Monday, October 3, 2011

North and South, Chapters XX-XXV

Dear Mary Beth,

Whenever you post a letter (speaking of "post," isn't it funny that we call it "posting" on the Internet, and our beloved Victorian characters called it "posting" when they sent a letter?), I get very excited to reply but try to hold off for a bit so our posts are more evenly spaced out. This time around, though, I received a sudden job offer just as I was about to post, and I started my job so suddenly that lots of other things got neglected, including this blog. It's good to be back!

I'm going to pick up where you left off with the irrational way unions tend to negotiate with employers. I believe you said they "cut off their noses to spite their face." Northeast Ohio certainly isn't the only place to see that behavior firsthand, nor are unions the only perpetrators. We've been seeing a lot of such behavior on the national level with the budget crisis in Congress. In fact, it's been going on for so long and has been covered so extensively in the media, that I change the radio station as soon as I hear the words "budget crisis." I can only hope that the public takes note in time for election day. Isn't it interesting how we always seem to find some major issue in the Victorian novel at hand that has direct relevance today?

These six chapters of North and South are very pivotal and could probably be considered the turning point in many ways. First, we've got Mr. Thornton's dinner. He began planning this dinner, of course, before it became apparent that his workers would strike and his income would suffer. Now Marlborough Mills is quiet the evening of the dinner. Margaret gets to see Thornton in his element, surrounded by his peers, where is is most comfortable and appears to greater advantage, which she notices. Another thing Margaret notices while dining with tradespeople is their frank manner with each other, which she contrasts with the "artifice" of London society.

As you mentioned in your letter, Mr. Hale has no idea how ill his wife really is, but he finds out following Thornton's dinner (which she does not attend). This knowledge leads him to send Margaret to the Thorntons' for a water bed, which, it is hoped, will be good for Mrs. Hale. So the chain of events begins.

While Margaret is at the Thorntons', the famous riot scene takes place. This scene reveals, I think, two important things about Margaret. First, she's confused and meddling in affairs she doesn't understand. When the rioters approach Marlborough Mills, Margaret demands that Thornton face his workers "like a man," but as soon as he heads to the balcony, she calls after him to come back, concerned for his safety. After such a challenge from Margaret, though, Thornton can hardly do otherwise. The second thing we learn about Margaret is that her sense of right and wrong is overly simplistic. She thinks only of the here and now without thought of how things will play out over the long term. That's why she gave money and food to the Bouchers (which Thornton disagreed with, saying it would prolong the strike and thus everyone's suffering), and that's why she throws herself at Thronton during the riot in order to shield him. She seems to have no idea how much mischief she inadvertently causes.

Following the riot scene, of course, we have Thronton's proposal. Margaret, embarrassed at the rumors her behavior has started, responds quite harshly to poor Mr. Thornton. Of course, as Thornton is leaving, and Margaret can see that he's hurt, she regrets the pain she has caused. By now, Margaret's sense of right and wrong seems to be more like a desire for the world to be perfect--for everything to be how she wants it, and for everyone to be happy. She certainly has lived a very sheltered life and is learning a tough lesson about life outside the bubble.

Finally, in Chapter XXV, Margaret writes to Frederick, urging him to return home before their mother's death. Again, she wishes for Frederick's safe return to England and thinking that his "crime" must surely be forgotten by now. But her father emphasizes the danger Fred will be in. Her father also admits that while he was glad Margaret wrote to Fred, he (Mr. Hale) couldn't have done it himself. Once again, it seems, Mr. Hale is hesitant (unwilling, even) to take responsibility.

And so I have come full circle. I began this letter talking about letters, and now it ends with talk of a different letter. That's my cue to sign off.

Your Friend,

Sunday, August 28, 2011

North and South, chapters XVII-XIX

Dear Amber,

It’s funny you should mention Margaret’s differing treatment of the Thorntons and the Higginses, because it’s something I was thinking about too. I think you’ve hit on it—she does see her visits to the Higginses as charity, doing her “Christian duty” by spending time with poor, sick Bessy and her family. At least, that’s how it starts, but Margaret actually grows to care about Bessy and Nicholas and seems  to develop a real friendship with them.

I find it interesting that Gaskell has really made Margaret what I’ve been thinking of as a “transitional character.” Margaret is in a position to visit people in all walks of life without damage to her reputation. Mrs. Thornton likely would not be making calls on the Higgins family — it’s not her place. And Margaret’s cousin Edith would have been horrified at the prospect of visiting a poor factory worker’s home. But Margaret can take tea at the Thorntons’, read the Bible with Bessy Higgins, and attend fine society dinners as she did in London before Edith’s marriage, and as she does later on in the novel. Margaret is truly the “middle class” here.

By the way, I believe you’re right about the constant cycle of calls. With little else for refined and moderately wealthy women to do, visiting and being visited would give the women something to do and prepare for and talk about. Once again, I’m glad I’m a woman of the 21st century. I’m basically a homebody and would hate having to go out visiting all the time!

You mentioned the fickle nature of the Milton factory workers, which makes for a good transition into these next few chapters which deal with the strike. I reread the passage you talked about, with the workers wanting more wages to work in a factory with a fan—but I don’t think the workers are fickle. The reason they oppose the fans is because they’re used to inhaling fluff all day and it fills their stomachs so they’re not as hungry. Those who worked in factories with fans were going home hungry and wanted higher wages as compensation.

As we move into chapter 17, Margaret notices that there are a lot more people out and about and there’s a nervous energy in the air. When she reaches the Higginses, she is told that there is a strike in the works. Margaret, innocent of such things, asks what a strike is, and notes, in her prejudicial way, that such a thing was unlikely to happen in her idealized South (“I think they have too much sense.”). Nicholas is contemptuous of this and says that in the North, when the workers aren’t being treated fairly, they stand up for themselves. He explains that the masters seem to be getting quite prosperous, while the workers are still making the same wage they’d been earning for the past two years. And so the Milton workers are planning to strike to get the masters to share the wealth a bit more.

It seems fair enough, but ironically, ignorant Margaret hits the nail on the head as she suggests that maybe the masters have a good reason for not giving out higher wages and that maybe “the state of trade may be such as not to enable them” to give the workers higher wages.

In fact, in the very next chapter, as Mr. Thornton is discussing the state of affairs with his family, he notes that because of the abundance of American yarn in the market, the British mill owners have to sell at a lower rate — things aren’t as prosperous as the Milton workers seem to think. Mr. Thornton also announces his intention to hire cheap, Irish labor should his workers go through with the strike.

Now, this is why I often find myself feeling out of place in the highly pro-union Mahoning Valley. I tend to see both sides of the issue, much like Margaret in this instance. And it seems to me that when it comes to union contract negotiation, there’s a tendency to ignore the valid points the other side might be making—yes, it would be a hardship to have to start paying more for health insurance when you haven’t paid for it before, but at the same time, if the company doesn’t have the money to continue to pay for it, what are you going to do? You see the same back and forth in politics these days as well—the recent struggle over the budget—and it seems that both sides are too willing to cut off their noses to spite their face rather than give an inch to the person on the other side of the table.

But I’ll get off my soapbox now, and get back to our story. In the midst of the strike preparations, we’re also given accounts of several different sickbeds—Mrs. Hale, who’s much more tolerable in her dying state, I have to say, is far sicker than anyone had realized, and her end is approaching quickly. And I’m somewhat smugly satisfied that the true nature of Mrs. Hale’s condition is kept secret from her husband. Though Margaret says it’s for his own health and peace of mind, it brings to mind his own instance of keeping important information from his spouse.

Meanwhile, Bessy Higgins’ condition is worsening, and when Margaret spends another afternoon with her, she meets the Higginses’ neighbor, John Boucher, who is in a state of panic and despair regarding the upcoming strike — if he is without work due to the strike, his young children will starve to death. However, if he does not go along with the union, he will be shunned and his children will likely starve to death anyway. This is what’s really at stake here, and Nicholas acknowledges Boucher’s difficult position, but he says he’s thought about it from every angle, and the only thing he can do is trust in the union, have faith in the union and hope that Boucher will do the same.

As the visit ends, Margaret is very moved by the scene she has witnessed, and leaves money with Bessy for Boucher and his children, though Bessy assures her that they would not have let the Bouchers starve in any case. “If neighbours doesn’t see after neighbours, I dunno who will,” she tells Margaret.

And now, I’ve gotten long-winded again, so I’ll leave off here. As we’ve seen, both sides have a lot to lose should it come to a strike. I’ll let you take us through the drama that follows!

Yours sincerely,

Mary Beth

Friday, August 12, 2011

"North and South," Chapters XI-XVI

Dear Mary Beth,

I completely agree with you that Margaret's biggest flaw is her snobbery. She's a fairly strong character, breaking the news of her father's decision to her mother, handling the travel and housing arrangements for the family's move to Milton, and preparing for Mr. Thornton's visit without complaining of the work. She's certainly stronger than her mother, who reminds me of Mrs. Tulliver. Mrs. Hale likes to bring up her heritage, and the Beresfords seem to have been a prestigious family, worthy of more than what Mr. Hale has provided her with. I don't know that Mrs. Hale actually regrets her choice in a husband, but she sure does like to complain a lot, whether at Helstone or Milton.

I think Margaret's snobbery is hypocritical. As you mentioned, she accuses Mr. Thornton of seeing other people who have not made themselves successful as his enemies, when Margaret sees even people who have made themselves successful (Mr. Thornton) as her "enemies." Being that she won't even give Mr. Thornton a chance, it's very odd to me that she is so eager to befriend the Higginses. The only explanation I can think of is that she sees her visits with them as charity, as the same kind of visits she would have been responsible for paying to the poor and sick of Helstone as the parson's daughter. How very out of place she is in the North!

Chapter 11 gives us the Hales discussing Mr. Thornton after he has left. Mr. Hale fills in the details of Mr. Thornton's background--that his father not only died when John was young, but that he killed himself after getting in debt well over his head. The fact that Mr. Thornton spent years living on nothing just so he could repay his father's debts long after they had been discharged seems to impress Margaret but does not humble her or change her opinion of Mr. Thornton. She describes him as having an "iron nature," which I think is very accurate. At this point, I can't help but compare Mr. Thornton to Tom Tulliver.

Shortly after Thornton's dinner visit, his mother and sister call upon the Hales, which does nothing to improve the relations between the two families. Mrs. Thornton has, of course, been biased against Margaret (unwittingly) by her son, and Mrs. Hale is not the kind of person who will have much in common with a Thornton. Fanny, however, comes off the worst of the four, weak and spoiled, clearly sheltered from the hardship of Mr. Thornton's past. The entire visit is fraught with cattiness and tension, something that still happens today, even though women no longer have to "scheme" for a husband. Why is that?

Margaret continues her friendship with the Higginses, and a conversation she has with Bessy in Chapter 13 really struck me. Bessy explains that when she first became ill, she longed for down time to rest and lie around, but now that she has it, she misses being busy. She also explains how some of the mill owners attempted to install a fan in the mills to help with the dust (too late for poor Bessy), but that the workers demanded more pay. It wasn't clear if Margaret interpreted things the same way as I did, but Bessy makes the workers in Milton sound awfully fickle, as though they don't know what they want or what's best for them and just do and say things without thinking.

Of course, Mrs. Hale is now ill, and we find out in Chapter 16 that she's dying. I can't say I didn't see that coming. Mrs. Hale's illness brings her to finally explain Frederick's circumstances to Margaret (and the reader!), which indicated to me that he will become more important soon.

Margaret and Mr. Hale go to the Thorntons' to return Mrs. Thornton's visit (it seems to me to be an endless cycle of being visited and returning visits). Upon seeing Mr. Thornton's very large house, Margaret can't for the life of her understand why he wouldn't want to live in the country instead of right next to his mill. How she idealizes the South! Later that evening, when Mr. Thornton comes to see Mr. Hale, he and Margaret have a continuation of their earlier argument.

I think Margaret's biggest misconception when it comes to Mr. Thornton is that she thinks that everything he does is in pursuit of money, when in fact she doesn't understand at all how things work in the North. She doesn't seem to understand that unlike the landowners in the South, who are fairly secure in their property and wealth, manufacturers and tradesmen can lose everything very quickly if things take a bad turn. Mr. Thornton is of course concerned with keeping his mill running and profitable, but Margaret cannot see that that is in the best interest of everyone involved. As for the South, I am reminded of Middlemarch, where Dorothea Burke wants the landowners to improve their tenants' dwellings, and of a scene between Mr. Burke and one of his tenants--it is not a pleasant scene, and Mr. Burke almost kicks the tenant out. The South is no better than the North, just different.

Like you, I like the Thorntons--well, Mr. Thornton anyway, and to an extent, his mother. I think that Margaret, at this point, is right in the middle of a major education, and things will get more and more interesting as the strike approaches. I'll be interested to read what you have to say as the storm gathers.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

North and South, Chapters V-X

Dear Amber,

I also have the “North and South” miniseries in my Netflix queue. I’m not quite done with the book yet – it’s my bedtime book, and it always seems to take me a little longer to get through a book that way. However, I’m well-prepared to talk about the next few chapters.

We left off when Mr. Hale has told Margaret about his decision to leave the church, and we pick up with Margaret bracing herself to tell her mother of their impending move. I have to say, I’m not particularly fond of Margaret, but I do admire the way she doesn’t procrastinate when she’s got something disagreeable to do. I’d torment myself for a while, imagining worst-case scenarios and mourning over the impending move, but Margaret gets her job over with as soon as possible, telling her mother the bad news almost as soon as her father leaves the house.

Again, this chapter emphasizes Mr. Hale’s cowardice. In your last letter, you said that Mr. Hale reminded you of Mr. Bennett from “Pride and Prejudice,” but I don’t think Mr. Bennett is cowardly. Lazy and self-indulgent, yes, but I can’t see him avoiding Mrs. Bennett for a whole day and making Elizabeth tell her something disagreeable. I’m reminded of Lizzy’s refusal of Mr. Collins and Mr. Bennett’s defense of her decision. In the same situation, Mr. Hale would have hemmed and hawed and told her that maybe she was being too hasty, and it would make her poor mother happy if she would just accept Mr. Collins’ offer.

Two chapters later, we’ve moved North, and Margaret gets her first glimpse of Milton, gray and smoky with its factories and rows of identical houses, as I imagine it. I can’t help thinking of some of the winter drives I made to Youngstown when we were still in school – those leaden skies and abandoned mills. Though it wasn’t all that long ago that Youngstown and Warren would’ve been our equivalent to Milton, with booming industry and crowded suburbs.

Margaret and the reader also meet Mr. Thornton for the first time in this chapter. Margaret doesn’t make the best first impression on Mr. Thornton, and frankly, this is where she really started to irritate me, too. As I mentioned before, in the first few chapters, Margaret comes across as too perfect. In this chapter we see her major flaw – she’s a huge snob. Though her father’s decision to leave the church has left her in far more reduced circumstances than she’s used to, she considers herself superior to Mr. Thornton, a self-made man, a wealthy man … but a tradesman! Now, I’ve been in Margaret’s situation, when you’re tired and not in the mood for company but have to be polite to someone who’s dropped by, but Margaret later reveals that Mr. Thornton’s impression that she looked down on him was entirely accurate.

The female Hales have a hard time settling down in Milton. Mrs. Hale finds that the “bad air” of Helstone is vastly preferable to the smoky air of Milton. And Margaret is put off by the attitude of over-familiarity that the factory workers of Milton seemed to have. However, this freedom of speech and familiarity is what introduces her to Nicholas and Bessy Higgins. Nicholas Higgins comments on her pretty face, and she’s struck by his own careworn face and later, by his clearly ill daughter Bessy. Interestingly, Margaret is friendlier to the Higginses than she is to Mr. Thornton — perhaps it’s because the Higginses “know their place” and recognize the class differences between them, while Mr. Thornton has, in Margaret’s eyes, set himself as an equal to the Hales, or perhaps, due to his wealth, above them.

The difference in Margaret’s attitude to these new people she has met in Milton is emphasized in the next chapters, as Mr. Thornton is invited to tea. While Gaskell writes that Margaret’s interest in the Higginses makes Milton more tolerable to her, she still disdains the company of Mr. Thornton. And it’s this attitude that causes Mr. Thornton’s rather intimidating mother to dislike Margaret before even meeting her.

I have to say, I like the Thorntons. Mr. Thornton is like a working man’s Mr. Darcy, but Mrs. Thornton is by no means a Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She takes a fierce pride in her son, though she might not show it through huge outpourings of affection. The Thorntons are who they are and don’t pretend to be otherwise.

During Mr. Thornton’s visit, he and Margaret get into a brief verbal dispute—taken far more seriously by Margaret—about the differences between the North and the South. As you mentioned in your letter, Northerners, represented here by Mr. Thornton, value hard work and the success that accompanies it. Margaret’s defense of the South seems to be that the poor people of the South are better off than those working for a living in Mr. Thornton’s mills. When she accuses him of making enemies of those who cannot achieve success, he gently corrects her by saying that those who are unsuccessful are not his enemies, but their own, and that if they are unhappy or impoverished, it’s because they were too self-indulgent at a previous point in their lives.

I don’t think either Margaret or Mr. Thornton have it quite right here. There are all too many examples of people who are born poor, live poor and die poor, despite any and all efforts to break the cycle. Salon had a great article this week about how our society, in recent years, has begun to criminalize poverty. 

And Margaret is over-romanticizing the poor people of the South. In “Our Mutual Friend,” we read about the watermen of London whose job was fishing usable things from the river, including bodies. And we’ve both learned about the conditions in which the children of London – chimney sweeps and urchins – lived. Surely these people were as miserable, if not more so, than the workers in Milton.

I’ve gotten super longwinded this time, so I’ll quit here. What are your thoughts on the Thorntons, and Margaret and Mr. Thornton’s argument, which we return to throughout the book?

Yours sincerely,

Mary Beth

Friday, July 29, 2011

"North and South," response to chapters I-IV

Dear Mary Beth,

I'm so glad you've posted already! I finished North and South two nights ago and have been eager to discuss it. I was planning on posting as I read the book (and pacing myself!), but alas, that didn't happen. I ended up racing through the novel and neglecting other things pretty badly. Then, when I finally decided to post, I realized that Eric had taken the iPad on his out-of-town trip, and I had read it as an ebook on our nifty little tablet (I wasn't able to find it in print from either of my usual outlets--the bookstore or the library, oddly enough). Fortunately, I had the wisdom to take notes for the first 12 chapters before I let myself get lost in the book.

I'd like to add a bit to your discussion of the title. I read that Elizabeth Gaskell had originally titled the novel Margaret Hale, but the publisher suggested North and South as a more appropriate title. I couldn't agree more. Not only does the title refer to the two main charters--Margaret represents the ways of the South while Mr. Thornton represents the North--but it highlights how different two regions of one country can be. I honestly never thought about it myself before, that the South was more fixated on the aristocracy and inherited wealth, while the North favored earning a higher rank in society through hard work. It makes sense, and I'm glad I read this novel if only to learn that one little thing.

It took me a while to really get into North and South. By starting out with Edith's wedding, and with Edith being such a flake, I was wondering what kind of novel this would be. Then Henry Lennox's proposal! I was quite surprised to come across a proposal so early on, and I though Henry would become the "love interest," but then his character seemed to fade into the background, as did Edith.

You mentioned the similarity between North and South and Pride and Prejudice (even the titles have parallels!); I noticed that immediately as well. In fact, my first reaction upon finishing the novel was that North and South was a rip-off of Pride and Prejudice, but I think the former is too complex to make that a fair judgement. You mentioned finding Mrs. Shaw similar to Mrs. Bennett, which I honestly had not thought of. I had, however, immediately compared Mr. Hale to Mr. Bennett in that they're both weak and unable or unwilling to deal with their own responsibility (Mr. Bennett and Lydia, Mr. Hale and his decision to leave the Church). But I found another novel to compare North and South to, at least in some ways: The Mill on the Floss. To me, Mrs. Hale is a pre-existing version of Mrs. Tulliver. Both women married men who disappointed them later in life, and both women dishonored their families and themselves by failing to take responsibility for their decisions and make the best of their situations. Instead, both women make their daughters miserable, albeit Mrs. Tulliver moreso than Mrs. Hale.

Speaking of Mr. Hale's decision to leave the Church, I found that part incredibly confusing. Upon doing some minor research (Wikipedia, I admit it), I found out that Elizabeth Gaskell's husband did the same thing upon converting to a Unitarian. I felt much more comfortable with the novel upon learning that, and it added a bit of scandal to the Hales' situation as well. Mr. Hale's religious doubts weren't the only thing I found confusing, though. What is the deal with Frederick's mutiny and following exile? I became more comfortable with this aspect of the novel as well once it was explained, but I still find it an odd side-plot.

Finally, I wholeheartedly agree with your suggestion that this is a novel best read through a Marxist lens. I, too, often default to a feminist reading of just about everything, but there simply wasn't much to go on in North and South (although I got really sick of all Margaret's crying by the end of the novel, sheesh). Marxism, on the other hand, is all over the place. I don't know how anyone could read North and South without focusing on the labor, class, and social-status issues, and I think this is the aspect of the book that I enjoyed the most. In fact, I have always been fascinated by both gender and class issues, whether in literature, film, or modern-day life. I just find them so pervasive, and it is particularly so in North and South.

Well, I knew this was going to be a long post, but I really was hoping to do more than just respond to your points on the first four chapters. North and South seems to get more and more complex as I think about it, and I think it is an excellent choice for our blog, especially as a follow-up to Shirley. I've been meaning to read this novel for years now (ever since Dr. Gergits's Victorian lit class), and Netflix has been suggesting the 2004 BBC mini-series to me for about as long. I've resisted thus far, though sorely tempted, but am happy to say that having finished the novel, I'm finally off to start watching the mini-series. Let's hope we get further into the novel in laters posts than we did in the first round!

Your Friend,

Thursday, July 28, 2011

"North and South," Chapters I-IV

Dear Amber,

Upon hearing that the next selection for our Victorian books blog was “North and South,” my husband assumed that it was about the Civil War. I explained that having been published between 1854-55, the Civil War hadn’t even taken place yet. But I imagine that’s a misconception a lot of people might have about this book, especially since John Jakes wrote a book in 1982 called “North and South” that was about the Civil War and was later turned into a popular miniseries.

The reason I start out talking about misconceptions is that Elizabeth Gaskell begins her book in a way that could easily lead the reader to misunderstand what the book is about. We meet our main character, Margaret Hale, living with her well-off aunt and cousin, helping with the preparations for her cousin Edith’s wedding. It’s a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a Jane Austen novel — in fact, Aunt Shaw is reminiscent of Mrs. Bennett in “Pride and Prejudice,” with her imagined complaints and her skewed view of marriage and romance. (Be warned, this won’t be the last time you’ll hear me comparing “N&S” to “P&P” — despite the fact that we picked this book due to its similarities to “Shirley,” I keep finding myself thinking, “This is a lot like ‘P&P.’”)

However, the wedding takes place off stage, and Margaret is quickly whisked away to her parents’ home in Helstone (a place not to be confused with Caroline Helstone, with whom we spent so much time while reading “Shirley”). At Helstone, Margaret lives much more modestly than she did as companion to her cousin for so many years, but she seems not to care too much for the fashionable society she left behind and is happy to be home and reunited with her parents.

Things aren’t as blissful at home as she had imagined, though, since her father, a minister, is distracted and troubled by some unknown worry, and her mother is constantly complaining about Helstone and its “poor air.”
Margaret is hardly settled in before Mr. Henry Lennox, brother to her cousin Edith’s new husband, arrives for a visit and ultimately declares his love for Margaret and proposes marriage. Astounded by this, Margaret refuses him none too gently, and Mr. Lennox leaves, hurt, but unconvinced that Margaret is completely indifferent to him.

Here we have fodder for an entire novel — the contrast between life in London and life as the daughter of a country preacher; a suitor scorned, but who may yet convince his lady to reconsider. It’s “Sense and Sensibility” meets “Pride and Prejudice.” But we’re only on chapter IV, and Gaskell hasn’t even sprung the true plot of the book on us yet! See what I mean about misconceptions?

The true plot of the book begins while Margaret is still reeling from Mr. Lennox’s unexpected proposal. (Unexpected to Margaret only, I have to say. I knew as soon as Mr. Lennox appeared in chapter I that he was in love with Margaret.) Margaret’s father, Mr. Hale, confesses to her that he has been having doubts, so he can no longer be a minister and the family will be leaving Helstone in two weeks’ time for the factory town of Milton-Northern, where Mr. Hale would work as a tutor.


I was so perplexed by Mr. Hale’s vague description of his reasons for leaving the ministry that I did something I almost never do when reading Victorian literature: I read the introduction. Rather, I skimmed it to find an explanation for Mr. Hale’s behavior.

I usually don’t read introductions because they’re full of spoilers. Yes, I realize that “N&S” was written a century and a half ago, but the first time I read a book, I do want to be surprised as I go along, and the intros to classic books tend to give everything away. But this time, I needed more information. Alas, my introduction was at first less than helpful: “It is not important to know exactly what Mr. Hale’s doubts were …” But it explained that Mr. Hale considered himself aligned with the Dissenters of the 17th and 18th centuries, and that his beliefs seemed to lean toward Unitarianism, not Anglicanism, which was why he could no longer be a minister in the Church of England.

Once Mr. Hale has dropped his bombshell on Margaret, he asks something of her that I consider cowardly and inexcusable: he wants Margaret to tell Mrs. Hale that they’re leaving Helstone. He has come to the decision to uproot his family without consulting them. He is moving them to a less desirable place where they will live in reduced circumstances, and he has the nerve to ask his daughter to be the one to break the news to his wife.

I have to say, at this point in the book, I don’t have a very high opinion of any of the characters. Mr. Hale is spineless. Mrs. Hale is whiny, as is Aunt Shaw. Edith is spoiled. And Margaret is too perfect and innocent. I liked Henry Lennox, but he’s gone to lick his wounds after Margaret’s refusal.

But despite Gaskell’s misdirection in the first chapters and my grievances with the characters, I’m really enjoying “N&S.”

So what are your thoughts on the beginning of “N&S?” And have you settled on a critical perspective to view the book through? I can’t seem to get a handle on my usual feminist perspective — Margaret doesn’t strike me as a feminist heroine. I suppose a Marxist perspective would be the most logical choice. What do you think?

I’m looking forward to our discussions of this book!

Yours sincerely,

Mary Beth

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Ending of "Shirley"

Dear Mary Beth,

I'll give my reflections on the ending of Shirley by discussing the fates of its two main characters, Shirley and Caroline.

You mentioned that part of Shirley's disappointment in Robert's proposal was because she was probably aware of Caroline's feelings for Robert. I agree with you. Shirley and Caroline know each other quite well by the end of the novel. And Caroline seems to be the only person (other than Shirley) who sees Shirley's feelings for Louis. Caroline tells Robert, in Chapter 35 when he's confessing to his proposal to Shirley, that she thinks Shirley is in love with someone who has not yet made Shirley an offer. Clearly Caroline is referring to Louis. If Caroline can pick up on Shirley's feelings for Louis after such a short time, then surely Shirley is aware of Caroline's feelings for Robert, which have been obvious for the entire novel.

As for Shirley and Louis's relationship, I suppose I see things a bit differently than you do. I don't think Louis sees himself as unworthy of Shirley (at least, no moreso than any Victorian man sees himself as unworthy of the woman he loves); rather, I think Louis is painfully aware of the class/fortune differences between the two, and the likely objection of Shirley's uncle to such a match (and geez, is he right, yikes). Louis always seemed to me to be very self-confident, self-aware, and socially aware, not to mention very intelligent. As for Shirley, I don't see her as giving up her purpose to marry Louis. Sure, she backs off on the running of Fieldhead, as she confesses to Louis after they're married, but I think she did that to give Louis a chance to step up and be seen as her equal by the people at Fieldhead and in the community. I imagine the two of them running the show together before long.

As for Caroline's fate, it reminds me quite a bit of Jane Eyre's. Both women long for more than an ordinary life but end up in seemingly ordinary endings with their husbands. I find both endings a bit difficult to reconcile with the feminist messages that precede them. However, I tell myself that Charlotte Bronte felt the need to give the reader happy endings to sort of sugar-coat her message. At the same time, Robert indicates that he hopes to build up the community around his mill should he continue to be successful, and that Caroline will teach Sunday school, and Caroline and Shirley may someday run a day school for the children of Robert's workers. I think such an arrangement would suit both women particularly well, especially given some of the points you have made about their characters.

Feel free to have another go at the ending of Shirley. There's no such thing as being done discussing something when it comes to Charlotte Bronte! On the other hand, there's also the burning question, what do we read and discuss next? I'll leave the choice up to you!

Your Sincere Friend,

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Shirley, Chapters XXV-XXXVII

Dear Amber,

I think that while we’re meant to think that Caroline’s illness is the result of pining over Robert Moore, it’s really a culmination of all the things we’ve been talking about with regard to Caroline – her lack of purpose and the benign neglect she’s subjected to growing up in her uncle’s care. She also seems to be a person who needs someone to love and care for – and I think this is why Robert’s apparent indifference wounds her so much. As we’ve read, she’s developed detailed fantasies of what it would be like to be Robert’s wife and to care for him. Shirley cannot fill this need for her because she is so supremely independent.

Caroline’s yearning for a mother, which she had also expressed prior to her illness, is not only a wish to be mothered, but a wish to do some mothering of her own. Indeed, she acts on this almost immediately upon learning that Mrs. Pryor is her mother – “lecturing” Mrs. Pryor on fashion and declaring that she should have a new dress.

This is a side of Caroline we have not seen prior to this – Caroline in charge, Caroline being “bossy.” This interlude with Mrs. Pryor and Caroline sets up the interaction between Robert Moore and Caroline later.

After Robert is shot and is convalescing in the Yorke home, Caroline conspires with young Martin Yorke to sneak into the home to visit Robert. We could not imagine the Caroline of the first part of the book, timid and shy, defying the inexorable triumvirate of the Mrs. Yorke, Hortense Moore and the brutish, drunken nurse, Miss Horsfall.

But what a reward Caroline receives for her daring! Robert Moore confesses that he has wished for her, and Caroline tells him that had she even dreamed that he would want to see her, she would have found a way to see him sooner. Again, could we imagine Caroline, prior to her illness, making such a bold declaration?

But let’s talk about Robert Moore for a while. As we have seen throughout the novel, Robert is a man of great ambition combined with a cool head and a willingness to do whatever it takes to get what he wants. Indeed, his actions can be considered cold at times – his actions seem heartless to the workers who lost their jobs when Robert decided to bring in the mechanized frames. He does not care about public opinion and shows that he is willing to literally back up his beliefs with firepower. Though he is not too proud to ask Shirley for financial backing, he does have a rather high opinion of himself. He even describes himself in mechanical terms to Mr. Yorke when describing his ill-fated proposal to Shirley: “The machinery of all my nature; the whole enginery of this human mill: the boiler, which I take to be the heart, is fit to burst.”

Before he can be considered worthy to have Caroline for his wife, he must be completely humbled – first, by Shirley.  He admits to Mr. Yorke that he proposed to Shirley not out of love but out of self-interest. He admired Shirley a great deal, but his only motive for marrying her was money. Shirley sees right through him (and notes that she respected and admired and liked him as a brother, for in her heart of hearts, she did want him as a brother!) and lambastes him for his mercenary impulses. I wonder, though, if some of Shirley’s disappointment is for Caroline’s sake. Surely she sensed Caroline’s affection for him.

Next he is humbled by injury and illness, left helpless to the mercies of Mrs. Yorke, his sister Hortense and Miss Horsfall. And it is at this time that he realizes who his true match is, and Caroline gets her happy ending.

What a contrast Robert Moore is to his brother, Louis! Though Louis is a man of keen intellect, patience and reserve, he does not think himself worthy of Shirley, whereas Robert Moore sees himself worthy of any woman, at least, until Shirley sets him straight. To wander into a different genre for a moment, Louis Moore reminds me of Remus Lupin — another man of keen intellect, patience and reserve who, due to poverty and lycanthrope, did not think himself worthy of a woman’s love.

What I find curious, though, is how after everything is settled and Shirley and Louis have declared their love for one another, Shirley becomes completely passive, leaving all decision-making to her fiancĂ©. I find this a little hard to swallow. As I mentioned in my last letter, Shirley was not a woman to whom housewifely pursuits came easily. She was too quickly bored with sewing, her housekeeper cheated her constantly, and so forth. Her real interest lay in the affairs of her estate. But if she gives those over to Louis, what is left for her to do? Shirley is a woman of energy and spirit, and though rich, never idle. It’s odd that at the end of the book, Caroline, who has longed for purpose, finds it, and Shirley abdicates hers.

Once again, I’ve grown long-winded, and I didn’t even touch on some of the things I wanted to address: All of Shirley’s proposals and the battle of wills with her uncle; the incident with the mad dog — based on a true story! — and Martin Yorke and the shifting of the narrative to his point of view during the chapters covering Caroline and Robert’s courtship.

I may have to come back and discuss these end chapters a little more!

In the meantime, what’s your take on the end of Shirley?

Sincerely yours,

Mary Beth

Friday, May 27, 2011

Shirley, Chapters XXV-XXX

Dear Mary Beth,

I think you made a very good point with the passage you quoted about Shirley not doing much with her gift. The Bronte sisters are certainly not the only literary greats whose destitution drove them to write. Dickens and Poe come immediately to mind, but of course there are many others. So although the Bronte sisters endured much misery in their lives, the world is a much better place because of it. These writers driven to the pen out of need were fortunate enough in their misfortune to have had the requisite education needed to write what they did. As you pointed out, how many people had that same potential and education but lived in luxury and thus had not the need to make money by writing? And how many more had the potential and the need to make money, but not the education to make them literate? How many geniuses have gone utterly undiscovered simply because of their situations? I suppose we should be grateful for the ones history produced for us.

As for this section of the novel, I think there are some important things going on here. First, we find out (as does Caroline) that Mrs. Pryor is actually Caroline's mother. After this revelation, Caroline's health immediately begins to improve. I think this is significant because it shows that Caroline's illness is not just the result of her pining after Robert (I admit, that's what it seemed to me at first). It's much bigger than that and gives, I think, Caroline's character more depth.

Shirley, too, has a lot going on in these chapters. Her family comes to visit, including the family tutor, Louis Moore, who is also Robert's brother. Thus begins a parade of suitors before Shirley and pressure for her to marry as soon as possible. The major hint of where her heart truly lies, though, comes when she is bitten by a dog. She fears she now has rabies and will die soon but tells no one what happened, despite the obvious change in her disposition. No one, that is, but Louis. She tells him the truth. We find out in the following chapter that Louis is in love with Shirley and begin to suspect that she returns his affections.

Louis's arrival in the novel made me realize that Charlotte seems to include doubling consistently in her novels. When Caroline first sees Louis approach Robert and Hortense's house, she thinks it is Robert but at the same time knows it is not. They also both have a relationship of some kind with Shirley. Robert mistakenly thinks that Shirley loves him, but it is Louis that she truly loves. There is some doubling with Caroline and Shirley, too. Shirley is, as I've mentioned before, what Caroline wants to be. Robert even proposes to Shirley (as is revealed in this section) although he has all along loved Caroline. There is also some doubling in Charlotte's other novels, famously in Jane Eyre with Jane and Bertha, and in Villette with Lucy and Polly. I think it's particularly interesting in Shirley that there is doubling with both men and women, whereas in Charlotte's other novels (and in most novels of the period), the doubling is limited to female characters, a reflection of the Victorian attitude that women are essentially interchangeable.

I think it's time to wrap up this letter. I'll let you finish off the final 7 chapters of this wonderful book and be the first to give your opinion of the ending. Before I do, though, I'll prod you with the cliffhanger from the end of chapter 30: Robert is shot by one of the workers!

Your Friend,

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Shirley, Chapters XVIII-XXIV

Dear Amber,

At long last, I’m revisiting Shirley again!

You’ve summed up those less exciting middle chapters (XV-XXI) nicely, so I won’t go into those too much. I have two points: first, “Which the Genteel Reader is Recommended to Skip, Low Persons Being Here Introduced” is a such a great name for a chapter. I don’t really associate Charlotte Bronte with humor, but there’s a sly wit about chapter titles like that one, and as we will later encounter, “Wherein Matters make some Progress, but not much.”

Second, Charlotte’s description of Caroline’s despair in chapter XX is almost painful in its accuracy. It immediately brings to mind those dark times in my own life when I felt exactly that way. And as much of Shirley does, it reminded me of Charlotte’s own life, and what she must have been going through when she was writing this part of the book. According to the timeline in my book, Charlotte finished the first volume of Shirley – chapters I-XI – in September 1848. Branwell Bronte died Sept. 24, 1848, and of course, Emily followed just a few months later. Charlotte went back to her writing after Emily’s death, but of course, Anne became ill and died in May of 1849. According to “The Life of Charlotte Bronte,” Charlotte picked up with chapter XXV after Anne’s death.

I can’t read the middle section of this book, especially the chapters dealing with Caroline’s long illness, without thinking of Charlotte and her siblings. How many nights did Charlotte sit up with a sick sister, like Mrs. Pryor did with Caroline? I’m reminded, too, of how Charlotte became the “woman of the family” after losing two older sisters, her mother, and her Aunt Branwell. Like Caroline, she must have longed for a mother – someone to comfort her through all the tragedies and heartbreaks she endured. Caroline’s prayer is granted, and she pulls through because she has her mother at her side at long last. Charlotte, however, must soldier on alone, having given her literary doppelganger the happiness she could never have.

But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. There’s an interesting part in chapter XXII I’d like to touch on.

As I mentioned before, I’ve read that Shirley Keeldar is an idealized version of Emily Bronte. And in chapter XXII, Charlotte describes Shirley in more detail than we’ve had before. We learn that Shirley is restless. Sitting and sewing quietly are practically impossible for her; she greatly prefers visiting the animals on her estate and talking to her foreman, John. Shirley enjoys reading, but again, sitting still is not her forte. Instead, she lies on the rug, like a child, with her dog beside her. She is imaginative and keenly appreciative of beauty, but Charlotte makes a point of noting that Shirley does nothing with this gift of seeing all that is good and wonderful in the world. She writes:

“If Shirley were not an indolent, a reckless, an ignorant being, she would take a pen at such moments; or at least while the recollection of such moments was yet fresh on her spirit: she would seize, she would fix the apparition, tell the vision revealed. Had she a little more of the organ of Acquisitiveness in her head – a little more of the love of property in her nature, she would take a good-sized sheet of paper and write plainly out, in her own queer but clear and legible hand, the story that has been narrated, the song that has been sung to her, and thus possess what she was enabled to create. But indolent she is, reckless she is, and most ignorant, for she does not know her dreams are rare – her feelings peculiar: she does not know, has never known, and will die without knowing, the full value of that spring whose bright fresh bubbling in her heart keeps it green.”
So if the Bronte sisters had been better off in health and wealth, would we not have Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, and our Shirley? Charlotte seems to be saying that Shirley’s leisure makes it unnecessary for her to pursue her inborn gift of creativity, while the Bronte sisters turn to writing for a living only when the other avenues open to them fail to be fruitful. If Shirley, the idealized Emily, is not inspired to write, does this mean Charlotte believes that in better circumstances, Emily’s genius would have gone untapped as well?

And yet, writing was in the Brontes’ blood, as evidenced by the thick volume of juvenilia currently residing on my bookshelf. Before it became a means of making a living, writing was an engaging pastime for the young Brontes. Was it because they grew up poor in Haworth Parsonage? Does Charlotte believe that poverty nourishes genius and talent better than wealth?

 I’m getting long-winded again, so I’ll leave off here for now.

Yours sincerely,

Mary Beth

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Shirley Chapters XV-XXI

Dear Mary Beth,

I have been done with Shirley for about a month now, but it lingers in my thoughts. It's one of those books that makes me hesitant to begin a new one because the next book couldn't possibly be as good as Shirley (though I have read a handful of nonfiction books in the meantime).

I agree with you--we are both lucky to be women of the twenty-first century! I get all riled up when I read comments or reviews of period films where (obviously naive) women say things like, "I wish I lived back then with all those handsome men and pretty dresses!" Puh-lease! I think Shirley is a painfully accurate picture of how miserable and pointless life was for many Victorian women.

Speaking of pointlessness, I feel that the timing of my reading and contemplating Shirley is significant. Since leaving school in December, I haven't worked a single day. At first, I had plenty to do: researching the job market, putting together resumes and cover letters, catching up on some reading I wanted to do, and getting to other things that I had put off. But by now, I'm only sending out a couple of job applications a week (sometimes not even that), and quite frankly, I'm getting tired of reading so much. I am beginning to feel a lot like Caroline--reluctant to get out of bed and craving a sense of purpose. Also, like Caroline, I'm trying to put myself to good use: I'm researching and applying to volunteer opportunities in Cincinnati.

Back to what's happening in Shirley. To be honest, this part of the novel was my least favorite section, and it took some slogging to get through it. The part about the school feast was particularly uninteresting to me. I suppose it was just Charlotte ramping up and feeding everyone's expectations that Robert would marry Shirley. However, I think there are two important events in this section. The first is pretty obvious--the attack on Robert's mill. The attack sets in motion the chain of events that continue through the rest of the novel and makes the townspeople even more convinced that a wedding is immanent. The other important event is when Mrs. Pryor opens up to Caroline about her marriage and about being a governess. Mrs. Pryor also reveals just how much she cares for Caroline (side note: I knew about the true relationship between Caroline and Mrs. Pryor when I got to this point) and invites Caroline to come live with her. For me, this was the first time that Mrs. Pryor seemed like a real person; until then, Charlotte had portrayed her as more of a robot.

We're coming up on the last third of the novel, which I think is the most exciting part in many ways. I'm anxious to read what you have to say about it, and I'll let you lead the charge. Onwards!

Most Sincerely Yours,

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Shirley, Chapters X-XV

Dear Amber,

At long last – a letter! I am pretty far along in “Shirley,” but I’ll respond to your last letter before we move along to the next chapters.

I love your idea of the characters Caroline meets in these chapters we’re discussing as “future Carolines,” and I wonder if, as she was writing, Charlotte thought of them as “future Charlottes.” Like Caroline, Charlotte was separated from the man she loved, Constantin Heger (though there was the additional obstacle of his wife …), and the words she wrote could have applied to her own situation as well as Caroline’s. Like Caroline, she sought some sort of employment to occupy her mind as well as to support herself and her family. She and her sister, Anne, spent time working as governesses, and I wonder if her caution to readers to be more understanding of “old maids,” was also a gentle “note to self” that she, too, was likely to go down that path. (Actually, she was probably already thought of as an “old maid,” since she was in her early 30s when she wrote “Shirley.”)

I do love Caroline, though. When faced with heartbreak and ennui, she picks herself up and determines to do as much good as she can, following in the example of Miss Ainley and Miss Mann. Despite the fact that she likely already knew the answer she was going to get from her uncle when she asked him about working as a governess, she faces him anyway and states her situation plainly and clearly. Though her wishes are denied, she soldiers on, believing that she can never be happy again, but that perhaps she won’t be in such misery forever.

And at last, we meet our title character!

I think Shirley Keeldar is the reason I got so mad at Emily Bronte when I read “The Life of Charlotte Bronte.” If this vibrant, energetic, confident character is what Emily Bronte was like, it makes it all the more infuriating that she essentially committed slow suicide through stubbornness and neglect.

My favorite chapter in the book so far is “Shirley and Caroline,” where we get to see these two very opposite characters connecting and watch their friendship blossom. I know the feeling they discuss, of being in perfect harmony with a person and knowing that a third party would change the flavor of the outing. This chapter reads so true to life. I can think of countless conversations with my closest friends where we talked about the same things – marriage, the future, careers, the lives of mutual acquaintances.

And not even a man can come between this friendship – when Caroline realizes that Robert Moore would be a likely suitor for Shirley, it does not mar their relationship, though Caroline does avoid Shirley for a day.
Again, I wonder how autobiographical this is. Caroline tells 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 outrival, with which even love itself cannot do more than compete in force and truth. … I am supported and soothed when you – that is you only – are near, Shirley.” It makes me want to be a fly on the wall at the Haworth parsonage, and it makes me feel all the more for Charlotte, losing her brother and two sisters in such a short period of time.
In these chapters, I switched my Marxist perspective for my feminist perspective again, which ties into your observations about Shirley’s gender-bending. There’s such a strong cry for purpose for women. Caroline nearly makes herself sick due to want of purpose. Shirley’s circumstances allow her to act as a man in a man’s world, and she knows this allows her to get away with things that no other woman could do.

In addition to our Bronte read-along, I’ve been reading Gillian Gill’s “We Two,” a biography of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Victoria finds herself in similar circumstances to Shirley – inheriting property / a kingdom solely due to a lack of male heirs and being allowed to interact in a man’s world as a result. Victoria and Shirley are examples of how women can thrive and even prosper when they are able to do what’s usually considered “man’s work.” And Caroline falls into the same category as George Eliot’s poor Maggie Tulliver – a cautionary tale (and God knows how many more there were in Victorian Britain) of what can become of repressed and oppressed women.

Aren’t you glad that we’re women of the 21st century?

Yours sincerely,

Mary Beth

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Shirley, Chapters X-XIV

Dear Mary Beth,

I, too, love to hear other people's interpretations of and ideas about a story, and that's why I love this project and why I've always loved literature classes. Books are always better when read and discussed with others. There are so many facets of meaning that one reading--or even one person doing multiple readings--will never reveal them all. Like you, I often read through a feminist lens, though I often have an eye for gender issues in general and class struggles as well. I enjoy discussing literature with you because of our similar reading perspectives, but our differences make it interesting as well.

This section of "Shirley" is, I believe, the critical part of the novel, the events that shape the rest of it. The novel prior to this part is all set-up and after is all Caroline's reaction and development as a result (although I obviously haven't finished yet--so this is part theory). It all starts with Mr. Helstone and Mr. Moore having  a political disagreement, prompting Helstone to forbid Caroline from visiting, seeing, writing to, or interacting with her cousins. Caroline is devastated, although she doesn't show it. She's in love with Mr. Moore and enjoyed learning under Hortense's instruction. Now, Caroline begins to question her very existence: "What was I created for, I wonder? Where is my place in the world?" Shortly thereafter, Caroline meets several women, who I like to refer to as "potential future Carolines."

(Before I get into these women, I'd like to point out that Mr. Helstone is completely oblivious to Caroline's unhappiness and doesn't want to be bothered by it. Caroline asks him if she can look for a position as a governess, explaining that she needs some purpose to her life, but he quickly dismisses her wish, telling her to "run away and amuse [herself]." Poor Caroline. I can see how this character could have been modeled after one of the Bronte sisters.)

The first woman is Miss Ainley, an old maid that Caroline is acquainted with but never really paid much attention to (much like everyone else). Caroline pays Miss Ainley a charity visit but realizes that the old maid is a good, kind woman who has devoted her life to the service of others. Caroline then visits another old maid, Miss Mann, who isn't as pleasant as Miss Ainley but also isn't as bad as the men make her out to be. The narrator sums up Caroline's lesson well: "Reader! when you behold an aspect for whose constant gloom and frown you cannot account, whose unvarying cloud exasperates you by its apparent causelessness, be sure that there is a canker somewhere, and a canker not the less deeply corroding because concealed." The old maids are possible future versions of Caroline because she has decided that she will never marry if she can't marry Mr. Moore.

The next woman that Caroline meets is Shirley, along with her governess, Mrs. Pryor. Shirley has recently come of age (she's 21) and moves into the property she inherited. Mr. Helstone wants Caroline to meet Shirley, thinking it will lift her spirits. Shirley is independently wealthy and thus has no need to marry to survive. Mr. Helstone intends to provide for Caroline, even after his death, but she would never be rich like Shirley. Shirley regularly talks business with the men of the town and conducts business herself. One of the men Shirley does business regularly is her tenant, Mr. Moore, and the two take an instant liking to each other, something Caroline immediately notices. Despite a possible love triangle, Caroline and Shirley quickly become close friends. At this point, Shirley has and is everything Caroline wants.

Mrs. Pryor seems to be a significant figure, even though she's "just" a governess. She instantly likes Caroline, despite her (Mrs. Pryor's) picky nature. As a governess, Mrs. Pryor tries to talk Caroline out of the trade, citing hardships. It is known that Mrs. Pryor was married, but that she doesn't talk about her marriage and that she shares Mr. Helstone's views of the institution: foolish. Again, another "potential future Caroline." After meeting all of these women and learning about the very different lives they lead, Caroline has a lot to think about.

I don't mean to change subjects so abruptly, but this letter is getting long, and I have one more thing to discuss with you. I have noticed that Charlotte Bronte likes to do a little gender-bending in her novels. We saw it in "Jane Eyre" when Rochester dressed up as a gypsy woman and tricked his guests, including (the least-duped, however) Jane. We saw it in "Villette" when Lucy was dressed as a man for the play and flirted pretty aggressively with Ginerva. We see it now in "Shirley" as well. When Helstone and Caroline meet Shirley, she explains her name (a man's name at the time): "They gave me a man's name; I hold a man's position. It is enough to inspire me with a touch of manhood; and when I see people...before me, gravely talking to me of business, really I feel quite gentlemanlike." Helstone plays along, referring to Shirley as "he" and "him" to Mrs. Pryor and addressing Shirley as "Mr. Keeldar" and "Captain Keeldar." (In other respects, however, Shirley is pretty feminine. She's attractive and wears fancy dresses.) To the modern reader, these things would probably go unnoticed, but to the very strict and uptight Victorians, it would have been unsettling at the very least.

I'm anxious to see what effects the different women of the novel have on Caroline, although it appears that Shirley will have the greatest effect. I just hope that Caroline's lot improves soon; her low spirits are described in such detail and with such emotion that it actually taints my mood for a short time after I put the book down. I am, however, always eager to pick it back up again.

Your Friend,

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Shirley, Chapters V-IX

Dear Amber,

What I love about literature and this project of ours is how two people can read the same text and end up reading two different things. I was so absorbed in the labor aspects - looking at "Shirley" through the lens of Marxist criticism, I suppose - that I completely missed the strongly feminist thread that you picked up on. (Incidentally, if I have one regret about my graduate school education, it's that I didn't take any classes in literary criticism. I did know enough to know that I usually approach things from a deeply feminist angle, which makes my sudden oblivion all the more unusual.)

I'm reminded of what must have been going on in Charlotte's life to bring out that bitterness - if I'm remembering correctly, she was writing "Shirley" at the time when the reading public was in a furor to know who Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell were, whether they were different people, or one author writing under three different names, and whether or not the authors might actually be women. Not to mention the fact that Charlotte had been told by Robert Southey, the poet whom she admired, that "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life." Then you have three young women who are trying to bring in some kind of income when that sort of business was the responsibility of men, and the only respectable career for a young woman was to be a governess or to teach, options that didn't work out well for the Bronte sisters. It was bound to bring about frustration, and I think that's what we see in these early chapters of "Shirley."

You are absolutely right about the rich characterization we see in "Shirley," and these four chapters bring us some of the best examples. First we have Robert Moore, his sister Hortense and Caroline Helstone. I really find myself identifying with Caroline - when she's with people she's comfortable around, she opens up and isn't afraid to take Robert to task over what she perceives are his main character flaws. But when she's faced with guests for tea in "The Curates at Tea," she inwardly wishes for an evening alone (or with Robert) while putting on the best face possible. Her discomfort during the tea is obvious, but she tries to soldier on - I've been there!

As for Robert Moore, these chapters give us two sides of him - first we have the gentleman at home, entertaining his young cousin. He is revealed through Caroline's observations and his own actions to be gentle and kind, though he's firm in his opinions. But when confronting Moses Barraclough, he's stubborn to a fault. Yes, Barraclough was in the wrong and deserved to be punished, but Robert's reaction to William Farren is overly harsh. He is speaking in the heat of the moment, and as we see in the next chapter, once he's calmed down, Robert wants to do what he can for Farren, but that quick flash of temper seals Farren's negative opinion of him.

This again made me think of how relevant this story is today - that clash between laborers who need to make a living for their families and the business owners who are trying to run a successful business. The needs of the workers and the needs of the business owners are unfortunately mutually exclusive in the case of Robert Moore and William Farren and in too many circumstances today.

And I agree with you that the characterization of William Farren is exceptional - and he's not even a main character! That's the mark of a truly great author, I think - when even the most minor characters seem to live and breathe. I'm reminded again and again why I love this book!

I'm a bit behind on my reading, so I will leave it up to you to move us along to the next chapters. I'm looking forward to seeing what you think of Shirley Keeldar. (Another thing that just struck me - I remember reading somewhere that a good author introduces the main characters within the first few chapters of the book. And here we are, 10 chapters in without meeting the book's namesake! Yet I wouldn't say that anything is lacking in these chapters. Literary genius is the exception that proves the rule, I suppose!)

Yours sincerely,

Mary Beth

Friday, February 25, 2011

Shirley through Chapter VIII

Dear Mary Beth,

I enjoyed your letter in its long-winded entirety. Though I am not drinking a hot beverage while writing this, as you did, I rarely ever sit down to read without making myself a cup of tea first. There's just something about a hot beverage that goes great with literature.

I cannot think of a more appropriate author to begin this project with than Charlotte Bronte. As you know, I'm new to Shirley but dearly love (and have extensively studied) Jane Eyre. I originally bought my copy of Shirley (which, oddly enough, does not have endnotes, but if it did have endnotes, I would use them as you do--chapter by chapter) from the famous Strand Bookstore in New York City on a trip there in 2009 and have been meaning to read it ever since. Charlotte Bronte (as well as Anne and Emily) has been a huge influence in my intellectual life, and so far Shirley seems even more Charlotte than Jane Eyre did.

One of the first things I noticed in Shirley was its biting criticism of Victorian attitudes toward women. The first passage that really struck me is too long to quote in its entirety but occurs in Chapter VII when Caroline notices Robert's increasingly cool behavior toward her. The passage begins: "A lover masculine so disappointed can speak and urge explanation, a lover feminine can say nothing; if she did, the result would be shame and anguish, inward remorse for self-treachery." Several lines down, the passage becomes almost disturbing: "You held out your hand for an egg, and fate put into it a scorpion. Show no consternation; close your fingers firmly upon the gift; let it sting through your palm. Never mind; in time, after your hand and arm have swelled and quivered long with torture, the squeezed scorpion will die, and you will have learned the great lesson how to endure without a sob." The pain and anger in this passage can only have come from the tragedies and difficulties of Charlotte's life. Just a few pages later, the omniscient narrator is plumbing the depths of Mr. Helstone's (one of your not-so-wonderful clergymen) mind while the Sykes women are visiting him:

"At heart he could not abide sense in women. He liked to see them as silly, as light-headed, as vain, as open to ridicule as possible, because they were then in reality what he held them to be--inferior, toys to play with, to amuse a vacant hour, and to be thrown away.... Hannah was his favorite. Harriet, though beautiful, egotistical, and self-satisfied, was not quite weak enough for him. She had some genuine self-respect amidst much false pride....Hannah, on the contrary, demanded no respect, only flattery."

In Chapter IX, when Robert Moore is visiting the Yorke family, the topic of marriage comes up, and Martin Yorke, the youngest of the three Yorke sons (his age is not given, but the oldest boy is fourteen) has this to say: "I mean to always hate women. They're such dolls; they do nothing but dress themselves finely, and go swimming about to be admired. I'll never marry. I'll be a bachelor." Clearly, Charlotte is trying to make a point with all these passages; I'm anxious to see how these attitudes play out in the rest of the novel.

The second thing about Shirley that seems so very Charlotte to me is how vivid and real the characters are. Most fiction I read, even the very good fiction, leaves me with some level of awareness that I am indeed reading fiction--that the characters don't exist and everything about them comes from someone's mind. But with Charlotte's works, I always have a hard time believing that the characters aren't real, even the minor characters like William Farren. They are as real to me--sometimes more real, even--than people I actually know. As you mentioned, Charlotte drew on her sisters and herself for many of her novels' characters, but there is an even greater magic at work here.

I agree with your assessment that many of the issues in Shirley are still relevant today. Robert Moore wants to use machinery to cut back on his labor costs; his laid-off former workers respond by destroying the equipment before it gets to Moore's mill. Today, most companies, and even government offices and non-profit organizations are looking for ways to cut costs and save money, while many people have given up on trying to find new work and lay the blame on their former employers or big corporations in general.

Socio-economic factors are also very apparent in Shirley, as they are in the minds of many today. Robert Moore seems contemptuous of his laid-off workers, unable to sympathize with them, with the exception of William Farren and his reasonable manner of approaching Robert. Charlotte makes the class status of her characters very clear (Jane is a governess, "poor, obscure, plain and little"), and, as you pointed out, tends to focus on the working class and their interactions with the middle and upper classes. This time around, she seems to her focus seems a bit opposite--the working class, while still playing a key role so far in the novel, is more in the background. Again, I'm interested to see where this goes.

So far, I'm really enjoying Shirley. I think Charlotte excels at third-person omniscient narration (as you pointed out, her first-person narrators are emotionally distant and often unreliable), making Shirley an engaging read. The women's issues that she brought up in Jane Eyre continue with gusto in this novel, and I'm anxious to see which side of Robert Moore (I haven't quite decided whether I like him yet) prevails.

Very Truly Yours,

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Shirley, Chapters I-IV

Dear Amber,
You'll have to forgive me, but I already feel that this letter is going to get long-winded. I made myself a cup of hot chocolate to drink while I wrote, and as I waited for the milk to heat, I just kept coming up with more and more things I wanted to write to you about.

First of all, I thought about how as much as things have changed since the mid-19th century, some things really haven't changed at all. I'm sitting at my desk, with a cup of hot chocolate, writing to a friend who lives too far away for me to see all that often. It's not hard to imagine Charlotte Bronte doing the same thing, writing to Anne and Emily while she was away teaching in Belgium, or writing to her friend Ellen Nussey from Haworth Parsonage ... the medium may have changed, but the basics are still there.

Now, I have something to confess. "Shirley" is my favorite Charlotte Bronte book. I know the expected answer is "Jane Eyre," or for those who are more scholarly, perhaps "Villette," but as you know, I've read "Shirley" before, and I fell in love with it. It seems to me that there's just more Charlotte in "Shirley." "Jane" and "Villette" and "The Professor" (which I've also been reading) have these sort of emotionally distant, first person narrators. They talk about all these terrible and wonderful things that happen to them, but yet they seem so removed from their own stories.

As I learned from reading the endnotes to my copy of "Shirley," and "The Life of Charlotte Bronte," (from now on to be abbreviated as "LOCB") the character of Shirley is essentially an idealized verson of Emily Bronte - she's Emily with health and without poverty. And Caroline Helstone is supposed to be an amalgam of Charlotte herself and her friend Ellen Nussey. Plus, "LOCB" contains such a heartbreaking account of how "Shirley" was written, and as I'm reading, I always have this picture in my head of Charlotte and the things that were going on in her life and her sitting at her desk writing. She just seems so much more real to me as I read "Shirley." (This is a topic that I will definitely be revisiting in later letters.)

(By the way, what is your opinion of endnotes and how do you use them? I love endnotes, but I can't flip back and forth to them while I'm in the middle of a chapter. What I usually do is read the chapter, then read all the endnotes for that chapter, then go back to the next chapter. When I read "LOCB," I actually had two bookmarks in use. One marked my place in the book, the other marked my place in the endnotes.)

(See, I told you I was going to be long-winded! I haven't even gotten to the book yet!)

OK. So on to the first few chapters.

Isn't it strange how in Victorian literature there are so many non-religious clergymen? (Of course, as soon as I started thinking about it, I could only think of the ones who really were religious and sincere about their calling: St. John Rivers, Edmund Bertram, Edward Ferrars ...) Now, I know it was a fact of life for men in Victorian England - the eldest son inherits, the second son belongs to the Church, and the third son goes to the Army. (In melodramatic fashion, I once imagined my life had I been living in a Jane Austen novel. Poor Mrs. W. would likely have been an invalid, and if she hadn't died of infectious fever when she was young, and she would have five children: James would inherit the estate, John would take orders and become a clergyman, and Albert would have to join the army. Or the navy, if he preferred. As for Mary and Elizabeth, she'd have to find them good husbands, perhaps a young man with 5,000 a year or so.)

Anyway, the three curates we meet in chapter I are not the sort of men I think I'd want tending to the hearts and minds of the poor country folk. I can't imagine them comforting a poor widow who'd just lost her husband, though I bet they'd know exactly which chapter and verse in the Bible instructs them to do so. I've known people like them - people who can debate a single arbitrary point for hours but miss the big picture. According to my endnotes, Charlotte Bronte modeled them after some of the curates who worked with her father, and again, my mind goes back those mid-19th century days. I can just imagine some of the people who knew Charlotte reading "Shirley" and being either amused or scandalized by her portrayal of these men, who were apparently easily identifiable.

I like Mr. Helstone, though, for all he's gruff and in the wrong profession and completely clueless when it comes to caring for Caroline. My endnotes say that he's partially based on Charlotte's father, Patrick.

The next few chapters reminded me how very relevant literature remains, no matter how much time has passed. In the early part of the 19th century, Luddites feared losing their jobs and being improved out of existence, so they broke Moore's new equipment. Nowadays, Moore would just move his factory to Mexico or India, where he'd be able to hire cheaper labor.

Which brings me to something that struck me in this reading of "Shirley" - it's unusual that Charlotte has chosen to tell her story from the point of view of those who are well off. In "Jane Eyre," "The Professor" and "Villette," the protagonist is impoverished - even penniless - and has to figure out how to make their way. Though it's stated that Robert Moore is not wealthy, he's clearly on his way to becoming wealthy. And his reaction to the destruction of his frames is ... underwhelming. He's annoyed, yes, and vows to bring the perpetrators to justice, but he takes it all in so calmly. He's even able to be amused at the animosity between Mr. Yorke (was there ever a character so thoroughly described?) and Mr. Helstone. Robert Moore is definitely a very focused businessman. He's faced with a setback, yes, but he takes it in stride and continues with his plan to move forward and to grow his business, whether the Luddites like it or not.

In this day and age, would Robert Moore be an admirable character? Because I like him. But wouldn't he be considered one of those "Big Business" guys today? Like I said before, in modern times, he'd probably have no qualms about picking up his operation and moving it to Mexico if it meant cheaper labor and more profits. Though maybe he'd be someone like Steve Jobs, always looking for the next innovation and forcing his employees to think not necessarily bigger, but better and smarter. I don't think Robert Moore would be an easy man to work for, but I respect him.

I feel like I've been writing and writing and writing and barely saying anything about these first few chapters. But what sticks out for me in reading "Shirley" are the characters and the people behind the characters - Charlotte and her family. These characters just seem so much like real people to me - much more so than the characters in Charlotte's other books.

So what did you think? Would you want to work for Robert Moore? Do you feel like you'd want to punch the good Mr. Malone, or is he just not worth the effort? And I can't remember, are there any Belgians in "Jane Eyre"? It's interesting how deeply that period in Brussels influenced Charlotte.

Yours sincerely (that sounds so Victorian, doesn't it?),

Mary Beth  

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Dear Reader

Dear Reader,

You may be wondering what "Literature in Letters" is all about. It's a simple story. After leaving graduate school, Victorian literature aficionados Mary Beth and Amber wanted a way to continue discussing the books they loved. They came up with the idea to start a blog about Victorian literature.

Why letters? Letters were the major source of communication between friends during the Victorian era. Mary Beth and Amber are now living about five hours apart, and they thought it would be appropriate and fun to discuss the books they're reading in the form of letters, as they would have done during Victorian times.

So what books will be discussed? The first book Amber and Mary Beth decided on was "Shirley" by Charlotte Bronte. Amber is reading "Shirley" for the first time, and Mary Beth is revisiting it as it's one of her favorite Bronte books. The books are chosen purely because Amber and Mary Beth want to read them, and any author who wrote or was popular during Victorian times is fair game.

We hope, dear reader, that you enjoy this project as much as we do.

Yours sincerely,

Mary Beth and Amber