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,