Book Review: Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Bronte’s 1849 novel, Shirley, begins as follows:

Of late years, an abundant shower of curates has fallen upon the north of England:  they lie very thick on the hills; every parish has one or more of them; they are young enough to be very active, and ought to be doing a great deal of good.

Colons, commas, and semi-colons, oh my!  These kinds of sentences often put modern readers right off of reading any further, but I love them!  Anyway, I’m sure you don’t care much about me waxing poetic the beauty of a well structured complex sentence.

Bronte wrote four novels in her lifetime and Shirley is perhaps the most ambitious and the least popular.  The novel centers around several social conflicts of the early 19th century – labor disputes, the replacement of human workers with machines, women’s upward movement, and corruption of the clergy.  We also have the Napoleonic Wars as a backdrop.  Meanwhile, we follow two female leads, Caroline and Shirley, as they navigate the murky waters of love and marriage.

The novel’s strongest point is characterization.  You’ll fall in love with Caroline from the beginning just as you’ll fawn over Shirley once she is introduced somewhere after the first third of the novel.  The former is quietly strong , sincere, and caring – the latter fiercely stubborn, smart, and charismatic. Just when you think you’ve figured out who will end married to whom – you get thrown for a loop!

Unfortunately, the novel suffers from a lack of focus.  The first third of the story is fairly boring, doesn’t include the title character, and is forgotten for most of the last two/thirds.  No real action occurs until the last 100 pages or so.  Bronte’s ending just kind of fixes itself all of a sudden – perhaps she had bored herself long enough?  Who knows.

My final verdict is this:  If you like Bronte and other 19th century novels, you’ll like Shirley as well – but it won’t be your favorite.  If you’ve never been able to get through anything written around this time period before, Shirley will just end up another unfinished on your pile!

Rating:  3/5

Published:  1849

Pages :  560

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One thought on “Book Review: Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

  1. I read this a few years back and enjoyed it (I was overseas, and it was one of the few books I was able to find in English). I felt like Bronte’s characters in this one were more believable than in some of her other stories, and the whole labor movement backdrop was pretty neat.

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