Sunday, 6 April 2014

'Shirley in Context': Nicholas Shrimpton gives a talk to the Brussels Brontë Group at our annual Brontë weekend

For the celebrations of this year’s Brontë Weekend in Brussels, the members of our society convened in the usual location of Université Saint-Louis and welcomed a guest speaker from the University of Oxford, Dr. Nicholas Shrimpton, who was kind enough to share his knowledge about the social and literary context behind Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley. In a fascinating lecture, he presented evidence of an opinion some of us discussed earlier in the book club meeting – while not an instant classic, Shirley does have its strengths and remains an interesting read. And so, on one of the first days of spring, we’ve been told the story of a writer, who has embarked on an ambitious task of writing her sophomore novel “in a style entirely new”.

Dr. Nicholas Shrimpton
Our guest speaker started this tale of context by making us understand the novel’s origins. Shirley is the
one atypical story that came from Charlotte’s pen. Published as her second novel, it is a product of the author’s struggle with personal demons, but also of the problem of delivering something new and different, when one has only one previous experience to draw on. In her own attempt at revolution, she abandoned the single heroine of Jane Eyre, with her inner battle between stoicism and rebellion. Instead, she ventured to introduce two female characters representing the same juxtaposition in the flesh, illustrating parallel experiences rather than an individual one. On top of that, she expanded the picture with a number of key characters, who are not only introduced fairly late in the novel, but also tend to disappear from view for multiple chapters at a time.  The story is not narrated by that single heroine anymore, but by an external third person narrator, omniscient if often using focalisation. And finally, we are relatively far removed from the familiar Brontë geography – while staying in Yorkshire, we move West from the country of moors, towards Leeds and its surroundings. The real-life location of the novel was supposedly Birstall, now graced with an IKEA retail park.

Unfortunately for her, many view this attempt at innovation as only mildly successful: somewhat incongruous and decidedly less convincing than the heavily introspective works she’s best known for. Before sharing his own opinion, Dr. Shrimpton presented a vast perspective on possible sources of inspiration for this endeavour, which turns out to be necessary knowledge in order to fully grasp the meaning of the novel.

Apparently, it could have been none other than W. M. Thackeray and his panoramic masterpiece, Vanity Fair, that served as primary influence on Shirley. It is no secret that they admired each other’s writing, despite their distinct characters. The monumental story of Becky Sharpe was being published in episodes at the time Charlotte was starting work on the new novel, and several hints of that impact can be identified in its contents. The most striking example being the opening paragraphs detailing the curates’ debauchery, inspired directly by Thackeray’s satirical tones. Arguably not as successful as the master himself, Brontë only barely managed to keep up with the sharp pace of satire, and was encouraged to omit that  entire section by her editors. The fact that the opening scene and others that follow in similar vein are still there, might prove how strongly the author felt about going against the grain. In other clues, the action is moved back in time to Wellington’s era and aims to describe a wide range of social classes of the time, much like Vanity Fair. And finally, it goes on to fill one of the few gaps in Thackeray’s panorama and focus on the urbanising, industrial reality of the North of England. But while he manages to keep his characters in check through a powerful narrator figure, Brontë seems to have less control over her lot, and despite trying to emphasise the masculine voice of Currer  Bell, she comes across thoroughly feminine in her storytelling.

To further complicate things, halfway through her writing process, Charlotte was hit by a wave of misfortunes, as all three of her siblings died within a short period of time. As Dr. Shrimpton argued, some prolific writers like Frances Trollope were able to overcome their personal grief and produce masterpieces and their opus magnum even in times of grief. Miss Brontë was apparently not one of them. Insecure and always seeking reassurance with Emily, Anne or Branwell, she was not only mourning but also lonely with her incertitude. The tone of her writing changes visibly between parts 1 and 2 of the novel, and literally nothing is the same again after the tragedy strikes. Even Caroline’s eyes change colour in the process, if anyone needs tangible proof of incongruence.

Fortunately, there is yet hope for Shirley. Our guest speaker pointed out that despite all the inconsequence, there seems to be a thematic unity within the novel, which starts with Chartism, “the unspoken subject of the novel”. Indeed, the topic of social struggles  makes up for a big chunk of the novel’s story, but that doesn’t mean Charlotte equated the fighting Luddites from the beginning of the century, with the later Chartist movement, nor did she confuse one with the other. The Chartism in question is more likely the broad idea raised by Thomas Carlyle, of which the suffrage movement was only a symptom. It’s the general discontent of the working classes that flows steadily throughout the story, their struggle for food, education and dignity. Because of this widespread chartist spirit, the demand for “Condition of England” novels was going strong for many years, and prompted many writers to try their hand at portraying the ills of the working man, or at least incorporating some elements of it in their works. Maybe Charlotte is not as graphic dealing with this topic, as she usually is when digging through the layers of the inner conflict and romantic fever of her heroines, but she is successful in keeping the political theme of oppression  a relevant element of her story. And maybe, it is not the panoramic Vanity Fair we should compare it to, but rather the more common attempts at addressing pieces of the “Condition of England” that we should treat as context of Brontë’s penchant for social issues in Shirley.

The same thematic unity becomes even more apparent when we look at the broader picture outside the social issues the author raises. The very core of the story is driven by an almost philosophical juxtaposition between romantic egoism and the revival of pre-romantic rationalism. For the former, think Louis Moore with his ardent professions of love. The Byronic, individual experience linked to nature and its metaphors. Think chivalry, Wellingtonian heroism and war against Napoleon. Think, the lonely figure trying to help his mill off its knees. For the latter, go for Robert Moore and the pragmatic merchants. Go for the community of workers and the guarantee of employment they demand. Go for the idea of war as a nuisance menacing internal balance.  This dichotomy goes strong throughout the whole story. Two heroines, two brothers, two opposing social classes, the individual and the disgruntled collective. And an opening that promises “[nothing] romantic” versus the ending that evokes seeing faeries. Don’t write them off as inconsistence – look how symmetrical and present they are.

In conclusion, let’s not be afraid to admit that we’ve been discussing not the very finest of Charlotte’s work. It shifts the focus away from the conflicted introspection she is unsurpassed at, in favour a social engagement done more successfully by others. It is an inconsistent text plagued by the author’s suffering.  And, as a question from the audience made us realise, one that would sadly be forgotten if it wasn’t for other, more successful Brontë novels. And yet, let’s keep in mind  Dr. Shrimpton’s conclusion before we dismiss this novel as a failure. Charlotte put an extremely difficult task in front of her. She wanted to reinvent her well-rounded style, and took inspiration from intricate social situation and one monumental masterpiece. Only a select few in the course of history have managed to pull off a truly panoramic novel, and even those were not foolproof. This one is not really panoramic, but remains engaging and complex, and still masterfully soul-searching at times, which are some good redeeming qualities. Shirley may be a flawed and uneven work in many respects, but it is a hugely ambitious one to start with.

Ola Podstawka

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