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