Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Age of Nostalgia and Revolution: the setting in Shirley

This post is for the March Classics Challenge. The Theme is Setting, and I couldn't resist the opportunity to write about my favourite author Charlotte Brontë.
from an 1870's edition of Shirley

Since Shirley was published before Villette, I'll talk about that first. Shirley has the curious anomaly of being published in 1849 and set in 1811.   Charlotte Brontë wrote it on pressure from the publishers to write something more contemporary with social issues. Now in 1848 there was a Chartist riot, which involved working-class men demanding for their rights. But why 1811? 1811 was also an eventful time. It is the Napoleonic Wars, and apart from that there was great industrial revolution. Manufacturers produced more and more goods, and the factory workers who were worked to the bone revolted. The Luddites (a working-class movement) wrote threatening letters demanding better treatment. It was basically better wages, better working conditions rather than votes I believe. Now you see the parallel? The 1840's too was a capitalist machine era, with child workers being hired to work as many as 10 hours, even more, a day. Probably more. Elizabeth Gaskell wrote Mary Barton in response to this issue. But why not 1848? you ask. Charlotte Brontë's writings are steeped in the past. If you look at her juvenilia it is set in a Regency era-like upper-class setting. She was an admirer of Byron and Wordsworth and Cowper, Romantic poets, which is the era Shirley is set in. To write, Charlotte had to escape, and it was the Romantic era that her imagination embraced. After all, she was very fond of Sir walter Scott's poetry, as well as Wordsworth. She even wrote to the Poet Laureate Robert Southey (a friend of Wordsworth or Coleridge) as a young woman seeking literary advice.  I often think Charlotte was more a romantic than Victorian: Jane Eyre and Villette are Gothic-inspired fiction.

In 1811, Robert Moore, a manufacturer, is besieged by unsold goods in Yorkshire. He owns a mill and works hard, but gets little in return. His workers too demand better pay, but he cannot afford it as he is in debt.  On the whole Charlotte is sympathetic to Moore, but certain good workers, William Farren for example, is put out of a job because of this. Moore does get him another job elsewhere as a gardener though. Because of his debts Moore cannot marry the girl he loves, Caroline (whose name is my pen-name).  I don't believe in over-reading but Charlotte could have been saying that industrialisation erodes the great Romantic values - money over sentiment, reason over feeling. Which is what Robert does, by proposing to his landlord-heiress in desperation, thinking she is in love with him (which she is not). And why is this relevant? In an age of industrialisation (Victorian), Charlotte would have retreated to an earlier era where the gentleman-scholar was more common, the artist a visionary ruled by emotion rather than the more political and rational overtones of Victorian poetry.  Robert's love of poetry is a hint at the gentleman-scholar types they had back then - employment was scarce among the upper-classes, and the middle classes who could afford it would retire early and sometimes indulge in serious reading. If you stretch your fancy, Robert might even appear somewhat Byronic - he is good-looking and brooding, though unlike Byron, an honourable man essentially.
William Wordsworth, Romantic poet 
The Luddites here start a riot, breaking machines and trying to murder manufacturers and the middle classes of Conservative tendencies. In fact they try to attack Helstone's house, only to give up on realising he has guns and might shoot them. In the end the army is asked to dissipate the rioters, as they didn't have the Police Force then.

The book is scattered with references to literature - Shakespeare, Corneille, Racine and Cowper.  This is quite important, as Romantic poetry was a very key influence on the adult Charlotte Brontë. In particular one poem helps to cement the friendship between the heiress Shirley Keeldar and Caroline, The Castaway by William Cowper.
OBSCUREST night involved the sky,
  The Atlantic billows roared,
When such a destined wretch as I,
  Washed headlong from on board,
Of friends, of hope, of all bereft,        5
His floating home for ever left.
This is very Romantic and dark - reminiscent of Coleridge. It goes even further than that

No voice divine the storm allayed,
  No light propitious shone,
When, snatched from all effectual aid,
  We perished, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,        65
And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he.
Caroline argues that one could never have loved Cowper had one known him, for he was not meant to be loved. This is the Romantic ideal of the tragic, isolated figure. This is akin to Hamlet of whom Hazlitt wrote about at length. Even though Hamlet isn't mentioned, it is a great figure of tragic proportions Charlotte would have been interested in. Before Cowper is even mentioned the novel seems Victorian rather than Regency in tone, but Cowper sets the mood of the time the novel is set. There's also some playful dialogue on mermaids and seals, also exotic things associated with Romanticism. Wordsworth's influence is also here, for not only was he a Romantic who championed the French Revolution in his youth, he was a realist and pastoral poet, who liked to write about ordinary rural people and their surroundings, which is what Charlotte aimed to do. This is why the book is a curious mix of social issues and emotional individuals.
Shirley and Caroline

To jump on to individuals. Shirley Keeldar is typical of the country gentry - of good family, but not aristocratic. She would have been accustomed to good society and living but still not at the level of lords and ladies. Her ancestral hall, Fieldhead, is part of her respectability. She represents old money and aristocracy, and it is she who helps to bail out her tenant, Robert Moore. Shirley is an anomaly as she has masculine notions of running her own estate and a masculine first name (Shirley was a boy's name then). Shirley, due to her status, is expected to marry someone rich with good connections, and because she refuses to, scandalises her family. She instead prefers the poor tutor of her cousin Henry. Now this is part of the setting as it reflects social restrictions much more relaxed in the Victorian era. Someone of good blood had to marry their own kind or at least someone wealthy. The Victorians were more liberal as to birth, so long as the gentry involved married an educated well-to-do professional or a wealthy merchant. There is a distinction. 
An old house in Birstall, the inspiration for Fieldhead
Caroline Helstone is from the comfortable middle class. She is not wealthy though her uncle has a good income as a rector of Briarfield.  They are not at the level of lords and ladies though they can associate with Miss Keeldar, who isn't snobbish. Caroline longs to go out and be free and thinks of being a governess. she is dissuaded however, as it would reflect badly on her uncle.  Robert Moore represents the rising middle classes who became prominent in the Victorian era. In the romantic era they were already rising though not as powerful yet, as they had not got voting rights.  Mrs Pryor is a middle-class woman, an educated governess with no fortune. Governesses were paid badly then and in the Victorian era.  So the middle-classes are represented quite well here. Charlotte couldn't stop writing about the ills of the governessing institution. You also have to consider the Yorkes, middle-middle class merchants doing comfortably but far from rich, who have been in the area for hundreds of years. This length of stay would give them respectability.
The upper middle class considered compatible with Shirley would be the Wynnes, wealthy though not aristocratic, and the Sykes, well-to-do merchants. I think the subtle distinctions within the middle classes are important, as they were to Charlotte, as her position was precarious. Her father was educated but poor, which would make them middle-class, but their income would place them lower. As Charlotte always longed for the society and conversation of clever people, you can see why being in her position made her feel inferior, and she has vented this into the novel. 

The working classes are sadly given less precedence, but they too are shown as suffering individuals especially the respectable, kind-hearted william Farren, who cares very much for his wife and children. Mind that he does not represent the majority of the working classes of that era. He is meant to be a tragic noble labourer, and is obviously a better sort of person, who gets along well with Caroline (they talk about plants together). The not so good working class persons include Moses Barraclough, a fanatical Methodist preacher who aims to convert the labourers, and gets drunk on the money they send him as subscriptions. He is also violent and unscrupulous. Moses Barraclough represents the realities of working class life which is even now timeless. Note that Charlotte chose to depict a Methodist badly, because she was a devout Anglican. The Methodists were notoriously strict unlike the more liberal Anglicans, and were chiefly a working class movement. They sought to make model hardworking families free from drink and waste. But they could be very narrow-minded and prejudiced. 

Old Mr Helstone the Rector remarks on his curate's drunkenness and dissipation, and says that is why the flock have gone over to the Methodists, who are more inspiring and can empathise with the working classes. His curate, Mr Malone, is proud and insolent, and turns them off. This is historically relevant, reflecting on the demise of Anglicanism in some quarters, and the rise of other sects, e.g. Newman's Catholic movement, a threat to the Anglicans. Charlotte Brontë notoriously hated Catholicism, though Catholicism as a movement was in the 1830's. The rise of Methodism in the early 19th century is like a precursor or a reflection of the later Catholic movement. Feeling deeply about religion she had to write about it, but being unable to write about Catholics in the time of her novel she had to target another sect. I hope this doesn't offend Catholic readers. I have nothing against Catholics myself (I'm in fact an atheist) but I still love Charlotte Brontë, though she didn't like atheists either. 

Among her novels, these feature the most number of people she knew from her parish or nearby, and it set in Yorkshire, her hometown. It is what gave away her identity (she used a pseudonym of Currer Bell). Because of this Yorkshiremen eagerly bought and borrowed the books.

As for Caroline the individual, this is the crux of the matter. No matter how much Charlotte tried to talk about social issues she couldn't stop thinking of the individual protagonist. Caroline is an individual out of water in Briarfield Parish, because she doesn't fit in. She is not lively or fashionable to associate with the upper middle class ladies, nor in a position to be friendly with the working classes (except William Farren, but he is an exception and even so, they are not equal). She longs to be with Robert Moore, whom she loves beyond distraction. This relative social immobility in the Napoleonic era contrasts with the Victorians. However you could say this reflects Charlotte's own situation: poor and obscure but educated. Caroline in a way represents the uncertainty of class in an industrial era. She cannot move up and is at risk of moving down because the only men who seem to want to marry her are two curates who are not well-paid and not at all cultured, Donne and Malone. This is somewhat akin to natural selection or sexual selection (though Charlotte didn't have this in mind, this being before the age of Darwinism). The whole idea of survival is here, as it bugged Charlotte during her life. This is during the age of Romanticism, when the individual was idealised. But do you see that Caroline the individual is a weak thing compared to the community and society set in that era? It is a fight between the individual and the world. She even thinks she is unfit for the world. Compared to the worshipped Moore she is less idealised as a character and far more complex. And how does this fit in with setting? Charlotte is speaking of an era she idealised turning into the more industrial, society-based Victorian era. She wanted to write of a time she loved and imagined, but at the same time her sense of reality told her she could not make it a briar of roses - no, she must describe the difficulties of existence, and the impending transition to an era she lived in during her adult life. It is a study of how times change, and yet how things remain the same.

The Yorke family, based on Charlotte's friends the Taylors, consist of Hiram Yorke, cloth manufacturer, his wife and young family. Charlotte wrote them with obvious nostalgia and affection, but their purpose in the novel is less defined. Indeed, GH Lewes, the Victorian critic said the novel was ill-plotted, and consisted of scenes rather than a defined plot. So what is the importance of the Yorkes? We know that despite writing about the upper classes as a teenager, Charlotte Brontë chose to depict the down-to-earth middle classes in Shirley i.e. the Yorkes, in great detail. It reflects the changing times - the rise of the manufacturing middle classes. Instead of upholding the aristocrat as Romantic ideal, it is the ordinary family as Wordsworth executed who is described. Interestingly, Mr Yorke is a good friend of Shirley Keeldar. I suppose his position as owner of an old house in the district helps, but still he is a tradesman beneath her socially. Apart from the fact it eases the plot it shows a more democratic lady of the manor, a prelude to the democratic Victorians. The Nunnelys, family of a baronet, are mentioned, but in less detail.  So are the Sympsons, members of the gentry.  Shirley, the titular character, is more middle-class than gentry in many ways. Though she is at ease with her class she much prefers the company of Caroline, the vicars and Mr Yorke. The Moores, Hortense and Robert, too, are realistically written as persons with real issues, with satire and affection.

Hortense does not go out to society except pay calls on fellow old maids as unfashionable as she is, and you begin to wonder what is the point. The Old Maid Question occupied Charlotte, being an old maid most of her life, and she has put this Victorian question in the Napoleonic era. What will become of old maids? Caroline wonders too, thinking she will never marry and will have to work as a governess. Critics have said that the novel discusses the Woman Question more than anything else. As old maids, their position is precarious. They cannot rise, but at the same time the cannot marry beneath them unless they wish to descend socially. Which brings us to something closer to Charlotte's heart: can we afford to marry for love? She rejected the advances of a well-to-do manager, James Taylor, because she froze in his presence and because "he is not a gentleman". Note that marrying for love was considered a modern thing then: in the Regency era and before you married for money or connections more often. This marrying for love was also a motif in Romanticism - great feelings rather than reason ruled that artistic period. The Romantics influenced the Victorians a great deal though the Victorians considered them scandalous and heathen - Romantic poetry  was long after read - even Wordsworth, who wrote his best works in the Romantic era, was made Poet Laureate in the Victorian era. Tennyson was influenced by Shelley and Keats. In this way the Victorians were actually more romantic than their predecessors. Shirley's and Caroline's marrying for love may seem too good to be true, but it is Charlotte's personal stance: do not marry without respect or love.

Here is the link to the illustrations.

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