Shirley, by Charlotte Brontë

01/01/1849View on timeline

Mr. Yorke, in the first place, was without the organ of veneration—a great want, and which throws a man wrong on every point where veneration is required. Secondly, he was without the organ of comparison—a deficiency which strips a man of sympathy; and thirdly, he had too little of the organs of benevolence and ideality, which took the glory and softness from his nature, and for him diminished those divine qualities throughout the universe.

- Shirley, Chapter IV

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About the book

Following the tremendous popular success of Jane Eyre, which earned her lifelong notoriety as a moral revolutionary, Charlotte Brontë vowed to write a sweeping social chronicle that focused on "something real and unromantic as Monday morning." Set in the industrializing England of the Napoleonic wars and Luddite revolts of 1811-12, Shirley (1849) is the story of two contrasting heroines. One is the shy Caroline Helstone, who is trapped in the oppressive atmosphere of a Yorkshire rectory and whose bare life symbolizes the plight of single women in the nineteenth century. The other is the vivacious Shirley Keeldar, who inherits a local estate and whose wealth liberates her from convention.

A work that combines social commentary with the more private preoccupations of Jane Eyre, Shirley demonstrates the full range of Brontë's literary talent. "Shirley is a revolutionary novel," wrote Brontë biographer Lyndall Gordon. "Shirley follows Jane Eyre as a new exemplar but so much a forerunner of the feminist of the later twentieth century that it is hard to believe in her actual existence in 1811-12. She is a theoretic possibility: what a woman might be if she combined independence and means of her own with intellect. Charlotte Brontë imagined a new form of power, equal to that of men, in a confident young woman [whose] extraordinary freedom has accustomed her to think for herself....Shirley [is] Brontë's most feminist novel." - Goodreads

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Brontë Week: Shirley, by Charlotte Brontë

Regardless of whether phrenology was part of a writer’s personal beliefs, it could be used as a literary device. In Shirley, for example, Charlotte Brontë described the character of Mr. Yorke as lacking “the organ of Veneration—a great want, and which throws a man wrong on every point where veneration is required,” as well the organ “of Comparison—a deficiency which strips a man of sympathy,” and as having “too little of the organs of Benevolence and Ideality, which took the glory and softness from his nature, and for him diminished those divine qualities throughout the universe” (Brontë 1985 [1849], 76). Brontë believed in phrenology (Shuttleworth 1996), but on this occasion exploited it primarily as an easily recognizable resource for ironically depicting a character.

Vidal, Fernando and Ortega, Francisco. Being Brains: Making the Cerebral Subject (Forms of Living)....

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Published in 25/02/2019

Updated in 19/02/2021

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