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Charlotte Brontë's Shirley: Chapters 7-13

"When I walk out along the hedgerows in the evening after the mill is shut, or at night when I take the watchman's place, I shall fancy the flutter of every little bird over its nest, the rustle of every leaf, a movement made by you; tree-shadows will take your shape; in the white sprays of hawthorn I shall imagine glimpses of you. Lina, you haunt me." (Shirley, Chapter 13)

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


Welcome back, Janeites, to the second 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 7-13. I don't know about you all, but I was wholly engrossed by this portion of the story. The plot thickened greatly and the elusive title character– Miss Shirley Keeldar– was introduced. But... I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's get into it properly, shall we?

Summary, First Impressions, and the Pain of Suppressed Love

Our reading for this week opens with a passionate reflection of what it means to be young, naive, and full of emotion. One is veritably whisked away by poetic, literary sensibility that at once brings to mind Jane Austen's vivacious young heroine, Marianne Dashwood. While conveyed in a rather melodramatic fashion, what a relatable statement for readers who have been, are, or will be eighteen.

"At eighteen the true narrative of life is yet to be commenced [...] at eighteen, drawing near the confines of illusive, void dreams, Elf-land lies behind us, the shores of Reality rise in front." (Shirley, Ch. 7)

The action begins as Caroline approaches her uncle with thoughts on matrimony. This conversation does not go well, as it is a subject never discussed between them. (The questions are asked in general, with no specific person in mind, of course. Wink wink.) In pondering this topic, Caroline reflects on Mr. Helstone's brief marriage and the unhappy marriage of her parents, as well as her burgeoning deep love for Robert Moore. Pages of contemplation and daydreams, however, are annotated by the narrator, as seen below.

"But what has been said in the last page or two is not germane to Caroline Helstone's feelings, or to the state of things between her and Robert Moore [...] She had loved without being asked to love –– a natural, sometimes an inevitable chance, but big with misery." (Shirley, Chapter 7)

As the title of Chapter 7– The Curates at Tea– might suggest, the rectory does indeed receive the three young curates, for where one is, the other two must surely follow. Caroline waits in anticipation that her dear Robert may arrive as well, but instead finds herself tasked with entertaining Mrs. Sykes and three of the Misses Sykes. As the authoress chose the evocative verb "stalked" to describe Mrs. Sykes's entrance into the house, I am merely left with the task of writing... need I say more? The omniscient narrator then chronicles the conversation, with the inclusion of pauses and the mad running of Caroline's thoughts. Oh, how she wishes she could be anywhere but that room. In a turn of events, all three curates, Mrs. Sykes, and her daughters stay for tea. Seated between the curates Donne and Malone–both proud, haughty specimens– the time around the tea table is slow and unenjoyable. The characters of the Misses Sykes– in relation to the gentlemen present– are poked and prodded by the narrator. Readers are afforded a breath of fresh air when the ridiculous Mr. Sweeting accompanies a musical Miss Sykes on the flute and Caroline is able to slip away, silent and unnoticed to the dining room.

Then, unbeknownst to Caroline, Mr. Moore arrives, hoping to speak with Mr. Helstone. Hearing that the latter is engaged with company, the former is shown to the dining room in order to write a short message instead. No one knows that Caroline is already there, and both she and Robert are surprised to see one other. A tender conversation follows, one that seems almost a nod to the awkward yet proper exchanges between Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars in Austen's Sense and Sensibility. As the reader is privy to how Caroline feels, you can almost tangibly feel her suppressed love in every word she utters to Robert.

The next day, Robert Moore entertains a visitor, a man who will help in the arrest of Rev. Moses Barraclough, who led the troupe of vengeful workers to damage Moore's machinery on the Stilbro' Moor. Mr. Helstone and Mr. Sykes– whose property had also been damaged– arrive and the conversing and planning continues. The scene then shifts to William Farren– one of the workers Mr. Moore had laid off– at his humble dwelling. With William out of work and having a wife and young children to provide for, the Farrens are very badly off. Mr. Hall, a clergyman from a neighboring town, comes to visit the family, and the reader is able to observe the simple faith and encouragement shared between the two men.

With Moses Barraclough captured and jailed, Mr. Moore is in good spirits, although pained by the knowledge– gained from his employee Joe Scott– that William Farrens is still out of work. Upon learning of Farrens's gardening skills, a plan begins to form in his mind. Once again, the scene shifts to a new place. This time, it is Briarmains, the home of Mr. Yorke. What follows is an in depth portrait– both present and future– of the Yorke family, whose members include a rather melancholic wife, a baby, a docile elder daughter, an exuberant younger daughter, and three school-age boys. After the sketch of the family is drawn, Robert Moore arrives. He is a frequent visitor, it appears, and the precocious young Yorke daughter reminds him that he is to marry her when she is all grown up. A pleasant, familiar conversation takes place between the daughters, Mr. Yorke, and Mr. Moore. The topic turns to the reason for Robert's visit– William Farren. Moore beseeches Mr. Yorke to take Farren on as a gardener at his mill, and Yorke finally acquiesces to giving the man a trial run.

The weeks pass and spring comes to Yorkshire, yet all is not well. Politically, the country is in shambles. And thus, during this time of disagreement between British forces of Wellington and the advances of Napoleon, Mr. Helstone and Robert Moore have a severe falling out. Mr. Helstone labels Robert as "Jacobin", which was the leading political group during the French Revolution, and the rector forbids his niece from going to Hollow's Cottage. On no account can she set foot on the premises– no visits, no study under Hortense, nothing. This censure lands Caroline a pit of despair, as her love for Robert only grows even as he seems to retreat from her and they are forced to be apart. But, rather than disobey her uncle, she decides to wait in agonizing obedience for the ban to be lifted. Caroline's thoughts spiral downwards. In an attempt to do her duty and simply get out of the house, she decides to visit two old maid in the village, Miss Mann and Miss Ainley. Miss Ainley gives the names of poor families to visit, and between beneficiary actions and continued study, Caroline makes a plan that despite her separation from the Moores, she will persevere through her anguish.

"Yet I must speak truth. These efforts brought her neither health of body nor continued peace of mind. With them all she wasted, grew more joyless and more wan; with them all her memory kept harping on the name of Robert Moore; an elegy over the past still rung constantly in her ear; a funereal inward cry haunted and harassed her; the heaviness of a broken spirit, and of pining and palsying faculties, settled slow on her buoyant youth. Winter seemed conquering her spring; the mind's soil and its treasures were freezing gradually to barren stagnation." (Shirley, Ch. 10)

Chapter Eleven dawns nigh before us. Caroline grows more thin, more wan, more lifeless. Even her uncle notices her change, especially when his niece asks his permission to seek a position as a governess. As she is obviously unwell, Mr. Helstone declines her request. Many others also notice the change in Caroline, and consider her situation to be a precarious one should illness knock upon her door. Finally, at his wit's end, Mr. Helstone announces to Caroline that they are going to call on Fieldhead, a nearby estate. Miss Shirley Keeldar, an heiress, has now come of age and moved into her familial home. Mr. Helstone believes her company will do his niece good. The Helstones are shown into an old-fashioned parlor and meet Shirley's governess-turned-companion, Mrs. Pryor, to whom Caroline is immediately drawn. Then readers– who have been kept in suspense since the very first line– meet Shirley at long last. (Huzzah!) Shirley's mastiff, Tartar, bounds in soon after her. (1)

"She was gracefully made, and her face too, possessed a charm as well described by the word grace as any other. It was pale [...] intelligent, and of varied expression." (Shirley, Ch. 11)

Shirley's manner is easy and jovial and she converses with Mr. Helstone as easily as she speaks to Caroline. Shirley carries herself with the confidence singular to one settled in the world, one of independent means, and with assurance of the future. Shirley is, after all, the owner of Robert Moore's mill. Yes, indeed, Mr. Moore is her tenant, and Shirley asks after him, knowing he is acquainted with her guests. Mr. Helstone expresses his great distaste while Caroline answers sincerely and tenderly, defending him from her uncle's verbal attacks on his character. Shirley extends an invitation for Caroline to return and frequently requests that the latter visit her. In no time at all, Caroline becomes a regular at Fieldhead.

One afternoon when Mr. Helstone is out, Mrs. Pryor visits the rectory and has a dialogue with her young friend. On leaving, she notices the family portraits that hang on the wall. It is a thoughtful, dreamlike passage, and near the end Mrs. Pryor offers these words of advice:

"Do you like the truth? It is well for you. Adhere to that preference – never swerve thence." (Shirley, Chapter 12)

Later, at Fieldhead, Shirley and Caroline discuss William Cowper, Rousseau, and... Robert Moore. He ever follows the girls' conversations, further consuming Caroline's thoughts. It is a wonder that Shirley continually asks after her tenant, and Caroline believes she finds the answer as to why when she sees her friend and Robert Moore walking at dusk. She despairs, believing them already to be lovers and set upon marriage. Trying to put the thought out of her mind, Caroline aids her friend in planning an excursion to the forest. Their planning is interrupted, however, by an unexpected visitor. Who is it? (I bet you can guess, even if you have not read the chapter.) Did you say Moore? Of course, you are right. In walks Mr. Moore.

In Caroline's view, Robert barely look at her, focused wholly in conversation with "Captain Keeldar", his beautiful patroness. The reader is conflicted, (I must confess to have been), torn between Caroline, who has been present for eight chapters, and Shirley, present for only two. I cannot help but imagine Charlotte Brontë smiling as she wrote these scenes.

Suddenly, the clock strikes 9:00, and Caroline is obliged to return home. Robert asks to accompany her to the rectory, and a little hesitantly, she agrees. Her uncle's order for them to be apart is still a shadow cast over her life, but as long as they part before they reach the rectory's gates, all should be well. What follows is an utterly heartbreaking dialogue for readers, those who know of Caroline's inner pain over the past few months. I started this post with a quotation from Robert and Caroline's conversation here, and I will be honest, I nearly felt the tell-tale welling of tears when reading it for the first time. In no time at all, however, the two reach the rectory, and Caroline urges Mr. Moore to leave multiple times, as Mr. Helstone can be heard preparing for his evening walk around the premises.

As it happens, Caroline retreats safely to her chamber without her uncle's notice and Mr. Moore is forced to hide in the cemetery while Mr. Helstone passes by. Thankfully, he is neither seen nor heard and from her window Caroline watches him leave after her uncle reenters the rectory. But even with tender moments fresh in her mind, Caroline feels utterly dejected, her last words before sleep being, "Of course, I know he will marry Shirley."

A Wee Bit of Context

(1) Remember when I said we'd come back to Tartar, Shirley's mastiff? Charlotte's inclusion of a great brute of a dog likely has ties in the real world, just as its owner, Shirley, does. Emily Brontë was known to have had a dog of the same sort, Keeper, who was her shadow during long walks on the moors. It has also been said that Charlotte based the character of Shirley upon her sister Emily. In Chapter 16 of Mary Robinson's 1883 novel, Emily Brontë, we read:

"...Shirley herself, a fancy likeness of Emily Brontë. Emily Brontë, but under very different conditions. No longer poor, no longer thwarted, no longer acquainted with misery and menaced by untimely death; not thus, but as a loving sister would fain have seen her, beautiful, triumphant, the spoiled child of happy fortune. [...] Under the pathetic finery so lovingly bestowed, under the borrowed spendours of a thousand a year, a lovely face, an ancestral manor-house, we recognise our hardy and headstrong heroine, and smile a little sadly at the inefficiency of this masquerade of grandeur, so indifferent and unnecessary to her. We recognise Charlotte's sister; but not the author of Wuthering Heights."


"But to know how Emily Brontë looked, moved, sat and spoke, we still return to 'Shirley,' A host of corroborating memories start up in turning the pages. Who but Emily was always accompanied by a 'rather large, strong, and fierce-looking dog, very ugly, being of a breed between a mastiff and a bulldog?'"

Quite indicative, I think, of a creative link between Miss Shirley Keeldar and Emily Brontë, woven together by the authoress of one and the sister of the other, Charlotte Brontë.


Stay tuned for the next installment of Charlotte Brontë's Shirley, Chapters 14-19, released next Wednesday, June 26th. 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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