Saturday, 13 July 2013

Private and Social Themes in Shirley by Asa Briggs

Here are extracts from this article from the Bronte Society Transactions.
Shirley is an avowedly Yorkshire novel, perhaps the first impressive regional novel in the English language. The landscape is unmistakable one which all Yorkshire folk - all Haworth folk  - know. How different it is from every other landscape in the world ... The descriptions of the exterior of Hollow's mill in the valley ... or the Stillbro' ironworks on the horizon are realistic pointers to the strong contrast between Industry and Nature in the West Riding of the early industrial revolution - and now. The accents too are often outspokenly Yorkshire. Mr Yorke - note the name - often preferred "his native Doric to a more refined vocabulary."
Briggs mentions early reviews of Shirley.
Some of the early reviewers and critics of Shirley challenged Charlotte's presentation of the regional characteristics of Yorkshiremen. They disliked her relative assessment of Northerners and Cockneys. "Taken as they ought to be, the majority of lads and lasses of the West Riding are gentlemen and ladies, every inch of them; it is only against the weak affectation and futile pomposity of a would-be aristocrat they turn mutinous." "This is very possible," GH Lewes commented, in the Edinburgh Review, "but w emust in that case strongly protest against Currer Bell's portraits being understood to be resemblances; for they are, one and all, given to break ou and misbehave themselves upon very small provocation. There is little doubt that in this  connection Charlotte was right and her London critics wrong. As she wrote to Mr Smith in MArch 1850, when Shirley had already been acclaimed in the North and the people of Haworth were drawing lots to take Shirley out of the Mechanics' Institute Library, "While the peopel of the South object to my delineation of Northern life and manners, the people of Yorkshire and Lancashire approve.  They say it is precisely the contrast of rough nature with highly artificial cultivation which forms one of their own characteristics ... The question arises, whether do the London critics, of the old Northern squires understand the matter best." It is significant that Mrs Gaskell did not criticise Charlotte on this score, nor did knowledgeable admirers of Shirley like James Kay Shuttleworth. 
Mrs Gaskell came from a Lancashire village, Knutsford, and Sir James Kay Shuttleworth from Lancashire as well.
Now with all its weaknesses ... it is an important contribution to the literature of regional interpretation ... Before Charlotte sent to Leeds for a file of the Leeds Mercury of 1812, 1813, and 1814, describing the Luddite risings, she had deliberately looked around for "a subject for her next work," yet there is a not of authenticity in what Charlotte says which was the product not of research but of understanding. She was, as Mrs Gaskell noted, anxious to write of "things which she had known and seen; and amongst that number was the West Riding character." There is a difference between Charlotte consulting the old files of The Leeds Mercury and George Eliot consulting the old files of The Times when she wrote Felix Holt and Middlemarch. Charlotte knew more or less what she would find. I do not agree with Margaret Lane when she remarks that "Charlotte's imagination was not one that could be nourished on social history." It is true that like most great novelists she could not live on history alone and that she lacked George Eliot's power of historical and sociological synthesis - George Eliot had the makings of a great historian - but she was familiar with those elements in the social history of the North, which she described and discussed in Shirley and she could relate the Northern social background she knew to the older heroic history and legend which had fascinated her in her childhood - the Wellington theme and the Napoleon theme.  She deliberately set out to make Shirley like a piece of actual life ... Shirley is the nearest Charlotte got to writing a social novel, but it is not, of course, a social novel which falls into the same category as Mrs Gaskell's Mary Barton or North and South ... it is not concerned with one theme but with a bungle of loosely connect ... themes.
Briggs discusses the Luddite background of Shirley.
Charlotte was not alone in choosing a period of time for th setting of her novel which wsa neither historical nor contemporary but lay in a period from twenty to sixty years earlier. In her stimulating survey, The English Novel in the 1840s, Kathleen  Tillotson has sugested that there were two main motives for choosing the recent past as a period to discuss and to describe: "That the past, being past, can be possessed, hovered and brooded over, with the story teller's supposed omniscience; and that the past being not the present, is stable, untouched by the winds and waves which rock the present." ... The story of Shirley begins in 1812, foud years before Charlotte was born, but the main scene of the Luddite disturbances was not far from Miss Wooler's school at Roe Head. 
Briggs went to Rudding Park to inspect documents and discovered parallels between Shirley characters and their real-life counterparts.
There are letters to and from Cartwright, the owner of the Rawfolds factory in Liversedge - within walking distance of Roe Head. He had foreign blood in his vens, spoke French well, was tall with dark eyes and complexion, and lodged in his mill. He had much in common with Robert Moore, though I hasten to add there was a Mrs Cartwright.  There are details of the background and repercussions of the muder of William Horsfall of Marsden on his return from the market on April 28th - he had no Mrs Yorke or a nurse like Mrs Horsfall (interesting choice of names) to restore him to health, and he died two days after the attack on him. 
The Luddite movement ... was largely a protest against the introduction of the machine, but also and in some areas predominantly, it served a a violent form of pressure on employers ... On 24th March 1811, textile mills at Rawdon, eight miles from Leeds, were attacked by a body of armed men, who seized the watchmen, entered the premises and destroyed the machinery ... On the night of Saturday, 11th April, Cartwright's factory was attacked. Cartwright, supported by four of his own workmen and five soldiers, barricaded themselves inside the mill, and met the assailants with a vigorous and sustained discharge of musketry. In the  the course of the engagement, several desperate attempts were made to break down the doors and to force a way into the mill, but none of them proved successful, and after a battle of 20 minutes, during which two of the assailants were killed, and a considerable number wounded, they withdrew in confusion. The bravery displayed by Cartwright in the defence of his premises won the praise of other mill-owners less brave than he was, and a subscription of £3,000 was conferred upon him and his family.
The failure of this attempt spurred the Luddites, led by a man called George Mellor, to try to shoot mill-owners rather than to attack mills and William Horsfall ... was attacked on April 28th. 
There are extracts of threatening letters sent to Sir Joseph Radcliffe, Bt., which appear to be badly spelt. The Rev. Hammond Roberson, the prototype of Mr Helstone in Shirley, supports the manufacturers. He writes to Mr Cartwright of Rawfold Mills.
I am decidedly of opinion that the Troopers in this neighbourhood are too few - That it is of importance to the preservation of order and security that there should be an Intelligent active officer near this place, to keep the Military alert, and to give a prompt direction to their Movements. Such an officer might extent his attention to Dewsbury. ... Were it possible for me to devote my whole time to the military I would do my best.
Briggs admires the way Charlotte handled the Luddite problem
She did not confuse the Luddites and the Chartists. She was peculiarly sensitive to the ambivalent attitude of the mill-owners she was describing, men who opposed the war against Napoleon and the policies of the British Government (symbolised in the Orders-in council) while at the same time they demanded stricter government intervention to suppress machine wrecking and attacks on property ... Charlotte was wise too to distinguish between the courage of men like Moore and the supineness of the manufacturers as a class.
The problem with Shirley, it has been argued, is that she did not offer any solution to the social question.
 There was no obvious answer to the Luddite agitation except more jobs, a fall in the price of food and a rise in the standard of living. ... All that Carhlotte could do was to state the issues as seen both by employers and workers, to measure the social distance between them, and to point to the healing influence of time and experience, the kind of experience that affected Moore ... The same view was stated categorically by john Harrop, a real-life Northern manufacturer ... "I consider the protection of our machinery absolutely necessary for the public good." ... A recognition of the grim necessity of this situation did not prevent Charlotte from sympathising with the distresses of the working population, and the hunger they endured.  She was completely uninfluenced by political economy - the political economy that Harriet Martineau, the admirer of Shirley, so fervently accepted. She concentrated on the human plight of the poor.
Briggs focuses on the tutor-governess theme.
Most reviews of Shirley which appeared in 1948 and 1850 scarcely touched on the Luddite theme at all. The famous hostile Times review ... does not mention the Luddites at all, Lewes's review in the Edinburgh ... only referred the subject once. The Times dwelt on the feminine protests: Lewes, to Charlotte's intense annoyance, concentrated on such problems as "the mental equality of the sexes - question mark" ... Both these themes are treated with eloquence and insight ... When Charlotte talked of the dependence of the private tutor or the governess on his or her master, she explored the implications of "dependence" far more thoroughly than when she turned to the dependence of "hands" or manufacturers.
 And the feminine protests theme:
Shirley's feminine assertiveness speaks for itself: it does not require long speeches. Caroline's speeches by contrast often seem inconsistent with the drawing of her character. The best best and most convincing passages are Charlotte's own, sometimes very greatly satirical. "It is good for women, especially, to be endowed with a soft blindness: to have mild, dim eyes , that never penetrate below the surface of things.
Charlotte sees no true ideal solutions, but exhorts everyone to be resigned with their lot:
It is interesting that Charlotte looks for loopholes rather than expects solutions - except of a romantic kind - in talking both of governesses and tutors on the one hand, and of women on the other. The good works of an "old maid" are deemed inadequate fully to satisfy; the only secape for Louis Moore, before he proposes to Shirley, lies not in society but in nature. When Shirley tells him in one of her provocative and imperious moods, "my roses smell sweet to you, and my trees give you shade," Louis replies, "No caprice can withdraw these pleasure from me: they are mine.

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