Thursday, 26 January 2012

Solitude in Shirley

Hi.  This is my first post for the Victorian Challenge 2012. It is rather daunting to write in the open about my thoughts on Victorian literature, but here goes. Sorry if it sounds too stuffy but I studied literature for my A-Levels and I'm used to writing literary criticism in an essay-style.


Despite the amount of studies and reviews on Charlotte Bronte's novels, I am surprised that very few have actually dealt with the idea of solitude in great depth, because that theme is equal to if not greater than all the passion in a Bronte novel.  I think in Jane Eyre and Villette solitude is already evident so I shall focus on the much-maligned Shirley. Anyone who wishes to look into my study should refer to the Penguin Classics edition, the one with the smooth black cover.

Shirley was written at a time of unease, when Charlotte lost both her sisters to consumption. It is no wonder the whole book is filled with sorrow, even when the characters are happy sorrow lurks in the background.

The story of Caroline Helstone - who is the main character - begins with her longing of acceptance. In the house of the Moores she is happy to see Robert and longs to be loved by him. All this sweetness is firmly counterbalanced by the fact her life is dull without him. Modern feminists may descry all this passion and clinginess as over-sentimental but this accurately reflects Charlotte's life. But that is not all. We are content to put the cause of Caroline's grief to her supposedly unrequited love - which is far from the whole truth. Caroline is suffering because she is utterly alone. Her uncle is unsympathetic and prefers the society of more gregarious people, and Caroline doesn't. The scene where Caroline receives her uncle's guests is typically pathetic:

"When Caroline was going to receive company, her habit was to wring her hands very nervously, to flush a little, and come forward hurriedly yet hesitatingly, wishing herself meantime at Jericho.  She was, at such crisis, sadly deficient in finished manner, though she had once been at school a year." (p105).

I think Charlotte was trying to tell us something here. Caroline is alone not because her uncle is a curmudgeony old bear or Robert is away, but because she is naturally shy. Try as she might she can't feel at ease with most people.  There is the sense of being the Other. "How little fitness there was in her for ordinary intercourse with the ordinary world." p. 107

Another passage where Charlotte refers to well-bred young ladies' opinions - "I know I am the standard of what is proper ...wherein they differ from me ...therein they are wrong."  Which is precisely why Caroline can't belong anywhere in society: she is too different from most people.  This difference is not so much in Caroline's fiery intelligence (she is only well-read in poetry and novels, which wasn't considered very intellectual those days) but in the fact she is more intense, more thoughtful and unworldly. You can see it when she talks about Cowper and Milton and her great idol the Duke of Wellington. She actually seems to be in another world, as if she understands Cowper the man.

Shirley says, "One could have loved Cowper, if it were only for the sake of having the privilege of comforting him."

"You never would have loved Cowper," rejoined Caroline promptly: "he was not made to be loved by woman." Does Caroline intuitively know that there are some souls, like hers, who cannot be loved by most easily? I very much wonder.

 And then it puzzles me why no one has asked why isn't Caroline friendly with the other young ladies in the neighbourhood? Surely they can't all be snobs and fools? And surely Caroline doesn't despise all of them? It seems strange she spends all her time at home by herself, which contrary to some expectations. wasn't the thing young ladies did all the time.  At the Whitsuntide party it's stated in fact she feels inferior to her Sunday-school pupils, who are actually below her in status. One can't help but suspect Caroline's real problem is her inability to talk to her peers on understanding terms. Even her friends apart from Shirley are much older than her, and they are either sweet and unusually understanding people (Mr Hall and Margaret) or awkward (Robert and Hortense Moore). William Farren is  perhaps the most ordinary of Caroline's circle, but even he is reflective and learned compared to the other working-class men, and would have been educated in botany if he had been born in better circumstances.

You could say the same thing of the other female characters in Shirley. Shirley is unusual in the sense it has a great number of solitary female characters unlike Jane Eyre and Villette where the heroines only are solitary. Take for example, Mrs Pryor. She seeks quiet walks and lonely lanes, and prefers one companion to solitude, for in solitude she was nervous, "but she feared nothing with Caroline." Both are very similar in the sense they fear company, but they see each other as kindred spirits. (Not very surprisingly, considering they are mother and daughter). We also know Mrs Pryor married a horrible man out of loneliness and destitution rather than love, and they soon separated: a harsher reflection of Caroline's situation.  The love Harriet Martineau accused Charlotte Bronte of overdoing isn't so much the love of a man (though Miss Martineau said otherwise) but the love of platonic friendships and human affections. That craving runs through all Charlotte's books even more than the romantic passion she is known for describing.

 "I am of a peculiar disposition," admits Mrs Pryor. "I ought never to have married: mine is not the nature easily to find a duplicate, or likely to assimilate with a contrast." p360. Like Caroline she is not at ease with ladies and gentlemen of society,

In a less sympathetic way Mrs Yorke, wife of Mr Yorke the cloth-manufacturer, is drawn.  She likes the plain, unattractive Hortense Moore whom she feels she can patronise, unlike the pretty, lively ladies whom she despises and does not welcome to her house. Now Mrs Yorke doesn't come across the reader as having Mrs Pryor's temperament and awkwardness, but in reality she was based on Mrs Taylor, the mother of Charlotte Bronte's friend Mary Taylor.  Mrs Taylor is said to have been a strict, unfeeling mother, and her children lived apart from her after they married (which was something in those close-knit days, especially as the Taylors' house was spacious).  Charlotte remarked to Ellen Nussey, her best friend, on Mrs Taylor's "unhappy temperament."

Then let's come to Rose Yorke, the elder daughter of the Yorkes. Based on Mary Taylor, a feminist and a radical who insisted on working rather than marrying someone she didn't care for, Rose is a singularly thoughtful child, a girl who refuses to conform to mere housewifery. Caroline takes to her at once although Rose is quiet and bookish. She feels the Rose is no ordinary child and knows how to treat her.  It's also said that Rose's sister Jessy plans that Rose shall live with Jessy after Jessy is married. This is strange as Jessy is not only younger but plainer than Rose. But Jessy has the "power to charm" and Rose doesn't, which explains it all. Apparently Mary Taylor was cast in that mold: clever, pretty but not charming. And to have been a close friend of Charlotte Bronte, you might add, you had to be unusual in temperament: understanding and perhaps more introverted. Or else you wouldn't have appreciated her manner which was said to have been very reserved in public.

Shirley Keeldar, the titular heroine, is based on Emily Bronte, but the portrait is not realistic. Nevertheless there are some points I ought ot point out. Shirley is poetic, thoughtful, visionary - somewhat like Caroline. Unlike Caroline she does not feel solitude so deeply, but she seeks her out because no other lady is quite as thoughtful as Caroline. Shirley, however is no recluse, unlike Emily Bronte. I can't say so much on her because she lacks conviction as a character. However Caroline does feel happier after meeting Shirley, which lends weight to the idea that it is ordinary human affections that is the main issue. I think Charlotte Bronte was trying to evoke a fantasy here - of two souls entirely compatible in a platonic way. Much as she treasured Ellen Nussey they couldn't discuss very intellectual or deep stuff.

I will say one more thing. Both Mrs Pryor and Mrs Yorke are against marriage, both being of an uncertain temperament not calculated to inspire affection easily. Sounds like a bitter story. So was Mary Taylor, who resolved she would not sell herself for money (that is, marrying). Only Caroline is the exception, because she and Robert are compatible, and he is not thoroughly mean-hearted. I suspect that if Robert was more gregarious and outgoing he would not have appealed so much to Caroline. They are also brought together not only by romantic affection but by Shakespeare and poetry.

Whatever it is the solitude in Charlotte Bronte's novels is never fully resolved. It is not really circumstantial as within the nature of her heroines that make them so unfit for the world. And nature cannot always be changed.