Friday, 31 August 2012

How Shirley might have turned out

Winifred Gérin I believe said that the first 2 volumes of Shirley were well-drawn, but after that the writing deteriorated. It starts from The Valley of the Shadow of Death, the chapter Charlotte Brontë started after her sister Anne's death according to Mrs Gaskell. It is from this chapter that the writing really becomes unconvincing. It was a moment of deep sorrow, and Charlotte was forced to put down her work to look after Anne.

The way Caroline swoons into an illness, for example, seems to be overmelodramatic. Assuming Anne had not died, or Charlotte had not lost her spark, how might it have turned out?

We might have had more interesting conversations between Caroline and Shirley. Perhaps on the subject of their feelings for the Moore brothers - it seems stupid that Caroline assumes Shirley is in love with Robert Moore when she isn't. As one early reviewer said, if Shirley knows Caroline is lovesick for Robert why doesn't she assure Caroline that she is not in love with him? That would spare Caroline a great deal of trouble. Of course one could interpret Shirley's enthusiasm for Robert as a mask to express her feelings for Louis - since she can't praise the latter praising the former is a substitute, since they're brothers. Still, it is quite obvious that Caroline loves Robert - Shirley even tells Caroline she shouldn't be ashamed of being fond of Robert (though one could interpret it platonically).

In turn Caroline could find out more about Louis and Shirley's old times with him. Shirley will reminisce to Caroline about the good old days when she and Henry were children and Louis taught them. More ideas about the French authors, about prose writing and poetry in general? It would accord with the sort of thing Charlotte and Emily Brontë talked about. Which points to another thing. Why the relationship between the two girls is never fully fleshed out. It's because Shirley is based on Emily, and Charlotte and Emily probably talked a lot about intellectual imaginary stuff which would bore the readers, so Charlotte couldn't write it in. They would analyse characters together, maybe (I can't imagine Emily doing that, but then Shirley is idealised. And she is shrewd about Caroline's own character.)

Some cosy sessions involving Henry, Shirley and Caroline (somehow I can't imagine Charlotte writing that. Fanfiction writers, take note.) Alternately Caroline's conversations with Louis. Louis is an utter failure as a character, but I strongly urge fanfic writers to change him a bit. Well, make him a nice but reserved gentleman, cultured but shy. Unfortunately I don't know anyone like Louis in real life, so I can't write a Louis Moore fanfic. Perhaps Caroline and Louis discuss the pros and cons of the teaching profession. Caroline (ohoho, sneaky girl!) skilfully extracts information on Robert from his brother.

But why am I focusing on people's conversation? Charlotte was no chronicler of conversations, unless they were unique. Shirley might be an exception though, since Mrs Yorke and gang do have a great deal of talk, and Caroline and Louis will always speak seriously.  Hortense can talk about Louis to Caroline.

Alternately, since the whole charity-causes-and curate sub-plot seems to vanish rather suddenly, I'm betting on more scenes involving Mr Hall, Miss Ainley and Miss Mann. And the 3 curates. What would Charlotte write about them though? The charity plot seems to have been exhausted by Whitsuntide. I think more likely, she would discuss their characters more thoroughly. See how Mr Hall converses with Louis Moore. I always  thought their relationship wasn't well-covered. Hall likes Louis and yet we hardly hear anything about their friendship.

Shirley's holiday in a watering-place, where she meets Sir Philip Nunnely. I would like to hear more about him. He scarcely appears in a few pages. Shirley's response and thoughts about him. Like how she liked him, but he could never be as agreeable a friend as Caroline - feminine friendships are important. Or something.

I suspect, from the promising start of Caroline and Louis' conversation it was meant to lead to more interesting exchanges but we are forced to endure Caroline's mad speeches about death.  Speaking of which Mrs Pryor's response to society - how she gets on with Louis Moore (by the way has no one realised how coincidental that aunt and nephew were both tutors in the same house, one to Shirley, one to Henry, and Louis never realised she's his aunt?! And Mrs Pryor didn't seem to be affected that her nephew was in the same house?!) Mrs Pryor and Shirley talk about Caroline, Robert and Louis. Mrs Pryor notices Shirley's distractedness - perhaps suspects a tendre for Louis. Shirley can burst out into an exclamation on how she will not marry a capitalist like Robert, thus relieving Caroline of a heavy burden. But of course her conflicted love powers the novel. It's still doable, because since Robert is bankrupt he still can't marry her, which is still a problem, never mind Shirley as possible rival for his affections.

Mrs Pryor may let slip some piece of information by accident - Robert suspects she is Caroline's mother, tension between them. Though if anyone discovered anything it should be Louis. Surprisingly Shirley discovered it before Louis did.  Louis is more stupid than I thought.

Then how should Mrs Pryor confess to Caroline that she is her mother? Not the deathbed scene, please - that doesn't sound too likely.  Mrs Pryor fears detection on the part of Robert, and decides to take action. How this should take place is a profound mystery to me.  I will imagine that Caroline finally confides to Mrs Pryor about her parents' unhappy marriage and how lonely she is without parents, and Mrs Pryor may break the news to her somewhere in the conversation. Though Mrs P's reasons for leaving Caroline are not realistic, as GH Lewes said in an early review. She is meant to be a good woman and yet she leaves her own child to its uncle - only the sort of thing an unkind thoughtless woman would do, and that is not her character. Unless you make Mrs P a depressed raving artist, which she clearly isn't.  We could of course make a more plausible deathbed confession on the part of Mrs P instead of Caroline, but then it wouldn't work because reuniting with her mother makes Caroline happy and confident.  She finally develops as a contented woman, instead of merely waiting for Robert. Of course we could just do the Caroline deathbed scene only we reverse the roles of her and Mrs P. Mrs P thinks she will die and confesses to her daughter. Then Caroline nurses her and she recovers. Why didn't I think of that earlier???

And I should like to hear more about the Yorkes' radical notions. Let them debate with Shirley, with Moore listening on amused. And let Robert and Yorke debate as well. And since Louis is supposed to have the most powerful intellect (yet we only hear of Caroline and Shirley's intellect) let him propose a neat ideal argument - Utilitarianism maybe? But then Charlotte wasn't into that stuff, and she was a Romantic, not a practical person. Anyway it would demonstrate Louis' intellect, his idealism and abstraction (since Utilitarianism could be rather overidealistic) and his more harsh practicality over Shirley's extravagant romanticism. Shirley could then argue about nature and feeling and whatever. Shirley would like the individual, I suspect, Louis perhaps society in general. Mrs Gaskell owned to sympathising with the individual and said that Florence Nightingale could only care for humanity, never the individual.

Consider the themes of Shirley. Apart from women's rights and love and whatnot, take note of the industrial strikes. Charlotte lived in 1848, the year the Chartist riots broke out. Shirley is set in 1812, during the Luddite riots. She was voicing her contemporary opinion in the past because she loved the past and because she wanted to write about current issues without knowing how to set it in her own era. We know Charlotte wasn't a big social commentator, but her attachment to the Romantic era is a useful titbit. Shirley could be a critique on the transition from the Romantic to the Victorian era. From a more close-knit, natural and less commercial society to a distant, industrial and selfish era. From feeling to practicality. From wonderful sincere natural poetry from the heart to more hard-headed critiques on social issues. (Charlotte wasn't fond of Victorian poetry. She didn't like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, one of the most respected poets of the early Victorian era, who was into social issues. She also despised Tennyson. I can guess she thought his words too elegant and sentimental rather than full of feeling and raw. It is true Tennyson's power is gloomy melancholy rather than passion. I think it was GK Chesterton who said that Tennyson had good expression but little thought to substantiate his poetry, whereas Robert Browning couldn't express well in words all he felt.)  I think she would mention the turn from Romanticism to Victorianism - make this change sound sombre and pessimistic.

But I'm making this a bit too Trollopean. I like Trollope and all that but he's not Charlotte Brontë. (By the way despite despising unrealistic writing he admired Charlotte. That is high praise. Trollope himself didn't think he was a genius.)  Put it this way a shrewd judge of character with enough plot can be a Trollope (and you need the gift of storytelling as well) but very few can be a Charlotte Brontë. Even though she's flawed. She is not perfect, but she is inimitable. To write somewhat in her manner you would have to have lived in a remote Yorkshire village in the 19th century. Today if she had been born she would have been a troubled pupil at school and probably wouldn't have succeeded. Thank heavens for liberal Victorian education. (Yes, they were strict but in many ways they were more liberal than us. Far more intellectual, for one thing. And less politically correct. I don't believe in pandering to female pupils mainly, because look what it's done. Destroyed a great deal of originality. I believe excellent female intellects excel under a masculine education.  I'm a feminist, but I do have great respect for some traditional masculine educational methods.  Now go ahead and curse me if you want.)

I would write a fanfiction, only I could never do justice to Charlotte Brontë. Anyway very few people are interested in Shirley so it wouldn't generate a fandom. Everyone is into Jane Eyre (sigh) and only two fanfics on Villette at Yuletide. Now that's a great fanfic website. Fanfic writers of Shirley would preferably be well-read in Romantic poetry, something few of us can aspire to.

So what do you think?

1 comment:

  1. I've not forgotten about your fanfic, I plan to read pt 1 & 2 when I get back from work today. :)

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