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Charlotte Brontë's Shirley: Chapters 1-6

"...we are going back to the beginning of this century: late years – present years are dusty, sunburnt, hot, arid; we will evade the noon, forget it in siesta, pass the midday in slumber, and dream of dawn." (Shirley, Chapter 1)

Art by F.H. Townsend for the 1897 ed. of Shirley


Welcome, Janeites, to the first week of Shirley. Over the next six weeks I will be covering Charlotte Brontë's second novel as part of our Austen-Brontë reader blog series. Today, we look at Chapters 1-6. As it is my first reading of the novel, I am excited to begin. Allons-y!

Summary, First Impressions, and Curious Curates

If you expected Shirley from the very first line– like I did– you must have found yourself very much mistaken. Charlotte Brontë gives her readers something else entirely unexpected... curates! The novel opens matter-a-factly, with a statistic-like sentence detailing the recent influx of, yes, curates, in the north of England. Then follows a flowery description of time and place, after which the authoress, whose third person narrative voice deciphers the happenings of characters and their surroundings, chastises her audience. (See quote below.) Not only is there no Shirley to be found, but curates run amok in times past and readers are left with the disclaimer: no romance ahead. Most curious.

"If you think, from this prelude, that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you never were more mistaken." (Shirley, Ch.1)

Jane Austen, too, included curates in her fiction, but for twenty-first century readers, this is a largely antiquated term. What exactly is a curate? A man of the cloth, no doubt, but what differentiates Emma's Mr. Elton, a vicar– or the infamous rector of Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins– from Persuasion's Charles Hayter, a curate. In the ranks of church leadership, where on the ladder fall the Messrs. Donne, Malone, and Sweeting? They are, after all, the first characters introduced by name in Shirley. They must all have none-too-small parts to play... (To satiate your endless curiosity on the subject of curates (1), I beseech you, read on!)

For now, though, let's get back to the summary. The scene is set at a country inn, where three curates are in the midst of an argument. This argumentative state is one, we are told, the three young curates regularly enter. They are interrupted by a Mr. Helstone– the fire and brimstone preacher of the town– who arrives to seek their aid in protecting Mr. Moore's mill.

Robert Moore is known to be a fearsome character, with little regard for the livelihoods of his employees. He– at any moment– expects the delivery of new machinery for his mill. This delivery will allow him to let go of many of his workers, not only a modernization but also a necessity. Why? The mill– which has great family significance– is deeply in debt. As night falls, Mr. Helstone visits his friend and warns him of the unpleasant fate of other mill owners. Frame-breakers are about in Yorkshire, and they are none too pleased about new machinery stealing the jobs of hard-working men who have families to provide for.

Then the authoress provides her readers with a detailed history of Mr. Moore and his family in Yorkshire and Antwerp. At the time the story opens, Mr. Robert Moore had only lived two years in the district, and is looked upon by some as an alien, being only half a Briton. Even though Robert and others keep watch, framer-breakers destroy the machinery on its way to the mill. The instigators of the damage leave a note, stating that his machinery has been destroyed on the Stillbro' Moor and the men Mr. Moore had sent to bring the machinery back have been bound and left in a ditch. A search party is organized. Having experienced the Yorkshire moors for myself, I can attest that those wildly beautiful, desolate, element-torn landscapes are not places you want to find yourself at night when vengeful men nearby thirst for justice. (A little dramatic? Perhaps. But my point still stands.)

Moore and Helstone have differing philosophies and political ideologies, so as they ride out they discuss their opinions. They speak of Napoleon, Wellington, and Biblical battles. Then, the two meet Mr. Yorke, an interesting character, to be sure. He speaks in turns pure English, a Yorkshire dialect, and fluent French, and says he'll help the Messers. Helstone and Moore rescue the men attacked by the framer breakers. Charlotte Brontë then paints a clearer picture of Mr Yorke. He is a man in his mid-fifties, but looks older due to his white hair. After a physical description, the authoress turns to internal description.

"I did not find it easy to sketch Mr Yorke's person, but it is more difficult to indicate his mind." (Shirley, Ch. 4)

Many of the following pages are devoted to a chronicle of Mr Yorke's life and misfortune... which– if you have not read the chapter– I will let you discover it yourself. Who could write it better than Miss Brontë?

The night after the machinery conflict Mr. Moore awakens in good spirits. He and Joe Scott– his right-hand-man and employee who was targeted by the frame breakers– have spent the night at the mill. In a comedic dialogue, Moore bids Joe to guess the former's nationality, and the latter cannot guess. Moore explains he is Anversoise– in other words Belgian. After the conversation comes to a close, we are introduced to the Moore siblings at the breakfast table, away from the eyes of the public. So unlike the steel-hearted man of business, at home Robert is kindhearted and fair towards his persnickety, spinster sister, Hortense, and aims to please her despite many nervous whims and fancies. Hortense speaks a copious amount of French, so unless, dear readers, you have some level of proficiency I would recommend having a translator (be it physical or digital) nearby.

"Mademoiselle had an excellent opinion of herself – an opinion not wholly undeserved, for she possessed some good and sterling qualities; but she rather over-estimated the kind and degree of these qualities, and quite left out of the account sundry little defects which accompanied them." (Shirley, Ch. 5)

(Emma Woodhouse, anyone? Except, of course, for the three facts that Hortense is neither handsome, clever, or rich...) The siblings quibble about the state of their life in England. Hortense is dissatisfied with their serving girl and wishes for a nice, dependable Anversoise servant. Plenty of French is thrown in here, so be sure to have those translators handy.

The topic then turns to the eighteen-year-old Caroline, Mr. Helstone's niece, who comes to Hollow's Cottage to be taught by Hortense. She is a sweet girl and dedicated student of French and handiwork. Mr. Robert Moore and Caroline are fond of each other and Caroline wishes for him to return safely before she leaves for the parsonage at the end of the day. Robert dallies about going to work, leaving flowers on Caroline's desk, forgetting his gloves, and altogether lingering in a most obvious way. After he finally leaves, Hortense– who had left the room earlier and asked Caroline to commence her French exercises– is surprised to find that her young charge has not begun any of her studies.

I love the final chapter in this week's reading. The first part details many topics, including Caroline's past, dinner at Hollow's Cottage, and how Caroline attempts to help Hortense be more fashion forward. (She does not succeed.) The two pursue needlework until it becomes tedious and difficult to see in the dark and Caroline lays her work down. She fears Mr. Moore will not come before she has to leave, but in the end he does arrive. Caroline chastises him for making her worry. What follows is a thorough conversation about judgement, goodness, and attachment. (Do I sense foreshadowing, anyone?) They wonder, then, what to do with the evening. Play chess, draughts, backgammon? Talk scandal? They decide against these pursuits. Caroline makes up her mind that Mr. Robert Moore– yes– will read Shakespeare. In other words, "an English book." Hortense is not pleased that Caroline does not continue working on her needlework, but rather sits beside the former's brother.

"Your heart is a lyre, Robert; but the lot of your life has not been a minstrel to sweep it, and it is often silent." (Shirley, Chapter 6)

Mr. Moore does not read the comic scenes very well, so they are left to Caroline. After the reading is finished Caroline recites a French poem and in a tender few sentences Robert has walked Caroline back to the rectory and they have bid each other goodnight, emotions in flux and with hearts all a-flutter.

I must admit that it is slightly nervy getting to share more subjective opinions in this series than in my previous blog posts, but I am glad for the chance to openly share my thoughts and observations. I love the dynamic between Robert (Mr. Moore) and Caroline. Their witty banter– so often in literature a sure sign of romance, I mean, think of Darcy and Elizabeth– warms my heart with its many literary references, Shakespearean and otherwise. Hortense is a figure of the background through much of the conversation I reference, focusing on her needlework, no doubt thinking how much better it would be if her young pupil would only focus on her sewing rather than wax poetic with Robert on the arts and Shakespeare. She is a comic character so far, and brings a lightness to a story which opens so surprisingly on three chatty curates, a severe rector, and unrest brewing under the surface.

A Wee Bit of Context

(1) For more information about the church during Jane Austen's Regency– incidentally when Shirley is set, during the Luddite machine-breaking of 1811-1812– listen to this episode of Austen Chat, the Jane Austen Summer Program's delightful and informative podcast.


Stay tuned for the next installment of Charlotte Brontë's Shirley, Chapters 7-13, released next Wednesday, June 19th. A helpful week-by-week reading guide can be found here. I would love for you to share your thoughts. Do you agree or disagree? What might you have noticed that I did not include? I would love to hear anything and everything, dear readers!


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