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