The rich grow more powerful as the poor struggle. Desperation turns to violence. Mutual respect stretches, then snaps. Cruelty and ignorance replace understanding and empathy. There is no middle ground, no meeting point, no connection across social divides. So what happens when you have no power, no voice and no purpose?
About 170 years ago Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley asked this (admittedly pretty massive) question, it just took me a little while to see it. It was THAT book – the one you start but wish you hadn’t.
It’s fair to say Brontë’s second novel is usually overshadowed by her more famous literary sister, Jane Eyre. It’s also fair to say Shirley isn’t full of laughs, set during a time of social unrest and riots (1811-12). Reading the book against the backdrop of very recent world events, a weird thing happened. Shirley began to collide with our reality and Brontë’s words became strangely powerful.
I persevered with the English, the French and the Yorkshire dialect. I even read the first few chapters out loud to my cats, you know, just to get my ear in.
Breaking through the time and language barrier was eventually worth it though. Written after the early deaths of Brontë’s siblings, the novel rages a dark and painful anger at society and more specifically, a woman’s place. Brontë is livid, satirical. Edgy.
“Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry, and reverie? Do you expect passion, and stimulus and melodrama? Calm your expectations…Something real, cool and solid lies before you; something as unromantic as Monday morning…” Charlotte Brontë
The central characters are skilfully drawn, exposing the ignorant, the autocratic, the vain and the hypocritical. Polarisation of society and gender equality. It’s all there.
Decades before modern feminist literature as we know it, Brontë nailed her colours to the mast in Shirley’s female leads. If you married, you’d lose what little independence you did have. If you stayed single you’d be ridiculed and pitied. Worthless. Equality and choice are repeatedly trampled in turn by overbearing uncles, arrogant clergy and terrible husbands.
Shirley draws something universal from the personal, creating something more substantial than a romance. Asking wider questions, the book aims deeper. Times might have changed, but not nearly enough. Charlotte Brontë’s furious arrows still hit home.
MORE ABOUT THE YEAR IN BOOKS
The year in books is an ongoing project by the wonderful Laura from Circle of Pine Trees. The aim of the project is to read at least a book a month during the year. Anyone can join in at anytime, just pop over to Laura’s blog for full details. #theyearinbooks