Charlotte Bronte's Shirley: Summary & Overview

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  • 0:00 Introducing Shirley
  • 1:04 Plot Summary
  • 3:50 Analysis: Industrial Reality
  • 4:39 Analysis: Women's Role
  • 5:46 Analysis: Love
  • 6:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Megan Pryor

Megan has tutored extensively and has a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fiction.

In this lesson, we will study Charlotte Bronte's novel ''Shirley.'' After looking at the novel's context, we will go over a brief summary of the plot and then analyze the novel's main themes.

Introducing Shirley

Have you ever met a girl with a name usually given to boys, like Dani or Charlie? Or a boy who has a name usually given to girls, like Ashley or Jamie? As you might be aware, names shift over time, just like any other social trend. What you probably don't know is that the 1849 novel, Shirley, written by Charlotte Bronte under the pseudonym Currer Bell, is responsible for the name Shirley changing from almost an exclusively male name to an almost exclusively female name. The main character is a girl, but she was born into a wealthy family and her father gave her a boy's name because he wanted a son.

Charlotte Bronte wrote Shirley after she published her possibly best-known work, Jane Eyre. She wanted to write something different, and Shirley is the result: a social novel that contrasts two female heroines, Shirley and Caroline, to explore what a woman's life would be like if freed from the restrictive social conventions of the time by independent wealth.

Plot Summary

Shirley follows two women born into very different circumstances. Caroline lives with her uncle, because her father is dead, her mother abandoned her, and she has no money. Her uncle refuses to let her work and does not approve of her affection for Robert, a local mill owner.

Shirley, on the other hand, was born into wealth. As the only child, she inherited her family's fortune after her parents died. Now she lives with a governess, Mrs. Pryor, but her independent wealth allows her to make investments and business decisions that women at the time typically were not involved in. One of her primary business investments is Robert's mill, which is suffering because Robert's father almost bankrupted it before his death.

Caroline likes Robert a lot, and Robert likes her too, but he distances himself from her because his financial circumstances mean that he needs to marry someone with money if he wants to restore the mill to its former glory. Robert and Shirley become friends and everyone thinks they will marry, which makes Caroline depressed. To save Caroline from her depression, Mrs. Pryor, Shirley's governess, reveals to Caroline that she is actually Caroline's mother, but gave Caroline up as a child because Caroline looked too much like her abusive husband. Caroline, thinking she has lost Robert to Shirley, clings to her rediscovered mother as a reason to live.

Meanwhile, Shirley's uncle comes to visit her. He brings with him the rest of his family, including his son's tutor, Louis, who happens to be Robert's younger brother. Louis was Shirley's tutor when she was younger, but she treats him oddly. Sometimes she is very formal with him, but she also confides her intimate fears in him, such as when a dog bites her and Shirley is afraid she might die from rabies.

When Robert eventually proposes to Shirley, she rejects him and deals him a crushing blow when she calls him out on proposing only because he wants her money. Robert goes away to London to clear his head and get his priorities straight. When he returns, angry millworkers, upset about layoffs that Robert enacted because of the mill's enormous debt, shoot Robert. As he is nursed back to health, Caroline visits him. Robert asks her to come visit him again and tries to explain why he proposed to Shirley, but Caroline doesn't care. She has forgiven him.

Shirley's uncle is upset when Shirley rejects yet another marriage proposal, this time from a rich baronet. He makes plans to leave town with his family and Louis, which prompts Louis to propose to Shirley, since he loves her and does not want to leave without letting her know how he feels. Shirley loves Louis too and accepts his proposal, but not without worrying about whether or not she will be compromising her freedom. Now that he has his priorities straight, Robert proposes to Caroline, who he has loved all along. The novel ends with both couples getting married.

Analysis: Industrial Reality

Although Shirley is largely about the relationships between the heroines and Robert and Louis, Charlotte Bronte devotes a good portion of the book to Robert and his mill. Through the mill, and its effect on the town's economy, Charlotte Bronte explores the industrial reality of the time period.

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