top of page

Charlotte Brontë's Shirley: Chapters 20-25

"I believe in my heart we were intended to prize life and enjoy it so long as we retain it. Existence never was originally meant to be that useless, blank, pale, slow-trailing thing it often becomes to many..." (Shirley, Chapter 22)

Art by Edmund Dulac for The Novels of the Bronte Sisters, Dent 1905


Welcome back, Janeites, to the fourth 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 20-25. With a month of this journey behind us and two weeks ahead, soon our time together will end. (In terms of plot, have we reached the climax of the novel? What do you think, dear readers? Drop me a comment below!) In this week's selection not only does a new– and indubitably important– character join our cast, but a severe illness comes to call and readers become privy to a surprising revelation...

Summary, First Impressions, and a Most Welcome Reunion

We return to the story immediately after the trouble at the mill. Shirley and Caroline return to the rectory, unseen and unheard, before daybreak. Once there, Shirley falls asleep with no trouble at all, but Caroline remains awake, pondering all that she has seen and reflecting on the great hopelessness rising within her. She sits by Shirley's side in contemplation until the servants rise and a new day begins, which temporarily revives her. When Shirley awakes she declares she "shall have much to say to Moore." News of the night's attack spreads quickly through the neighborhood and the rectory servants each have a different account of the event. Then, a note from Mrs. Pryor is delivered from Fieldhead in which she expresses her concern and requests that Shirley return home, and with her, Caroline, as well. Upon the girls' arrival at Fieldhead they find a throng of Shirley's estate cottagers there to collect their allotment of milk and chattering excitedly. The courtyard is in rather a state of disarray and with "a certain frank, tranquil ease", Shirley bids them good day and goes to find Mrs. Pryor. This seemingly-unimportant interaction is merely one of the many instances that Charlotte Brontë allows her readers to glimpse Shirley's singular character in action– she appears to have the words and proper demeanor for any situation and is able to address those beneath her with readiness and grace.

Mrs. Pryor recounts the events of the past evening and shares that a supplication for aid– refreshments and necessities for the wounded men– had been sent from Mr. Moore's mill. As the mistress of the house was absent, and having a nervous, insecure disposition herself, Mrs. Pryor did not send anything, and this kindles Shirley's temper. This fault is juxtaposed with the image of a "perfect" benefactress demonstrated only a few pages earlier. With a displeased look in her eye and a brooding cloud of righteousness around her, Shirley flies off to find the housekeeper, Mrs. Gill, and get everything in order. Caroline sends Mrs. Pryor upstairs with the assurance that all will soon be well again and at the same time Mr. Robert Moore meets Shirley in the yard, starting the process of gathering supplies. Robert is in high spirits and Shirley learns that she has been overzealous in her willingness to provide. Rather than sustain a whole army she merely needs to help about twelve men. Caroline comes to the doorway, then, and notices that Robert has been slightly injured. He assures her no grave harm had been done him and at this Caroline withdraws once more into the house. Moore wonders aloud at her knowing him to be injured immediately, but Shirley whisks the conversation in a different direction. At last, the topic of conversation returns to the study of character and disposition and the absent Caroline is discussed. Both parties appear to have Caroline's best interest at heart. (Which, had she been there, might have been a revelation to Caroline herself.) The thoughtful interlude between the heiress and her tenant ends with an invitation to breakfast; Moore declines as he must return to Hollow's Mill.

After leaving Shirley and Mr. Moore, Caroline goes to check on Mrs. Pryor. The woman has been hurt by Shirley's unwarranted display of displeasure and at once the young heiress realizes her error. With Caroline's help the two are reconciled. Then, Mr. Helstone arrives to discuss the evening's excitement. Soon after that, Mr. Yorke arrives, and as the two men are bitter enemies, the rector, "with the briefest of adieus to Miss Keeldar and the sternest of nods to her guest" leaves. Mr. Yorke is displeased by the happenings of the night prior and does not shy away from sharing his opinion. Shirley, by turns, articulately rates Mr. Yorke and defends Mr. Moore, who had been targeted and degraded by the older man. After a lively discourse Mr. Yorke rises as if to leave and then asks after the date of the wedding. Like the novel's readers, (or perhaps only myself), Shirley wonders at just whose wedding her visitor is hinting. The latter reveals that what he has in mind is "that of Robert Gérard Moore...with Miss Keeldar..." Somehow, Mr. Yorke's tease does not have the intended affect and rather than feel utmost satisfaction at causing a bit of embarrassment, the old gentleman is left confused by Shirley's reaction– which jumps in moments from glad wonderment and joy to suspicion and severity. In the words of Mr. Yorke:

"The Lord save us! Whoever weds thee must look about him! Keep all your questions for Robert; I'll answer no more on 'em. Good-day, lassie!" (Shirley, Chapter 21)

While Shirley entertains her guests, Caroline and Mrs. Pryor go for a pleasant ramble, and the former governess shares the names of all the flora and fauna of all the landscapes they pass. The pair finds a boulder on which to sit and they discuss Caroline's poor health and the difficult path Mrs. Pryor was required to walk in working as a governess. The topic then turns to love and matrimony, with the two friends differing greatly in their opinions of the matter. Caroline, in her gentleness, believes love "is real – the most real, the most lasting, the sweetest and yet the bitterest thing we know", while Mrs. Pryor's view is more negative and pragmatic. At this, Caroline shares the story of her own parents' miserable marriage and separation, while Mrs. Pryor reveals that her marriage was unhappy, as well. She speaks in such a manner to warn Caroline of the dangers of love. Mrs. Pryor then reveals that should Miss Keeldar marry, (which she seems to think is likely to happen sooner than later... wink wink) an old governess would no longer be needed. Thus, in the event that Mrs. Pryor seek lodging elsewhere, an invitation now stands for Caroline to join her and be provided for by the former's small yet independent legacy. Caroline is greatly touched by this generous offer, and the two return shortly to Fieldhead. It is interesting to note here that Mrs. Pryor has acted very out of character – she has conversed, guided, and offered not as a subdued, nervous figure of the background but as a tenderhearted, passionate benefactress and wise counselor. Charlotte Brontë specifically notes that Mrs. Pryor's reserved mantle is once again donned before re-entering Fieldhead. (What will her character arc be, I wonder?)

Mr. Moore meanwhile, busies himself by riding back and forth between towns and villages in search of the leaders who planned the attack on his mill. While Robert is ruthless and seeks justice, he is also fully aware of the danger in this pursuit. The narrator then shifts to peer at the heroines and their pursuits over the course of the same summer. Shirley is always doing something– however never one thing for very long. Her mind's contemplation and interests flit and dance like butterflies in the breeze. Shirley and Caroline had discussed embarking on a northern tour in August, however "an invasion befell Fieldhead" with an uncle, aunt, and cousins come to stay. Thus, the friends' plans must be postponed. Shirley is occupied with her guests, so Caroline is left to herself and entertains long hours of pious thought and desolate contemplation.

One day, an invitation arrives at the rectory from Hollow's Cottage, stating that Robert had gone off to Whinbury and that the letter's sender– Hortense Moore– would have no greater pleasure than to have Caroline to come for tea. The invitation is a lifeline in a torrid sea and Caroline hurries to the Hollow immediately, consoling herself in Robert's absence by the fact that he had but recently been at the cottage. Hortense does not know the full reason for Caroline's joy, and it is a good thing, as the authoress states that "sisters do not like young ladies to fall in love with their brothers." Upon entering the house, however, Caroline notices that Hortense already has guests: austere Mrs. Yorke and her two daughters, critical Rose and precocious Jessy, who had arrived unannounced after Caroline's invitation was sent to the rectory. Rose is reading The Italian, (1) "a romance of Mrs. Radcliffe's" and for a time, Caroline reads along with her. (I immediately recalled that the title was connected to Austen somehow and was inclined to do a bit of research, included below.)

Caroline then has a dialogue with Mrs. Yorke on the topics of sentimentality, love, and the person with whom the younger woman's true affections lie. Thankfully, Hortense does not follow Mrs. Yorke's hints and provoking language– being a little too pragmatic and literal– and spends much of the conversation preparing the tea. Mrs. Yorke is neither sympathetic nor kind and while Caroline holds her own against this verbal tirade, she has some difficulty retaining her composure for the entire discourse. (This is a fact commented on by the Yorke daughters, as poor Caroline "allows herself to be vexed." Miss Shirley Keeldar, who "wears armour under her silk dress", is a better match for Mrs. Yorke's steel-tipped tongue.)

Soon after, the Yorkes leave, as there is just enough daylight left for them to comfortably return home to Briarmains. Caroline believes she should depart, as well, but is surprised by the arrival of a man who looks like Robert, yet is not Robert... then Robert himself arrives and after a moment of confusion the first man is revealed to be the third Gérard Moore sibling: Louis. (In much the same fashion as the delay in introducing the title character until Chapter 11, the authoress does not complete the Moore family until Chapter 23, over halfway through the novel.) Louis is the tutor of Shirley's youngest cousin, incidentally, and both are recently arrived in the neighborhood. Hortense is all a flutter and the siblings speak to one another in their native tongue. (I hope you still have your translators handy!) Before the chapter closes Hortense shows Robert a glass vase of flowers that had been brought from Fieldhead. On this point, Louis inquires "we are to understand, then, that Robert is the favorite?" And to that, Hortense has quite the response. I have translated it here:

"Robert is all that is most precious in the world; compared with him, the rest of the human race is but rubbish. Am I not right, my child?" (Shirley, Chapter 23)

Caroline can only say one thing: yes. It is then that she realizes the hour and ends her visit.

The future sometimes seems to sob a low warning of the events it is bringing us, like some gathering though yet remote storm, which, in tones of the wind, in flushings of the firmament, in clouds strangely torn, announces a blast strong to strew the sea with wrecks... At other times this future bursts suddenly, a if a rock had rent, and in it a grave had opened, whence issues the body of one that slept." (Shirley, Chapter 24)

So begins the next chapter, full of foreboding and foreshadowing for the pages to come. Caroline returns home in good health after her visit to Hollow's Cottage, however the next morning brings the first signs of illness. Food no longer holds any appeal for her and after a "hot, parched, thirsty, restless night", it is apparent that she has succumbed to fever. Two weeks pass lethargically by in the same manner, and while Caroline does not grow worse she shows no signs of returning to health. Thus, Mrs. Pryor decides to move to the rectory to nurse her young friend back to health. Both Mrs. Pryor and Mr. Helstone believe the illness will pass smoothly in time, but Caroline herself is plagued with doubts and questions her personal faith. The fever leaves her but with no will to live she becomes delirious and weak.

One evening, Caroline requests that Mrs. Pryor sing to her and the two discuss grief and motivation to live. Caroline professes that she has "no object in life" and, after careful consideration, Mrs. Pryor reveals she is Caroline's own mother. (To some readers this comes as a surprise and to others it comes as long-awaited disclosure.) The two are overcome with emotion and spend many hours discuss the history and nature of their separation. Caroline now has something to live for and Mr. Helstone comes in to confirm the truth of Mrs. Pryor's words. With this new knowledge to sustain her, Caroline asks for a bit of supper, the first time she has had any appetite in many weeks. With rather uncharacteristic sentimentality and tenderness Mr. Helstone arranges for dinner to be brought up and bids his niece good night. Caroline falls asleep easily, encircled in Mrs. Pryor's arms.

Mrs. Pryor prays through the night for her daughter's health and recovery and when the morning breaks is overjoyed to hear that her daughter has slept well. At first, the "revival seemed like the flicker of a dying lamp", and Miss Helstone still appears quite ill. The next few weeks, however, pass in peaceful solicitude. Many of the neighboring families are away on holiday, leaving Mrs. Pryor and her daughter alone to rest. William Farren comes to the rectory to take care of Caroline's flowers and takes her around the garden in a chair to aid her recovery. Mrs. Pryor and Caroline spend every moment in each other's company, with the mother cheerfully acquiescing her daughter's requests. The sureness of Caroline's full return to health becomes a hopeful beacon that every day draws steadily closer.

A Wee Bit of Context

(1) The Italian by Mrs. Ann Radcliffe is a 1797 Gothic-Horror novel, historically one of the most popular books of the genre. The manuscript was purchased by her publishers for £800, an unheard of amount in a time when manuscripts frequently sold for £10. The fact I find most significant about this novel's brief feature in Shirley is that The Italian is also mentioned in Chapter 6 of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. It is one of the"horrid novels" enjoyed by Isabella Thorpe and thus introduced to Austen's naive heroine, Catherine Moreland.

"Dear creature! how much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read The Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you." (Northanger Abbey, Chapter 6)


Stay tuned for the second-to-last installment of Charlotte Brontë's Shirley, Chapters 26-31, released next Wednesday, July 10th. 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!


bottom of page