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?