What happens when the rich grow more powerful as the poor struggle? When desperation turns to violence? When mutual respect stretches, then snaps? When cruelty and ignorance replace understanding and empathy? When there is no middle ground, no meeting point, no connection across social divides? When you have no power, no voice and no purpose?
About 170 years ago Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley asked these (admittedly pretty massive) questions, it just took me a little while to see them. 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 attempts to draw something universal from the personal, to create something more substantial than a romance. Asking wider questions, the writer 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
Skipping forward a century or so, my March/April read is This Must Be The Place by Maggie O’Farrell. Published in 2016, it tells the story of one man’s complicated relationships across continents and timezones. It’s my introduction to Maggie O’Farrell so I’m looking forward to the ride.
Thanks to my best friend who has pretty unwisely trusted me with yet another shiny new book. She knows that for some reason all books get a little bit worn ‘loved’ in my company, but she lends me them anyway. Hurray!