1848 was the year of the Great Charter and widespread social unrest; Shirley was Bronte's attempt to widen the scope of her writing after having published Jane Eyre, an intensely subjective novel about the life of a governess. Bronte was also influenced by her friend Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton (1847), which had portrayed the emotions of John Barton, a Chartist, with at least limited sympathy. Although Bronte's novel vividly represents the limitations on Victorian middle-class women, however, it demonstrates how difficult it was for Bronte, as for most mid-Victorian writers, to portray working-class activism without resorting to stereotypes.
Book I, Chapters 1-4
What is the effect and tone of the opening paragraphs? Can you comment on some features of Bronte's narrative style? For what themes does the narrator seem to prepare us?
(anti-romantic manifesto, intends to discuss issues of work; preserves some comic distance from its characters)
How is Robert Moore described? (27) What is significant about his background and character? How does the novel's portrayal affect the reader's sympathy for his position? (25)
(contrasted with frivolous curates, seen as brave, solitary; curates don't wish to help him, 14; he resents gossip about his possible marriage, 23; is devoted to his business causes)
What are some contrasts between the characters of Malone and Moore? (19) Between Helstone and Moore?
(contrast between their politics, 37--Moore a Whig; in contrast with Yorke, he advocates what Bronte presents as moderate political views, 56-57))
What do we know about Moore's first hypothetical opponent? (16) In what other contexts do we first hear of working people? (30)
How does Joe Scott describe himself? (59-60)
Chapter 5, "Hollow's Cottage"
What do we first learn of Caroline Helstone's character, and how does the narrator's point of view affect our sympathies? (67)
How is Hortense presented, and what function does she serve in this chapter?
(Hortense prissy and self-righteous, domineering, unable to adjust to English life--again, we are expected to feel sympathy for a character from contrast. Otherwise perhaps Caroline might at first seem somewhat uninteresting.)
What can we tell of her Caroline's character and situation from her conversation?
(70, 71 generous; associated with love, warmth, romantic poetry; suggestions of submerged emotion, unsettled yet depressed)
What is the first question asked of Caroline? ("What life are you destined for, Caroline?" (71) Is she satisfied with the answer?
What form of education has she received? (French, fine needlework) What seems the narrator's attitude toward conventional female training of the period?
What is the significance of the scene in which she and Robert read Coriolanus?
(91, she attempts to persuade him to moderate his attitude, metaphors refer to her spontaneity, makes bold and direct attempt to reform hero)
Chapter 7, "The Curate at Tea"
What purpose is served by the preamble? (98)
What views of life are held by Caroline's uncle? (93, 98-99)
What do we learn of Caroline's parents, and what light does this cast on her own character? (103; her own goodwill more remarkable by contrast)
What is the significance of her outburst on the topic of rejection? (105)
Chapter 8, "Noah and Moses"
Who are Noah and Moses? (two members of the working-people's deputation) How is the working-people's delegation presented?
(133-135, leaders selfish and insincere, the only worker who is favorably portrayed is merely a member rather than a leader, 138, workers are originally meek persons altered by their poverty, 140)
How does Bronte's portrayal of the dissatisfied workers resemble/differ from that of Gaskell's Mary Barton? Charles Dickens' Hard Times?
From what you know of Chartist and labor unrest in the 1840s, how accurate do you think Bronte's portrayal of a labor conflict may have been?
How do different clergymen deal with the problems of workers? Which actions are seen as helpful?
(140-141, unlike the frivolous curates, the good one offers loans and alms)
Chapter 9, "Briarmains"
How are Wesleyans presented? (144ff.) What are some class implications of the narrative portrayal of Methodists?
What do we learn of Yorke family quarrels? What does Robert wish Mr. Yorke to do? (Hire Wiliam Farren)
What is significant about their discussion of marriage? Does Robert intend to marry for wealth? (165)
Chapter 10, "Old Maids"
What are the narrator's attitudes toward tradesmen and other businesspersons? (167, many are narrow and cold-hearted)
What views are given in this chapter on the situation of unmarried women? What does Caroline think of her own situation?
(acutely aware that she has nothing with which to occupy her thoughts, 172; "What am I to do to fill the interval of time wich spreads bwetween me and the grave? 174)
To what extent may these complaints about the lot of unmarried women be those of Charlotte Bronte? Did other writers of the period express similar views? (e. g. Florence Nightingale)
How are Caroline's views of her fate related to her religious views? To what extent are religious themes central to this novel?
What actions does Caroline perform from sympathy for the lot of "old maids"? (176, 177, defends them against Robert's sarcasm) What effect does Caroline's kindness have? (brings out Miss Mann's best traits, 179-80)
How does the portrayal of Miss Ainley contribute to the discussion of the lives of single women? (she is a sincerely charitable and religious woman, 183, respected by Mr. Hull, the vicar of Nunnely)
How does Caroline use her time, despite her limited circumstances? (plans carefully, refuses to pine, 184)
Chapter 11, "Fieldhead"
What are some of Caroline's strategies for overcoming unhappiness? May some of these be modelled on similar struggles in Charlotte Bronte's life?
(like Bronte, writes letters she does not send, for "shame and good sense forbade,"186; watches his house at night and is grieved to see him pass by in the darkness; yearns for her mother; wishes to leave Briarfield; seeks occupation)
What occupation does Caroline seek, and why?
What is her uncle's response? What motivates his refusal? (189-91, "I will not have it said that my niece is a governness."
What is Caroline's response? (pines until "most people said she was going to die," 191)
Whom does her uncle take Caroline to meet at this juncture? What are the connotations of Shirley Keeldar's name?
For what thematic purpose is Miss Pryor introduced at this point? What is shown by her diffidence of character? (195) By the attitudes of Caroline and Shirley toward her? (195-96)
How is Shirley described? How is she contrasted with Caroline?
(erect, vigorous, face expressive and intelligent, darker and taller than Caroline)
How does Shirley describe herself? (200) What do you make of her references to herself as a nun? How is the reader expected to respond to her manner? (For a woman who deeply resents her society's restrictions on women, she accepts many of the stereotypes by which they are judged.)
What is unusual about her references to Caroline? (speaks of her in the third person, 199)
About whom does Shirley immediately speak? What is her attitude toward Moore? (201, puzzled; a bit of gush, 202)
How does volume one end? What do you infer from its tone? (suggests either marriage or conflict) Is the book's ending consistent with its beginning? (ends on theme on which it began)
What do you think is the effect of the use of a double heroine?
Are the characters of Caroline or Shirley somewhat unusual for the British novel of the time? Which character is presented more from without?
Is the character of Caroline believable or sympathetic?
Is the character of Robert sufficiently well-drawn to maintain interest?
Book II, chapter I, "Shirley and Caroline"
What seems Shirley's gender identification? Would this have been unusual for a heroine of the period?
(sees herself as male, 209) Does this trait suggest anything in Bronte's other writings or life? (in Villette, Lucy acts male part in school drama; Charlotte Bronte enjoyed writing letters and speaking of herself in the person of Currer Bell)
What seems Shirley's attitude toward Caroline? (seems rather lordly, 211)
How do Caroline and Shirley discover their kindred emotions and temperaments? What interests and intentions do they have in common?
(common love of Yorkshire scenery, 212, 214)
What are some differences between them? (in self-esteem, 215; in love of independence)
What are their respective views on men?
(They agree that the presence of men would make life more exciting and less peaceful--but don't voice an opinion on whether they wish this.)
What do they decide about men's capacities for domestic love? On what grounds?
(216, uncertain; Shirley says if not, she will not marry, 217, yet her reasons are chiefly defensive. It seems she is attracted to Robert, and both women discuss him praisefully, 219, a strange, rather stilted scene)
What are their views and intentions regarding marriage? (Shirley claims her soul is independent; is this an argument for her happiness as a single woman?)
What do we learn from Mrs. Pryor's negative comments on a portrait of Caroline's father? (222; reads his character in his face, suggesting phrenology) Her references to Caroline's mother? (221) (her uncle had desired a silent wife) Are you surprised that Mrs. Pryor gives her firm views to apparent strangers?
What is the tone of Caroline's and Shirley's discussion of personal issues? (rather abstract)
What literary tastes do they share? (a taste for poetry, including William Cowper's "The Castaway," which Caroline recites; yet they differ in their views of Rousseau; Caroline may be the more literary)
What does Caroline confess to Shirley about her response to Robert? (she misses him, assesses realistically his low regard for her, wishes for a profession, 229) What are her views on the need for labor? (229, this time of course she speaks to a receptive audience)
Is Caroline concerned about whether working would make her appear "unfeminine"? 229-30
Chapter 2, "Further Communications on Business"
Why do you think Shirley is weeping when she is found by Caroline? (232) (we seldom see Shirley's introspective or self-questioning self; Bronte treats her like she does her male heroes, respectfully but from without)
What role does the theme of love vs. friendship play in the plot? How is the issue resolved? (each friend is willing to accept without rancour Robert's marriage to the other 235) How might the novel had been affected had the friends been less admirably unselfish?
What is unconventional about Shirley's meeting with Robert? (out-of-doors) What is their business relationship? (has rescued him from financial ruin; counsels caution)
What is Robert's attitude toward confrontation with his workers? (eager for confrontation, 236) What is Shirley's response? (agrees to stand by him, 237)
What seems Robert's response to Shirley at this juncture? (seems moving toward courtship, 237; expresses gratitude)
What is Caroline's environment at this point? In what ways does it resemble that of the Bronte parsonage? (again wishes to leave for a governess post; 240, Bronte had wished to leave).
How do Shirley and Mrs. Pryor respond to Caroline's statement that she desires to be a governess? (241, 243; even Bronte sees work as a distraction, not a calling, 243)
What does Shirley suggest as a diversion? (trip to Highlands and Faroe Islands, 244; Bronte herself had been taken to the Highlands, Shetlands and Orkney Islands, and Faroe Isles, 245; includes a romantic paen to the animals of the North, cmp. Norse myths of fairies)
What is the significance of the image of mermaids which they are to see on their projected trip together? (246, women as sirens, as seen by men) Why do you think it is Shirley who rather than Caroline who imagines the mermaids?
When Robert visits and reports he is arming the mill, Caroline witnesses friendly conversations between him and Shirley. Afterwards, he walks her home and talks of when he has seen or imagined her, she wishes him good success, and he seems to wish to linger until her uncle intrudes. At this point what is Caroline's inner response? Does she harbor hopes? (feels powerless by contrast; 259, realistically expects little)
In what ways is Caroline an interesting heroine? (strong-minded, affirms an unpleasant truth, 259) What happens to her dreams? (259, fade, corpse at dawn)
Chapter 3, "Shirley Seeks to Be Saved by Works"
Is Caroline still willing to remain a helpful friend to both Shirley and Robert should they marry? (260) (That's too much self-abnegation for her.)
How is the theme of sisterhood borne out in the conversation between Shirley and Caroline? (Shirley visits Caroline to offer sympathy, demands a reassertion of friendship, and offers sisterly pity. They speak of what life would have been like had they had sisters--263-64, the "affection that no passion can ultimately outrival"--and face the pains of romance together.)
Why do you think they often speak of Shirley in the third person, and what effect does this have? What are Shirley's gender identifications in this chapter? (sees self as the male of the group in her transactions with men, 272; speaks of herself as "Captain Keeldar," and the narrator echoes this, 274)
Why does Shirley feel guilty, and what does she do about this? (264, 267, no specifics) What are her motives for charity? (268, motivated by the poverty of the cottagers, she gives a 300 pound donation to poor) What is her defense of charity against those who would attack it as degrading to its recipients? (267, though she advocates philanthropy, the novel offers no sense that the poor deserve the results of their own labor)
What are some of Shirley's political views? (267) She will defend her property--noblesse oblige has its limits.
How does Mr. Helstone react to Shirley's proposals? (272, distrusts female decisions)
What does the narrator believe about women's capacity to make decisions? (gives disquisition on men's aversion to female judgement, 273, ". . . but the most downcast glance has its loophole, through which it can, on occasion, take its sentinel-survey of life.")
Chapter 4, "Mr. Donne's Exodus"
What are some of the purposes of this chapter? (gives sense of manners of region)
How do the clergymen respond to the dog? (frightened) What is the tone of conversation between Caroline and Mr. Hull? (sentimental)
In what offensive behavior does Mr. Donne engage before he is evicted? (demands a donantion from Shirley, insults her and Yorkshireans in general)
Chapter 5, "Whitsuntide"
What does Robert Moore think will be the effect of Shirley's charities? Is he optimistic about the future? (291, doubts permanent good of millowners' charities, "They hate us worse than ever.")
How does Caroline respond to assuming a public role? (shy)
What thematic purpose is served by this chapter?
(provides ideal of harmony between the social classes, in contrast to Moore's bad relations with his workers, "It was a day of happiness for rich and poor"; patriotism, 296, 301, British always well-dressed!, cmp. Tennyson's "The Princess")
What is the narrator's view of the value of such festivities? (ends with peroration on need for public (religious) festivals for rich and poor, 301)
What seems the narrator's attitude toward the established Church? Are these the attitudes one would expect in a novel written by a clergyman's daughter?
(gives pious and sarcastic nod to clergy, 301; of church, "God save it! God also reform it!)
Chapter 6, "The School-Feast"
As martial music is played, what emotions does Shirley express?
(restless, longs for danger, or a "lover to defend," needs more stirring interests, 302, premonitory)
Why do they see soldiers at this point? (303) What kind of religious procession do they encounter, and what is their reaction? (dissenting parade marches against them, but is repelled)
How are the Methodists here presented? Do you think this is a fair representation? (304) What causes the break-up of their parade? (flee, 304-305; cmp. Robert's response to poor)
What does the narrator make of the Methodist tenant of temperance? (Methodists are teetotlars; their hypocrisy emphasized)
How do Caroline and Shirely meet the Moores, and how is their behavior contrasted?
(meet at procession; Robert exits and at Shirley's insistence, the women bid him goodbye. Shirley as always is the bolder, Caroline gives a speech in defense of love, 318)
Chapter 7, "What the Genteel Reader is Recommended to Skip, Low Persons Being Here Introduced"
What views on the nature of true religion are here presented? Do you think these are Bronte's own?
(the true church may be found outdoors in nature, 319; the true religion is that of Eve and Adam in Paradise.)
Who defends the character of Eve against Milton's prejudiced representation? y Why does Shirley choose this particular moment to attack? (319)
How do the two women differ in their imaginations of the first mother? (Shirley, 320, 321, sees her as a dignified, stately image with a broad forehead, the daughter of Jehovah; she identifies with her as a mother-prophetess; by contrast Caroline is more earthbound, and desires a real, human mother, 322) May elements of this scene be biographical? (Bronte's own mother had died--death of mother a familiar theme in Victorian women's novel)
Who are the "low persons" mentioned in the title?
What is the significance of their encounter with William Farren, carrying his child to church, after they see soldiers? (322)
(He expresses "proper" sentiments, including the desire to work, 324, criticizes the snobbery of the curates, but declares he would rather die than be dependent on poor relief, 325)
What does William Farren answer to Shirley's question, "What more can I do?" Why do you think the author includes this response? Do you think he is correct in his view? How does Caroline respond?
("Ye can do naught mich, poor young lass!, 325. Absolves her of responsibility for the actions of her tenant, whereas surely she is responsible to some extent, since she is lending him the money he needs to survive. Caroline also hotly defends Robert.)
Does Farren believe Robert's actions are more or less inevitable? What does he see as the only possible form of social redress?
(326, feels Robert must do what he does, since honest negotiation is impossible. However exceptional personal friendships across class barriers may occasionally occur, 326. But surely "being friends" is not the issue here, but poverty.)
What views on women does Joe Scott express? Why do you think this incident is included at this point?
(misogynist, gives common argument of the day; cmp. the figure of Joseph in Wuthering Heights)
What counterargument does Shirley give against the Biblical injunction that women should be silent in the churches? (329)
Chapter 8, "A Summer Night"
How do the women act during Robert's confrontation with his workers? (Shirley has role of protecting Caroline while her uncle is away; has been given a brace of pistols, 333-34)
Does Robert in fact need help?
How do the women differ in their response to the pistols? (Caroline states she would never use them, 334)
How does Moore conduct himself? (344) How do the women behave? (women undergo a vigil; they hear the soldiers outside, and Shirley leads them to proper place, 337, 339; Caroline wishes to join Robert, 342; Shirley restrains Caroline--a strange role--and Caroline agrees to restraint)
How does the narrator respond to the rioters? (343-44, all from distance)
What ends the fight? (women unable to help, 345; the rioters simply withdraw, startled at the resistence shown, 346) Is this realistic? What results from the fray? (only workers are hurt, 1 killed, 5 or 6 wounded)
Chapter 9, "To-Morrow"
On what by now familiar subject does Shirley give a speech? (men's misjudgements of women, 352)
What are Shirley's injunctions to the assembled poor?
(bids them to return home, 355, gives most reactionary comments of book) What are her responses to the soldiers and wounded working people? (offers provisions for the soldiers, eager to provide for them)
What pleasantries end this episode? (Moore visits, Caroline asks about his wound, Shirley shows concern for wounded working people, 362, an interest she hadn't shown before)
Chapter 10, "Mrs. Pryor"
What views does Mr. Helstone express on the events which have just occurred? (tells Moore he behaved well and will rise in popularity)
99. When Mr. Yorke visits, what are his criticisms of Robert Moore, and how does Shirley defend the latter?
What tastes does Mrs. Pryor share with Caroline? What experiences as a governess does she recall?
What are Mrs. Pryor's views of the possibilities of marriage?
What offer does she make to Caroline, and why is this important?
Chapter 11, "Two Lives"
What is Robert Moore's behavior after the riot? (pursues leaders of riot, yet is less vengeful than some, is fearless despite possibility he might be killed)
To what activities does Shirley turn? Why does she not turn to writing? (388) (reads, watches farm events, 386-87; described as a visionary, yet does not write; this section suggests a possible romanticization of Emily Bronte)
While Shirley's relatives visit, what happens to Caroline? What are her recurrent frustrations? (broods on the need for women's employment, 390. Narrator addresses fathers of Yorkshire--"Men of England--permit your daughters a field of occupation," 392-93. All this is very fine, but undercut somewhat by the final marriages of the heroines.)
Chapter 12, "An Evening Out"
When Caroline visits Hortense by invitation, whom does she encounter? (Mrs. Yorke)
What ais the purpose of the scene in which Mrs. Yorke insults Caroline in compendious detail? (shows Caroline's strength of self-defense)
What does Rose Yorke declare she wishes to do as an adult? (desires to travel, 399; novel varies motifs of travel and adventure with a certain fixity of Yorkshire patriotism--home vs. adventure)
What is the gist of Rose's strictures on domesticity? What does she wish to do with her life instead? (400-401, never stated; household tasks are harmless enough, but life must provide more)
With whom does Caroline contrast herself? (the milkmaids, 402)
What will be Jessie's fate? (doomed to die and be buried on a wild, dark night)
What is the effect of introducing Louis at the end of volume II? What clues are we given about his character, and how does Caroline respond to these?
(413, should be a more compatible mate than Robert because more benign)
Book III, Chapter 1, "The Valley of the Shadow of Death"
Do you think that the sickness Caroline contracts may be partly psychosomatic? What does her wandering speech reveal? (nursed by Mrs. Pryor, reveals her passion for Robert, wonders about life after death and the spirit world)
Why does Mrs. Pryor fear Caroline will die? To what subjects does Caroline's conversation turn? (horrible night scene as she contemplates graveyard; Mrs. Pryor tells Caroline of her parentage, and they sense an affinity of spirit. Caroline looks like her father, and according to Mrs. Pryor, resembles her mother within.)
What is the effect on Caroline of having one human tie? (desires to recover, 434) What change occurs in Mrs. Pryor's view of the past? (able to forgive her husband for the first time, "Husband! rest forgiven!")
Why had Mrs. Pryor failed to claim her child? (437, feared her beauty would render her harsh, "A form so straight and fine, I argued, must conceal a mind warped and cruel.") Is this convincing? Are they reconciled? (Caroline sleeps wrapped in her mother's arms.)
Chapter 2, "The West Wind Blows"
To what does the chapter title refer, literally and metaphorically?
(Describes sick watch through night, followed by worsening of patient. West wind comes, associated with healing. Caroline shares garden lore with William Turren, and Mrs. Pryor becomes happier from receiving her daughter's attention.)
Chapter 3, "Old Copy Books"
When Shirley returns, is she surprised to learn of the relationship bewteen Mrs. Pryor and Caroline? (claims she has known it all along!) How does her claim to prior knowledge affect Caroline's view of her friend? (453, realizes Shirley can be secretive) How may this affect their relationship?
What is Louis Moore's occupation and character? What is his relationship to Shirley at first? (he is tutor of Sympson family, especially of Henry, likes and is kind to animals; at first Shirley ignores him and Caroline reproaches her for rudeness, but the reader realizes that Shirley in fact feels deep emotions toward him)
Has the reader been properly informed of the relationship between Louis and Shirley, or does it come as a surprise? (seems inconsistent with Shirley's open interest in Robert Moore)
At this stage of the novel, does the reader believe Shirley will marry Robert? What events or patterns of behavior have changed our minds in the interim?
What is the significance of the imagery of Louis as Adam's son? (cmp. Shirley as Eve, 459)
What part does Henry's crippled condition play in the plot at this point? (Henry bemoans his crippled condition, Caroline and Shirley comfort him, and Shirley suggests he may be a poet, 465) What does he reveal about Shirley's past?
What tastes and interests draw Shirley and Louis together? (Louis an artist, Shirley views his pictures--Shirley speaks of desire to live with Indians, Louis calls her a "white witch," 470. They are united by imagery of garden primitiveness, Adam and Eve in the New World.)
Chapter 4, "The First Blue Stocking"
Why does Mr. Symson wish Shirley to marry Mr. Samuel Wyne? What objections does she have to this proposal? (he has been profligate, is a stupid and narrow man)
On what grounds does she state that she intends to marry? Are there any restrictions? (473, will not marry a beggar but perhaps an artist, which suggests Louis, of course)
What happens to Louis? May his state reflect a psychological condition? When Shirley visits him, what emotions does he suggest? (480, his sickness parallels that of Caroline earlier; he hints to Shirley of emotions he has not conveyed to her, in a mildly suggestive scene for Victorian England)
What symbolic acts do they share? What is the significance of their shared readings? (They read together a creation scene, 485, in a language he speaks better than she--486, story concerns a female orphan, the awakening of Eve, who meets her creator-Spirit in the "bridal hour of Genius and Humanity," 489. Evokes earlier archetypal mother passages in vol. II.)
What literary passages do the lovers recite together? Does this recitation suggest any earlier incidents in the book? (Caroline had recited poetry to Shirley earlier in novel) What purpose is served by such scenes?
Chapter 5, "Phoebe"
What new will does Shirley confide to Henry she has made? What is his response? (her new will leaves a portion of her estate to sisters, some money to Caroline Helstone, and the manor house to Henry. He accepts this decision and declares his love for Shirley.)
What has happened to Shirley's health? (She too seems to be wasting away! Love seems a dangerous emotion.) How do they arrange for their names after marriage? (Henry will take Shirley's name of Keeldar, and be referred to as Henry Shirley Keeldar, 502, surely a unique plot element in Victorian fiction.)
When Louise invites Shirley to read with him again, what worries does he express? (worries about his deportment)
When bitten by the dog Phoebe, what does Shirley fear? Why doesn't she consult a doctor? (assumes she may die, confides in Louis above all, 512, wishes to avoid surgeons)
What seems to be the basis of her relationship with Louis? (513, seeks Louis as advisor and helper) What emotions about their past do they share? (they talk of their past affections; each has clearly felt rejection)
How does Robert enter their thoughts? (Shirley feels he ought to return.)
Chapter 6, "Louis Moore"
What in Shirley seems to attract Louis? How is their relationship unconventional?
What is the sigificance of his oration about himself as a priest of Juno?
Chapter 7, "Rushedge, A Confessional"
When Robert returns, what does he discuss with Mrs. Yorke?
What has happened between Robert and Shirley? (535, it seems she had loved his brother! (hard to believe), urges sisterhood)
Some final questions:
What do you think of the ending? Which themes are unified by the resolution at the conclusion?
Does the ending resolve most of the issues raised by the novel? If not, how do you account for the contradictions?
What seem Bronte's views on marriage, religion, and the relations between social classes? Are some of these vexed and ambivalent?
What are some autobiographical features of the novel?
What do you think are some of the merits and demerits of this book? Are the working-class and women's plots successfully blended?