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Charlotte Brontë's Shirley: Chapters 26-31

"That look of pity, that gentle touch! No down was ever softer, no elixir more potent! It lay like a snowflake; it thrilled like lightning. A thousand times I have longed to possess that hand – to have it in mine. I have possessed it; for five minutes I held it. Her fingers and mine can never be strangers again. Having met once they must meet again." (Shirley, Chapter 31)

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

 

Welcome back, Janeites, to the fifth week of Shirley! As part of the Austen-Brontë summer blog series, I have embarked on a reading journey of Charlotte Brontë's underrated second novel. Today, we look at Chapters 26-31. This selection is fraught with romantic foibles of all sorts, with plenty of tension and suspense to go around. (May I just say... that quote... ooh...)


Summary, First Impressions, and Enemies to Lovers


Our chapter opens at the rectory, with Miss Caroline Helstone in the midst of a slow but sure convalescence, under the watchful eye of her mother, Mrs. Pryor. (If this connection comes as a surprise to you, please peruse last week's post.) Shirley– recently returned from her holiday– pays her friend a visit and finds that mother and daughter have been reunited at last. She had "guessed long since the whole business", but with "no warrant to breathe a word on the subject" had kept her thoughts to herself.


While Shirley's family, the Sympsons, are good people, they are severe and a bit boring. (All except for fifteen-year-old Henry, that is, whose tutor is Robert Moore's brother, Louis.) After spending many weeks solely in their company, Shirley invites Caroline– fully recovered– to Fieldhead once again. There, the latter notices how cooly her friend behaves towards Louis Moore. The Sympsons treat Louis with civility, but nothing more, and Shirley does the same. As Shirley makes it her duty to treat others with kindness, this seems rather out of character. Louis does not seem to mind, however, and has "the air of a man used to this life", evading even his cousin's attempts to converse with him. Tartar, Shirley's mastiff, is his only friend and companion at Fieldhead, much to the chagrin of the mistress of the house. (As Tartar has been seen only to obey Shirley thus far in the novel, could this be foreshadowing?)


One day, as Shirley and Caroline enjoy the pleasant weather in the summer house, they converse on the subject of Louis Moore. Charlotte Brontë tells her readers Shirley replied "ironically" and laughed "each time with a slightly sarcastic sound", which seems strikingly modern, especially due to the subject matter being discussed. Then, Louis Moore himself appears, hoping to feed the birds in the garden and followed close behind by Tartar. Moore, upon finding himself unprepared, is saved by Shirley, who offers him the use of her cake. A rather rude, prideful discourse follows, and at Caroline's kind-hearted attempt to excuse her cousin, Shirley replies:


"You see," retorted Shirley, with ire, "he is a topic on which you and I shall quarrel if we discuss it often; so drop it henceforward and for ever." (Shirley, Chapter 26)

A short time after the bird-feeding incident, Caroline happens to be in the schoolroom with Shirley's young cousin, Henry. He is a bright, inquisitive soul who prefers books, study, and "sedentary occupation" to active pursuits due to his physical disability. The young scholar rummages in his teacher's desk and finds a small collection of old French copy-books. They do not belong to Henry, surprisingly, but to Shirley, who had completed them four years prior when still living with her uncle and his family. Louis Moore has kept them the whole time, neatly tied together in a packet. This is a fact Caroline finds most curious, but Shirley, who joins her friend and cousin, does not react. Mr. Hall and Louis Moore arrive soon after, and they form a small party for lunch in the schoolroom, with Shirley toasting oatcakes on the fire. Louis takes over that position after a while, and Caroline observes everything with an unflinching gaze. Company is announced, and after much cajoling, Shirley is obliged to go and act her part as hostess. Caroline and Mr. Hall leave, too, and the scene ends with Louis Moore and Master Henry, the former in a sour mood the latter knows to leave alone.


"Miss Keeldar and her uncle had characters that would not harmonize, that never had harmonized. He was irritable, and she was spirited. He was despotic, and she liked freedom. He was worldly, and she, perhaps, was romantic." (Shirley, Chapter 27)

Upon the start of Chapter 27, readers become privy, almost at once, to a plot of Mr. Sympson's to marry Shirley off. The first suitor is the son of a local well-to-do family, a Mr. Samuel Fawthrop Wynne. Shirley denounces the match no sooner than she hears of it from her uncle's lips. The passionate discourse between uncle and niece thereafter disclosed is fiery and full of Shirley's characteristic wit and vivacity. To her uncle's warning of "take care, madam!" Shirley retorts, "scrupulous care I will take, Mr. Sympson. Before I marry I am resolved to esteem - to admire - to love."


Shirley's refusal of Mr. Wynne, however, does not have entirely the intended affect, as three more eligible proposals follow suit. (They are all refused.) One suitor, a Sir Philip Nunnely, is the "Bluestocking" to which the chapter title references. (While the nickname was typically used to describe a literarily-minded woman, it was used to describe both men and women until the late 18th century.) Mr. Sympson anticipates a grand match, but while Shirley likes Sir Philip, she is not disposed to love him. That may be in part due to his fault...


One slight drawback there was – where is the friendship without it? – Sir Philip had a literary turn. He wrote poetry – sonnets, stanzas, ballads. Perhaps Miss Keeldar thought him a little too fond of reading and reciting these compositions; perhaps she wished the rhyme had possessed more accuracy, the measure more music, the tropes more freshness, the inspiration more fire. At any rate, she always winced when he recurred to the subject of his poems, and usually did her best to divert the conversation into another channel. (Shirley, Chapter 27)

Mr. Yorke, who believes Robert Moore to be in love with Shirley, urges his brother, Louis, to write to him and encourage him to more actively pursue the heiress now that she has many suitors. This comes as a surprise to the tutor, and he soon falls ill with fever, likely caught at one of the poorer cottages nearby that he visited with Henry and Mr. Hall. Shirley comes to visit Louis as he recovers, but her presence can bring him no comfort. Their conversation is brief, and Shirley does not repeat her act of kindness. Louis soon recovers however, and one day Henry asks for Shirley to join him in the schoolroom for a French lesson, as requested by his tutor. The old relationship of teacher and pupil begins to blossom once again, and later it is revealed that the evening was all a plot of Henry's, as he is not fond of Sir Philip.


The next morning find Shirley in high, altered spirits, yet with a touch of melancholy to her manner. Everyone wonders at the change as this new mood remains unchanged in Shirley for a fortnight. She began to take long rides over the Stillbro' Moor each day, with Tartar keeping strides beside her horse. Those in town began to make conjectures on the reason for this change in behavior. Some supposed she was in money trouble with Hollow Mill and still others believed she was to be married and busy in the throes of preparation.


Shirley tells her cousin Henry that she has made her will, which the boy immediately passes on to his tutor, in whom he has seen a marked change in disposition, just like he has seen in Shirley. Henry, by now known never to be one for brevity, goes on to detail his conversation with his cousin. She has left the whole of Fieldhead to him– should she die first– with money left to Caroline, as well, and a bit of money set aside for Henry's sisters. Louis is shocked and concerned by the knowledge Henry shares that Shirley thinks she is going to die soon and asks to see her, and she professes nothing is wrong. A ring that previously fit her finger slips off easily, and when Shirley comments on her physical change being related purely to nerves, Louis knows something serious is at work.


"I had better tell you than my aunt," she said, "or than my cousins, or my uncle. They would make such a bustle, and it is that very bustle I dread – the alarm, the flurry, the éclat. In short, I never liked to be the center of a small domestic whirlpool. You can bear a little shock – eh?" (Shirley, Chapter 28)

Louis Moore replies that he can bear "a great [shock], if necessary." Shirley then shows Louis a healed wound and discloses how she was bitten by one of Sam Wynne's dogs. A servant had run by after the incident and told her that the dog was supposed of being mad. Upon hearing this, Shirley marched to the laundry at Fieldhead and cauterized the wound herself, telling no one. She had almost gone to the schoolroom, she admits, but then decided to be silent on the matter. "Why?" Louis asks. "What can I demand better in this world than to be of use to you?" But it appears that both Shirley and Louis have a good deal of pride and shun sympathy. Louis then remarks on Shirley's change in behavior since his recent arrival at Fieldhead, claiming that he once had a pupil who "vexed me twenty-three hours out of the twenty-four" and "having taken from [him] peace of mind and ease of life... took from [him] herself quite coolly, just as if, when she was gone, the world would be all the same to me." This pupil, of course, was Miss Shirley Keeldar. The topic turns briefly to Robert Moore and his long absence; Louis mentions that his brother had a meeting with Shirley just before he quitted Hollow's Mill but neither he nor Shirley have disclosed the reason for his departure.

It is soon discovered that the dog was not ill, but ill-handled. Thus, Shirley returns to her usual temper and haughty air towards the tutor; all is as it was before.


Louis Moore was used to a quiet life. Being a quiet man, he endured it better than most men would. Having a large world of his own in his own head and heart, he tolerated confinement to a small, still corner of the real world very patiently. (Shirley, Ch. 29)

Over the course of the whole next chapter Charlotte Brontë shows us Louis Gérard Moore in contemplation one evening, wandering the vacant rooms of Fieldhead, dreaming of Shirley and noticing her possessions and her touch in every room. He speaks aloud the murmurs and observations of his heart (in much the same fashion that Caroline Helstone had earlier in the novel) and at the sound of Shirley's carriage approaching pockets a few items of hers: a purse, a glove, a pen, a seal. Louis "never can touch her hand, or a ringlet of her head, or a ribbon of her dress" so must "make privileges" where he can.


In the months since his departure in August, Robert Moore had been busy in aiding with the capture, trial, and conviction of the ringleaders of the attack on his mill. Sooner or later, the townspeople said, he must return home. And return he does one evening, meeting up with Mr. Yorke for dinner. Mr. Moore reveals that just before he left he visited Shirley Keeldar, to whom he proposed. Mr. Yorke is surprised, just as Shirley was when Robert asked for her hand, and in truth, more for her purse than her heart. She had plenty to say on the matter and Mr. Moore recounts everything to his friend. At the end of the interview, Shirley cried, "You, once high in my esteem, are hurled down; you, once intimate in my friendship, are cast out. Go!" And so he did. Mr. Yorke asks his young friend what comes next, and Robert says that at present, he has no plans. They decide to set out for their respective homes, and Mr. Moore waves Mr. Yorke ahead so he can water his horse. But then, suddenly...


A fierce flash and sharp crack violated the calm of the night. Yorke, ere he turned, knew the four convict of Birmingham were avenged. (Shirley, Chapter 30)

That same evening, Sir Philip dines with Shirley and the Sympsons. It appears that all is settled between the young people and Mr. Sympson is overtly pleased. But not all is as it seems. Shirley tells her uncle that she has received an offer from Sir Philip, but that she has refused him. This enrages Mr. Sympson, who severely berates his niece and gathers from her answers that she is to marry Robert Moore. Shirley neither confirms nor denies this claim but defends her refusal with a measured air and seeks the company of Louis as the Sympsons prepare to immediately leave Fieldhead. Louis shares that he has just received a note from Mr. Yorke regarding his brother, Robert. The latter is not dead, but terribly injured by the shot of a vengeful assassin. Louis takes Shirley's hand as it is "a moment of calamity", and dispatches her to the rectory to tell Caroline the news while he goes to Briarmains, where Robert is housed. The two part and Louis speaks aloud the quote that began this post.


We leave off at a bit of a cliffhanger so all I can say is – until the next. How can the authoress possibly tighten up all of these loose ends? Will she do it? We shall have to wait and see.


A Wee Bit of Context


(1) In 1750s, Elizabeth Montagu first categorized the term bluestocking in the creation of an informal Blue Stocking Society. The term historically refers to a woman of an intellectual or literary bent. A well-known Bluestocking who came later than the society's first iteration was Frances "Fanny" Burney, whose 1778 novel Evelina was an inspiration of young Jane Austen.


 

Stay tuned for the final installment of Charlotte Brontë's Shirley, Chapters 32-37, released next Wednesday, July 17th. 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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