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Review: "Shirley" by Charlotte Brontë

Shirley may be downloaded for free from our ebook catalog. It is also available in the compilation ebook The Brontë Collection.

Originally published in 1849, Shirley is the only of Charlotte Brontë’s novels to be set in a historical period before the novel was written. It takes place in Yorkshire, England during 1811–1812 in the midst of an industrial depression resulting from the Napoleonic wars. The story revolves around two heroines, Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar, and their relationships with the Moore brothers.

For those who enjoy novels with a bit of social history thrown in, such as works by George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell, then Shirley will definitely satisfy. Along with the history, Brontë also develops some interesting characters. The titular character isn't introduced until halfway through the novel, but she steals the show with her appearance. She's lovely but not beautiful, strong-willed but not overbearing. She loves animals (especially large dogs), is abrupt, direct, and develops intense and lasting relationships. The character is supposedly based on Emily Brontë but in the circumstance of a rich heiress. The other heroine, Caroline Helstone, is a pretty, quiet thing who starts out with promise until moroseness takes over her character. Knowing some of Charlotte Brontë's history--that three of her siblings died during the writing of this novel--it is no wonder that her resulting depression found an outlet, and that outlet was Caroline Helstone.

In another similarity to George Eliot's novels, minor characters abound. Drunk Irish curate, Malone, is a fun creation. As is Mr Yorke who is the only character to have two chapters named after him alone and whose entrance is the most memorable of the book. And let's not forget the half-Belgian mill owner, Robert Moore, whose repressed passion for Caroline and growing regard for Shirley (and her purse) form one of the novel's central plot lines.

Shirley was the last of Brontë opus I read, excluding Charlotte's unfinished manuscript Emma and their juvenilia. I had heard Shirley was long and some said boring, so I was prepared for some tough reading going into it. Perhaps because of this mental preparation, I enjoyed it immensely. I hope you will too.


  1. Nicola says:

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