Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley Evokes a Picture of a Society Which Parallels Today’s Covid-19 Affected Lonely World

One of the highpoints Shirley the novel attains is the use of a large number of characters, both male and female, and the way the author Charlotte Bronte keeps the novel always busy with the use of these characters. In a way unjustly said to be overshadowed by the other novel written by the same author, Jane Eyre, preceding Shirley, and which won great acclaim, this novel pictures the age in which it was written most appropriately. The country is overset with the Napoleonic wars and it is a bleak time as portrayed in the rural locale of Nunnely, Briarfield, Whinbury, Fieldhead and Hollow’s Cottage. The historical setting of the novel is during 1811-12 Luddite riots when workers are left in penury and unemployed due to the war and the British government’s Order in Council that made the exports to the much larger market in America impossible. Unemployment is rampant and the workers are turned violently at times against mill owners who are trying to set up machines at their mills to augment production, which cloth however for the time being are lying all unsold at their mills.
The novel has two protagonists in Shirley Keeldar and Caroline Helstone who are enacted in the likeness of Charlotte’s sisters Emily Bronte (Shirley) and Anne Bronte (Caroline) but all the characters which hold the book together have their importance and role to play; like the three young curates, men of the church, who are made to entertain the readers in the opening of the novel and who are not as good at their vocation as to the mirth they are part of every time they are described, intermittently, from the beginning of the novel onwards till the very end. Their instance shows how the English public at that time offered too much undeserved respect to churchmen who are not even properly qualified to hold their posts but found worthy of respect and charity whenever they approached those in their parish. They eat and drink and make so much noise that those who entertain them are tired of them although never reluctant to give their services.
Charlotte Bronte along with her sisters Emily and Anne took on pen names of male authors so that their books would be read by a larger audience as in their time women authors were not likely to get the same kind of reception or even be tolerated by the readers who were averse to let women stepping out of the confines of social mores especially in the business of writing. Ellis, Acton and Currer Bell were the pseudonyms under which the works of Emily, Anne and Charlotte Bronte were originally published. All along Charlotte’s life her brother and sisters kept passing away. In her younger days Maria and Elizabeth died in a school for daughters of the clergy where Emily and she had also gone; perceptibly due to ill-management of the school, as Charlotte put it. This incident is captured in a section of Jane Eyre. Even as she started writing Shirley her brother Branwell died. Emily, herself and Anne were left and Emily and Anne too passed away even before the novel was complete.
How Charlotte handles the characters of Shirley, who is a rich heiress of a high family, and Caroline who is a reticent niece of an elderly churchman, Helstone, whose mother is forced to abandon her when she is very small brings the theme of women’s position in society at that time to the forefront. Both the girls, one around 17 years and other 21, are taunted at times and criticized for their like for freedom to choose a life they like and a partner they would like to tie the knot with. Shirley tells her uncle, ‘Before I marry, I am resolved to esteem – to admire – to love,’ much to his chagrin, thinking the girl crazy and audacious for speaking so. So does Caroline cut short politely in an unrestrained manner Mr. Yorke who irritates her with a suggestion that Robert Moore must be the man she wants to marry. Both Shirley and Caroline however are restored to their hearts desire, the brothers Louis Moore and Robert Moore respectively, by the end of the novel. There are others too who court Shirley, like the rich and poetic Sir Phillip, but Shirley shows a taste for better poetry and intellect when she comments that she wished Sir Phillip’s ‘rhyme possessed more accuracy – the measure more music – the tropes more freshness – the inspiration more fire’ showing that feminine intelligence even at that time was not to be taken lightly and relegated to marriage and household chores.
Shirley is a historical novel which speaks about the events that happened in 1811-12 and has relevance to the world of 1848-49 when it was written. To delve in the classics, which are the future of literature, is to live in the present now. The disquiet of those times can be compared to this year’s happenings in Manipur and India where scores are jobless, migrants in flux, the government unstable in Manipur, disease of the mind, heart and body are everywhere, and even as war looms large over the country women’s rights are being trampled on. A student activist Safoora Zargar, who is pregnant, has just been released on bail after spending months in prison in Delhi over the anti-CAA protests; her accompanists are still incarcerated. And there’s high drama too with people (women) belonging to the opposing camp coming out with figures that 44 deliveries have already taken place in the past 10 years from inside the Tihar Jail where Safoora was housed – in short meaning she shouldn’t have been released, showing the dismal situation in India even amongst women’s groups.
To look at the redeeming side, although so many have died, medical technology has been able to save so many others who could have also lost their lives. The Covid-19 disease has put the virtual world nearer to us in contrast to the real – similar to some of the characters in the novel, one of whom Louis Moore who “having a large world of his own in his own head and heart, he tolerated confinement to a small, still corner of the real world very patiently.” The novel could be taken as a precursor to today’s melodramas also as all the characters have local human faces confined in privacy of different locales. The way Caroline discovers that her friend Shirley’s governess Mrs. Pryor is in fact her mother whom she had been wondering if they would ever meet seems to be straight out of the plot of some Bollywood films of yesteryears and appeals to the sensibility of the Indian reader. All in all we cannot deny the fact that in our hurry to be educated with the novel genres of today we can hardly forget that it works like those of the Bronte sisters that hold the prop of literature together even in the present times.

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