Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Men in Shirley

Unusually for Brontë fiction, Shirley has a wide range of male characters - far more than Jane Eyre and that masterpiece, Villette. Anne Brontë's men are often contemptible creatures, and Emily's too unrealistic. I was reading Juliet Barker's biography on the Brontës and wondering where had Charlotte got her male characters from, since in Shirley so many were drawn from life, they were recognised at once by Yorkshire people.

The heroes are not well-drawn. Charlotte had a morbid tendency to fantasise about domineering men (yes, I'm looking at you, 50 Shades, and honestly the Brontës knew how to eroticise refraint and masochism. Far better than a bunch of whips and butt plugs. Seriously. What are butt plugs even used for?)  Yet, it is curious that Caroline and Shirley talk about marrying and such.

'I suppose we each find an exception in the one we love, till we are married,' suggested Caroline. 

'I suppose so: and this exception we believe to be of sterling materials; we fancy it like ourselves; we imagine a sense of harmony. We think his voice gives the softest, truest promise of a heart that will never harden against us: we read in his eyes that faithful feeling - affection. I don't think we should trust to what they call passion at all, Caroline. I believe it is a mere fire of dry sticks, blazing up and vanishing: but we watch him, and see him kind to animals, to little children, to poor people. He is kind to us likewise - good - considerate: he does not flatter women, but he is patient with them, and he seems to be easy in their presence, and to find their company genial. He likes them not only for vain and selfish reasons, but as we like him - because we like him. Then we observe that he is just - that he always speaks the truth - that he is conscientious. We feel joy and peace when he comes into a room: we feel sadness and trouble when he leaves it. We know that this man has been a kind son, that he is a kind brother: will any one dare to tell me that he will not be a kind husband?' 
Which is very true. This distrust of passion is what Charlotte advised to Ellen - advice she did not take, being of an ardent nature. She either loved or didn't. Infatuations were nothing to her. If she did have that crush on Willie Weightman it certainly didn't burn her the way M. Heger and George Smith did, and she would have pushed all thoughts of marriage to him away. But what I meant to say was Shirley's description is very vivid. Was it based on fickle but kind-hearted Willie Weightman, a thorough maleflirt? I doubt that Charlotte thought he would have made a good husband so clearly the picture is not fully based on Willie Weightman, or this speech does not reflect Charlotte's true opinions - only the naïve Shirley. After all Charlotte wanted to  show how helpless women are in that book, so this path would make sense. What I wonder is, did Shirley the character have anyone in mind as she said that? Does she mean Louis Moore?

The facts do add up. Everyone seems to love Louis (hello, Gary Stu).  He gets along well with the poor (William Farren's family), especially the latter's children, and he is certainly not a flatterer. Even Mrs Yorke who dislikes her husband's friends in general takes a liking to this stern, grave man. (Somehow this description of Louis, except the intellect, resembles Arthur Nicholls. I wonder whether Nicholls thought that Moore is based on him). The description is so graphic one can't help but suspect Charlotte is foreshadowing the romance between Louis and Shirley. Is this supposed to be a clue that Shirley doesn't love Robert Moore?  Shirley never lets out her feelings for Louis before this, and is remarkably reticent on the subject of her heart. Is this the one outburst of her passion which she otherwise cannot express?

Shirley later waxes lyrical on Robert's charms - strange for someone who is not in love with him. But by declaring her admiration for Robert she is really doing the same for his brother - because she dares not do that openly. Because they are related and share certain traits, she can have an excuse to boost Robert. (Also Robert makes a connection with Louis more respectable, because of his gentlemanly traits).

On reading about Branwell's cultivated friends and life as a railway stationmaster (he was far more outgoing than his sisters, and idiots persist in saying he is autistic. This is stupid. If anyone was autistic it was Emily. I hate these human support groups who say some genius must have a mental illness of some kind). Well, he knew a sculptor, and several others, and these young men would form a society and meet up to discuss their writings. Quite a contrast from the inward family sessions back at Haworth. Charlotte never had that sort of intellectual life her brother had. If Louis is meant to be a Romantic intellectual, was he based on Branwell? I know he is not Branwell - he is more sober and stable, but his whimsical wanderings about fairies (of all things!) is more the mark of a poet than an ordinary intellectual. This furthers the case for a poet as the inspiration for his character, and Branwell published his poems in the papers before his sisters did. Branwell also aspired to become an artist, and Louis is a competent artist. We also know Branwell was a tutor for a brief period, and fouled it up. Making Louis a tutor of all things would be degrading to his character - would not someone working in an office be more determined and forceful? Apart from the teacher-pupil relationship I can see another reason why Charlotte had this occupation for him. She didn't know any intellectual men apart from Branwell and so had to use him as a partial model. Perhaps she also wanted to show how imperfect Louis is - despite his commendable character he is possibly unworldly and indolent.

Old Mr Helstone is well-written. He was immediately recognised as the Revd Mr Roberson, who was friends with Mr Brontë.  Some people however have said he is based on Mr Brontë, though Charlotte herself says he is Mr Roberson. I suspect he was mainly based on Roberson but little touches were based on her own father. Charlotte never got to hear Roberson speak every day and so had to guess. Mr Brontë didn't cry when his wife died; neither does Mr Helstone. Then his distance with his niece reflects Mr Brontë's distance with his children (though they got along well). In Mr Helstone we see the duality of nature - jolly outside, quiet and stern at home. Though Caroline not being lively or charismatic would account for it. Perhaps Mr Helstone is a charismatic introvert. If he is based on Charlotte's father it would help to know that Mrs Gaskell thought him a horrible, grim old man who was aloof from his children. Yet others have spoken of his old-fashioned, gentlemanly charm( I believe so did Mrs Gaskell, until she changed her mind). I think Patrick was like this - he often liked solitude, as Charlotte wrote in a letter, but in company he could shine. Just not too much company.

No comments:

Post a Comment