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Charlotte Brontë's Shirley: Chapters 14-19

"Shirley, I never had a sister – you never had a sister, but it flashes on me at this moment how sisters feel towards each other – affection twined with their life, which no shocks of feeling can uproot, which little quarrels only trample an instant, that it may spring more freshly when the pressure is removed; affection that no passion can ultimately out-rival, with which even love itself cannot do more than compete in force and truth." (Shirley, Chapter 14)

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


Welcome back, Janeites, to the third week of Shirley! As part of the Austen-Brontë blog series, I have embarked on a reading journey of Charlotte Brontë's second novel. Today, we look at Chapters 14-19. (Can you believe we're a little over halfway through?) This portion of the novel is action-packed with disagreements, discussions, and plenty of tea along the way. Oh, and, of course, there is a surprisingly violent turn. But we'll get to that in a moment...

Summary, First Impressions, and Grand Interruptions

Our reading begins with the very phrase we closed with last week – "Of course, I know he will marry Shirley." This sentence is uttered by Caroline Helstone– utterly dejected– as she reflects on what she is certain is a burgeoning romance between her new acquaintance and dear friend, Miss Shirley Keeldar, and her love and relation, Mr. Robert Gérard Moore. Later that day, Shirley herself turns up at the rectory, demanding the reason for Caroline skipping a previously planned visit between the two that afternoon. Shirley is intelligent, perceptive, emphatic. She peers easily into Caroline's tender heart and openly shares her own thoughts and feelings. The girls discuss friendship, closeness, and the difficulties Mr. Moore brings to the table. An understanding is reached– with Caroline uttering the quote included at the top of this article– and all is as it was before.

Shirley reveals her plans to help the poor of the parish, and Miss Ainley, the kindhearted widow, is called upon to help draw up plans for the use of Shirley's £300 donation, call to a subscription service, and start of a fund to not only aid the less fortunate of Briarfield, but the poor of Whinbury and Nunnely, as well. Thus, Mr. Helstone, Dr. Boultby, and Mr. Hall– the parishes' corresponding rectors– are asked to provide their opinions and oversee the finalization of the plan. Shirley entertains her clergymen guests with her typical sparklingly charming air. After everything is drawn up just so and all three men start the subscription list with a £50 donation each, everyone settles down for dinner. Shirley– Captain Keeldar– is described as being "radiant with glee" and the evening concludes on a perfect note.

The next afternoon– as Shirley and Caroline discuss the successes of the previous day– Shirley's mastiff, Tartar, begins a riotous clamor. Suddenly, a few cries are heard and two of the three curates, Malone and Donne, hurl themselves unannounced into Shirley's home. Donne promptly runs up the stairs and shuts himself in the first available room while Malone leans on the balustrade, trying his best to appear nonchalant. (Nonchalant, indeed. It is difficult to appear as such when, only moments before, you have fended off your hostess's dog with a stick and promptly climbed the stairs in terror.) Shirley is much bemused by the situation, however carries herself like a true gentlewoman, inviting Malone to the parlor and dispatching one of her servants to fetch Donne from his self-imposed imprisonment.

After the incident Donne is in a sour mood and antagonizes Shirley, most particularly for her lack of a dog more suited to the "fairer sex." Sweeting– the third and most welcome curate– arrives with Mr. Hall, providing pleasant distraction from Donne's ramble. By this time they make up quite the party, so the guests are all invited to stay for an impromptu– yet perfectly prepared and tastefully executed– luncheon in the garden. During this, in conversation, Mr. Hall reminds the ladies of the upcoming Whitsuntide (1) festivities.

"...When the grand united Sunday-school tea-drinking and procession of the three parishes of Briarfield, Whinbury, and Nunnely were to take place. Caroline, he knew, would be at her post as teacher, he said, and he hoped Miss Keeldar would not be wanting." (Shirley, Ch.15)

Mr. Hall, it seems, had been somewhat of a stalwart in Caroline's youth, and they discuss life and contentment. Meanwhile, Donne forwardly approaches Shirley with a demand for funds. It seems Donne and Dr. Boultby hope to build a school in the hamlet of Ecclefigg, which is part of the parish of Whinbury. His address is most unsuitable, and when the heiress does not provide the sum he expects, Donne veritably explodes and attacks not only Shirley, her faith, and her character, but the rich in general. After much too long, it appears there are no words left for him to say. In her habitual, clear-headed manner, Shirley firmly asks Donne to permanently leave her property... at once. The name of the chapter, "Mr. Donne's Exodus", impeccably suits. Spirits are rather low after the forced departure and the party breaks up.

Some time passes and readers re-enter Shirley's world again to learn that her fund for the poor is getting along splendidly. Preparations for Whitsuntide commence and Briarfield's schoolrooms are washed and painted and decorated in anticipation. Caroline Helstone is terribly reserved– and not only must lead her Sunday-school class in the parade but also serve tea to a multitude of people– so she typically detests the village fête and everything surrounding it. But rather than a trial, this year the festivities become "almost an enjoyment" due to Shirley's welcome company. When the day of the parade arrives, the friends dress in lovely, becoming ensembles and the authoress describes in detail both the appearance and attitude of others present in the churchyard. Finally, after much organizing, everyone steps into their places and a band falls into step behind them. The church tower's eight bells chimes, and with a lush, lyrical description so true to Charlotte Brontë, the parade is off.

"It was a joyous scene, and a scene to do good. It was a day of happiness for rich and poor – the work, first of God, and then of the clergy. (Shirley, Ch. 16)

As the parade continues from Briarfield to Nunnely Common, Caroline and Shirley notice a small band of six cavalry soldiers on horseback who turn on a road ahead of them. The girls lose sight of them and think no more of it. (But the reader's curiosity is certainly piqued, I must say!) Mr. Helstone decides to lead the Whitsuntide procession on a short-cut, which turns out to trace along a narrow path with steep incline on right and left.

Suddenly, a man in black appears at the end of the lane ahead, with others behind him and the faint strains of another band heard even farther behind them. It is a group of dissenters– Methodists, Baptists, Independents, and Wesleyans– who have come to confront the Anglican parishioners and turn them back. This antagonistic group begins to sing a hymn, but Mr. Helstone directs the Anglicans in a rousing rendition of "Rule, Britannia", causing the other group to cease their music. Then, holding onto each other's hands and clothes, Mr. Helstone's group presses forward and the dissenters are turned back. Later, after the parade has concluded, the Sunday-school feast begins at the rectory. Bread, currant-buns, butter, and tea are passed around, and the women of the three parishes are all kept busy, flitting from the kitchen to the tables, keeping everyone's hunger and thirst at bay.

The Moores arrive– both Robert and Hortense– and while the former greets Caroline and promises to bring his sister to her, that is all. He pays more mind to Shirley than his relation, yet not half so much to the former as she would have liked. After escaping the rectory to find some fresh air, Caroline meets Hortense. The latter remains offended by Mr. Helstone's strict command and faults Caroline for obeying him completely. But soon enough Hortense see that her dear pupil is unwell and all past trouble is instantly forgotten and forgiven. Another conversation begins and Caroline goes to find Shirley. Together, they observe Mr. Robert Moore and Mr. Helstone conversing– which is surprising and mysterious– with a large crowd around them, comprised of the other rectors, the curates, and male parishioners.

Moore then turns to leave and Caroline observes that he has not said his farewells. Shirley declares that they will just have to intercept him by taking a shorter path and drags Caroline along, despite her friend's protests. The girls make their way towards the path on which Moore has started and observe him at a distance. His good humor seems to have left him, yet Shirley addresses him all the same. Moore take the hand of his patroness and bids her goodnight, yet will not reveal the subject of his meeting with Mr. Helstone. Caroline stands farther back and does not approach Moore, who leaves. Shirley and Caroline converse briefly on the subject before the church bells bid "all to the church" with their chimes.

Taking heed of Charlotte Brontë's kind warning– which she uses as the title of Chapter 18– I shall say no more of what came next. After all, when one reads: "Which the Genteel Reader is Recommended to Skip, Low Persons being here Introduced" one must obey the good authoress. (Fear not; I speak in jest!)

The chapter opens as Caroline and Shirley make their way from the path and fields back to the church. Upon arriving at the churchyard, Shirley monologues to stall entering the hot and crowded church. She details a daydream, nearly creating a mythology all of her own, melding titans– an ancient race of Greek deities– with the Christian Creation story and with the first woman, Eve. Shirley mentions "mother Eve" and continues her rambling while Caroline's thoughts turn to her own mother... a mother never knew but has desired to know all her life. Then, the six soldiers from earlier ride by, but before the girls can dwell on the coincidence, William Farren leaves the church building with three of his young children, one of whom is in tears. Farren has found work as a gardener for Mr. Yorke, yet still holds a deep grudge against Mr. Moore, to whom the conversation inevitably turns. Shirley and Farren discuss the subject and Shirley asks if there is anything she could do. Farren replies:

"...Ye can do not mich... ye've gi'en your brass; ye've done well. If ye could transport your tenant, Mr Moore, to Botany Bay, ye'd happen to do better. Folks hate him." (Shirley, Chapter 18)

After reading the words Botany Bay (2) I realized the gravity of Farren's dislike of Moore. Joe Scott, Moore's right hand man, comes out for a breath of fresh air and the odd gathering of working class men, a rector's niece, and an heiress discuss politics, women's rights, religion, and St. Paul's theology. A large portion of the discussion is completed by Shirley and Joe Scott, with the former holding her own with sure-footed intelligence and the latter providing question and answers seeped in simple prejudice.

Later, at dusk, Shirley prepares to leave her friend's company and return home to Fieldhead. Caroline persuades her to stay until there is less traffic, with families leaving by foot, phaeton, and carriage all at once. Thus, Caroline and Shirley retreat to the garden in order to avoid the crowd. When the girls return, they are stopped by Mr. Helstone, who inquires if Shirley could stay the night at the rectory, as he has met an old friend and must be away until noon the following day. Shirley– Captain Keeldar– promises she is up for the task. After a knife and brace of pistols are prepared, Mr. Helstone leaves and the girls have their small supper. Near midnight, the bark of the house dog awakens the household and the sound of marching feet can be heard, interrupting the quiet of the night. Nothing can be seen, but Shirley and Caroline steal to the garden wall to listen, Shirley with pistols in hand. The voices of the men are clear– they are discussing the house and its occupants. The menacing band had planned to enter, but the dog's racket spoiled their plot and hope for a silent approach.

After everything is quiet and still once more, Shirley proposes that they go to the Hollow in order to warn Mr. Robert Moore and see if they can be of service to him. Shirley is faster and more lithe than the sickly Caroline, but even still the two surely and quickly make their way to the Hollow. Bonfires dot the Stillbro' Moor and the sound of shots are all around. Shirley goes to the counting-house window and is surprised to see Moore safe and sound in the company of Mr. Helstone and men of the town. They had been preparing for the attack.

"A crash – smash – shiver – stopped their whispers. A simultaneously-hurled volley of stones had saluted the broad front of the mill, with all its windows, and now every pane of every lattice lay in shattered pounded fragments. A yell followed this demonstration – a rioter's yell – a north-of-England, a Yorkshire, a West Riding, a West-Riding-clothing-district-of-Yorkshire rioters' yell." (Shirley, Ch. 19)

The girls observe all of this as they stand together in a copse of trees. Moore comes outside and speaks to the rioters with calm assurance– having expertly barricaded and protected his mill– and stares unflinchingly into the face of conflict. The men, who are used to the broken spirits of previous mill owners they had attacked, can do nothing but retreat. From their vantage point Shirley and Caroline watch the assailants disperse as the sun begins to rise. After this, Caroline longs to go to Moore, but Shirley restrains her friend, knowing that she is not in the right spirits and that it is not the right time. In the end, they decide to return to the rectory in silence, so that "none shall know where we have been or what we have seen..."

A Wee Bit of Context

(1) For present-day readers in America– or those unfamiliar with the holidays and traditions of the Anglican Church– this may prove a confusing subject. Time for a church history lesson! Whitsun is the traditional British name for Pentecost, or the seventh Sunday after the Easter holiday. During Whitsuntide, the week following Whitsun sometimes called Whitsunday), the agricultural laborers of old were given a holiday. Villages would celebrate in various ways across England– typically including a fair, church picnic, or other sort of celebration– with many communities in the North country taking "whit walks", or parish parades. Charlotte Brontë draws upon this lively, joyful tradition for her use in Chapter 16 of Shirley.

(2) Botany Bay, discovered in 1770, was the site where Captain James Cook first landed in Australia. In 1788, the bay was set to become that of the first convict settlement. Due to the outcome of the Revolution, England could no longer send criminals to America and was in desperate need of another place. Upon arrival, however, Botany Bay was found to be unfit for long-term human establishment and the colony moved to Port Jackson, now Sydney. At the time Shirley is set (1811-1812), England would have been successfully sending felons to Australia for over twenty years and would continue to do so until 1868.


Stay tuned for the next installment of Charlotte Brontë's Shirley, Chapters 20-25, released next Wednesday, July 3rd. A helpful week-by-week reading guide can be found here. Please share your thoughts in the comments. Do you agree or disagree? What might you have noticed that I did not? I would love to hear anything and everything, dear readers!


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