A contemporary reviewer said the real heroine of Shirley is Caroline Helstone. We see into her thoughts, feelings, dreams and daily life - we do become Caroline. But we never know what Shirley is thinking, except through Caroline and Louis Moore. Indeed it seems in the first part of the book that she may be in love with Robert Moore, though if you read in between the lines, she perceives Caroline's love for Robert, and even encourages it. It is true that while Charlotte Brontë didn't write Shirley well, she is important as a heroine.
Caroline's existence has been dull, lonely and unfulfilled until she meets Shirley. If not for Shirley, who to share her thoughts with? We see her as the lovelorn maiden, but she shows her more intellectual side when she and Shirley discuss poetry. The plot couldn't go on either without Shirley. Caroline would waste away with no close friend to be with, and develop less as a person. Also, it is through Shirley she gets to reunite with her mother Mrs Pryor, who is Shirley's governess and companion. We get to hear Caroline's thoughts, too, on feminism, such as wanting to become a governess to escape her solitude. She voices out her discontent at the only suitors who would marry her - Malone or Donne. Curiously, Shirley asks her whether she is Rousseauan - possibly it means whether emotions should rule over reason, and Caroline refutes this thinking Rousseau unrealistic. And yet Caroline loves the truth and feeling in Cowper's poetry. One suspects her of repressing her naturally emotional side. Shirley fulfils the need for emotional and intellectual fulfilment - aspects we only see when she and Caroline become friends.
But I was thinking of the social aspect as well. Shirley is upper-class gentry, Caroline professional middle-class(her uncle is a clergyman). Shirley's other associates are Robert Moore (middle-class tradesman), Mr Yorke (a complicated case of old landed middle-class tradesman, which makes him gentry by middle-class standards, though not by the titled), etc. Then you have Mrs Pryor, educated but poor middle-class, William Farren (working-class) and Louis Moore (just like Mrs Pryor). It is curious that despite being upper-class Shirley's friends are middle-class. This points to a lack of pride, which is good, but it is strange for one in her position. Charlotte Brontë knew little about the upper-classes, which could be why, but it defeats the purpose of an upper-class heroine. No, there must be a reason, and it is that she glues everyone together. Shirley is unusual in that it offers the viewpoints of different sets of characters - Caroline, the Yorkes, Shirley's household, the Moores. What else can unite them but Shirley? As Shirley interacts with everyone else, she brings all the themes together, and prevents narrative discontinuity. Caroline does not get on with the Yorkes until much later on, or with the Wynnes and the Sympsons. Her main associates are those of the middle-class, and her inability to get on with the gentry could make readers think Caroline is a major meanie. The fact Shirley doesn't care for the rest shows you that she and Caroline are exceptionally thoughtful.
You can't discount the fact Shirley lends money to Robert Moore - a classic example of kind-hearted landowner. This reflects Charlotte's high Tory principles. It's also important to the plot, because how else does Robert tide over? This contributes to the confusion over Shirley's feelings for Robert. Everyone thinks she loves him, when she loves his brother, and is being nice to Robert for Louis' sake. Shirley's attachment to her Master, Louis Moore, is yet another example of her coming down to her middle-class flock, though Louis' intellect is superior. It celebrates intellect rather than class as the determinant of superiority.
Let's move on to Mr Yorke. He gives Shirley away and seems to be an old family friend. From his side, we know he is a landowning merchant who advises Robert to marry Shirley. He is among those gossipers who assume Shirley plans to marry Robert. He is another part of the picture, because unlike Helstone and Mrs Pryor, he is a genuine Radical. Robert may be a Whig, but being a tradesman can't be as pro-worker as the affluent Mr Yorke. Tory and Radical unite in Shirley Keeldar and Mr Yorke. It's useful because a solely Tory cast of characters would be biassed and boring, and Mr Yorke seems to be one of those men who supported the French revolution, disliked the church and disdained the Duke of Wellington. Yet he is a sympathetic character and father figure to Robert Moore. That Shirley likes Mr Yorke shows she is tolerant of those of different ideology and class, or more likely she prefers them to her own class.
Why not have an upper-middle class heroine? Charlotte presumably wanted different classes, besides, an heiress to a businessman would be in a way condoning the narrow principles of a tradesman. Charlotte didn't seem to like the wealthy merchants in the novel, apart from Mr Yorke, denoting them as vulgar, boring and unfeeling. No doubt she had some antipathy to trade. A non-mercantile heroine on the other hand could be idealistic and thoughtful. Remember Charlotte made some cutting remarks on the low origin of one of her employers who was unkind to her.
I have not mentioned the sub-plot of the charity Miss Ainley is involved in. Shirley puts in her money and time to help Miss Ainley, without which we wouldn't be able to see an active role on Caroline's part in the scheme. Caroline doesn't like helping out in these things, but with Shirley advocating a charitable deed she does. We are also entertained by Messrs Donne and Malone, who come begging for money for their own charitable schemes. Charlotte gets a vicious satisfaction when Shirley turns them out of her house, scoring a victory against the wretched clergymen. They wouldn't try that with Caroline who isn't as rich as Shirley. Malone's materialism is also amusingly shown when he shifts his attentions from Caroline to Shirley. Malone then is no good mate for Caroline.
It helps too that there's conflict between Caroline and Shirley as the former thinks the latter is her rival in Robert's affections. That she still loves Shirley despite this is testament to Caroline's fidelity and exaltedness. Shirley's friendship with Robert is liberal by the standards of 1812, but it shows you the unique side of her character. She is interested in trade, the equal of men, and is interested in better poetry. She is too idealised for reality, but there you are: you see Charlotte's own views of how she wished women to be equal to men. Charlotte often longed for intellectual conversation with intellectual men. This makes Shirley a phenomenon in Victorian fiction. Shirley is the only unbiassed political person here: though a Tory, she sympathise with the workers and chides Robert for using the military to fend off the rioters. She also rebukes Mr Yorke, a Radical who condemned Robert's cowardice in getting the military. Charlotte advocates moderation, a virtue only Shirley has in her politics. Even Mr Helstone dislikes Robert for his Whig views, and Mr Yorke for being a Radical. Kindness, not political ideologies, is the key, says Shirley, praising kind Mr Hall.
I wonder how the novel would have turned out if Anne hadn't died, and Charlotte less distracted. It takes a morbid turn from Caroline's descent into illness - The Valley of the Shadow of Death onwards. Caroline may not have fallen ill so suddenly, Mrs Pryor's revelation less fanciful, and Louis Moore's pursuit less absurd. We may have seen more of Robert's self-reflection into his possible marriage to Shirley. Or Louis' unhappiness with the Sympsons. Or Caroline's relations with Louis. I thought it interesting she was open and friendly with him, unlike with others. We might have seen Caroline's observations of Louis' life. I would have liked to see more of him with Mr Hall but I doubt that would have been written. The Sympsons were badly written and so was Louis - they lacked conviction. More struggle on the part of the workers would have done. Louis' visits to the Farrens, etc.
I realise what I write is fanciful thinking, and I'll stop here. Will post more on other significant bits in Charlotte Brontë's works later.