving machinery in his mill and becomes the target of Luddite attacks.
  • Louis Gérard Moore – Robert's brother, working as a tutor for Shirley's uncle.
  • Caroline Helstone – A timid and uncertain, but also wise and capable young woman, the niece of Reverend Helstone and best friend of Shirley.
  • Shirley Keeldar – An orphaned heiress to a fortune. A headstrong, independent and determined young woman.

Other characters in the novel include:

  • Rev. Matthewston Helstone – Caroline's uncle. A fierce man, who is not cruel, but still shows little affection for his niece. Marriage has made him distrustful of women in general.
  • Hortense Gérard Moore – Robert and Louis's sister.
  • Hiram Yorke – A local landowner.
  • Joe Scott – Robert Moore's foreman at the mill.
  • Mrs. Pryor – Shirley's timid but wise governess, who moves to Fieldhead together with Shirley. She eventually turns out to be Caroline's long-lost mother, Mrs. Agnes Helstone.
  • The three Curates of the three parishes – The brutish Anglo-Irishman Peter Malone, the Cockney Joseph Donne, and the amiable Davy Sweeting.
  • William Farren – hardworking, patient worker. The book's example of the perfect working-class man


  1. ^ "...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 , Chapter XI
  2. ^ a b c Ed. Denise Evans and Mary L. Onorato. (2004). ""Brontë, Shirley Charlotte: Introduction." Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism". Retrieved 7 October 2007. 
  3. ^ Brontë, Charlotte (2008). Margaret Smith; Herbert Rosengarten; Janet Gezari, eds. Shirley. England: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-954080-8. 
  4. ^ Mrs. Pryor mentions her name was "Miss Grey". In Chapter XXIV her first name is revealed. Shirley, Chapter XXI.
  5. ^ Brontë, Charlotte (2006). Jessica Cox, Lucasta Miller, ed. Shirley. England: Penguin Classics. ISBN 978-0-14-143986-0. 
  6. ^ "Shirley". 15 Minute Drama. BBC. Retrieved 23 March 2014. 

External links[edit]