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