Sunday, 18 August 2013

Classics Club August Meme

Do you read forewords/notes that precede many classics?  Does it help you or hurt you in your enjoyment/understanding of the work?

This is for the August meme of the Classics Club book spin.  I normally am a stickler for the introductions of classic novels, and my particular favourite would be the 1974 Penguin English Library Edition of Shirley by Charlotte Bronte, introduction by Andrew and Judith Hook. I like this intro better as they go into the historical relevance of the setting to the story and characters. 

Provincial manners may be more attractive than outwardly sophisticated airs and graces, but they are nonetheless inhospitable to the world of imaginative feeling and sympathy. The values of that world reside in individuals, not in society or any part of it. 

 The radical Mr Yorke, a proud Yorkshireman to the core, is honest and respects both heroines - always a good sign of character. He despises proud Cockneys who think they are superior to Northerners, and affirms a Yorkshire burr is more wholesome than a pseudo-refined Cockney. Though educated and able to speak with a pure accent, he choose to speak Yorkshire dialect. And yet despite his honesty, he is bigoted. He cannot bear those above him, and is good only to his equals and social inferiors. He is also a blunt, practical merchant, whose family cares nothing for poetry. He is cultured: he speaks French and Italian, and is well-read, but there is more than a hint of insularity in him, which opposes imagination and poetry. He will look on the practical side of things - he is intellectual and cultivated rather than sensitive and imaginative, unlike the less-educated Caroline, who cares for Chenier's poetry La Jeune Captive. 

She is a comparative novice in the French language, but is able to critique French literature with sincerity and feeling. But she is not part of society: before Shirley comes, she has no close friends her age living in the district. She is very much a solitary individual, with strange and enlightened thoughts. She longs for an occupation because she is bored and lonely, and she wants to put good use of her abilities. Unlike most people. she and Shirley are capable of appreciating poetry for sincere feeling, and scorn elevated poetry meant to exhibit intellect rather than pure emotion. Caroline dislikes the classical dramatists, Corneille and Racine, in favour of Chenier, the proto-Romantic, and Shakespeare's accurate delineation of character, irregular naturalism and intense feeling, finds more favour with her than the classicists of the 18th century. True emotional depth and feeling belong not to artificial society, but neither does it belong to honest and wholesome people like Mr Yorke. Many good characters in the novel are incapable of appreciating heightened emotion the way the heroines do, like Mr Helstone, Mrs Pryor, Mr Yorke and Mr Hall. The gentlemen are very much provincial Yorkshiremen but they cannot be said to be sympathetic to the fine arts. The better cultured on the other hand are insincere and flashy. Hence Shirley is very much about the individual Romantic, which suits the Romantic era setting.

The Hooks also make the important point that the ending of the novel is not a conventionally happy one. Instead it is ambiguous: despite the heroines' marriages, Robert Moore decides to enclose Briarfield Common and rent them out to farmers, to Caroline's distress, for nature will be destroyed. He makes the valid point that with his new money he will be able to employ more workers, pay them better and thus contribute the society. There is no solution: this is Charlotte Brontë's realism sinking in. Unlike Mrs Gaskell she is not unrealistically optimistic or forgiving. With the development in the North, the scenery is gone, to be replaced by ugly mills and factories. There are no more fairies, a symbol of nature and imagination. Society has become materialistic and commercial, at the expense of solitude and imagination. This is the world the Brontë children dreamed of, especially Charlotte and Emily, the Romantic era in which they were born in, and which faded away in their adulthood. They used that in their novels and poetry, and resisted many wider questions in their works (though aware of them).

The movement of history is seen as embracing both continuity and change. The new industrial society that Robert Moore looks forward to in 1812 has indeed come into being. But a price has been paid. The natural beauty of the Hollow has been swept away by the stone, brick and ashes of the new industrialism. The fading folk-memory of the “fairish,” last seen in Fieldhead Hollow further back in the pre-industrial past, hints even at the imagination’s inability to survive in the context of such a brave new world. But there is no such imaginative failure in Shirley itself.

I cannot recommend this edition highly enough.


  1. This is the edition I own. I've read the intro, but this post encourages me to reread it when I reread the book.

    1. That's an uncommon edition nowadays. Where did you get it? I got mine from a London bookshop which sells secondhand classics.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Sorry, I always forget to subscribe to comments. I'm pretty sure I got that edition from a give-away box at a library.