By Oishani Sengupta

This paper aims to explore the problem of friendship in Charlotte Bronte’s famous novel, Shirley by taking a more detailed look at the relationship between the novel’s two young female protagonists, Caroline and Shirley.


Somewhere in the middle of Charlotte Brontë’s novel the two female protagonists, Caroline and Shirley, decide to forego an evening in church in favour of Nature-worship. One thing leads to another, and soon they fall upon the subject of Eve, when suddenly Shirley explodes with a burst of powerful feeling:

Milton tried to see the first woman; but, Cary, he saw her not…  It was his cook that he saw; or it was Mrs. Gill, as I have seen her, making custards, in the heat of summer, in the cool dairy, with rose-trees and nasturtiums about the latticed window, preparing a cold collation for the Rectors,–– preserves, and ‘dulcet creams’––puzzled ‘what choice to choose for delicacy best; what order so contrived as not to mix tastes, not well-joined, inelegant; but bring taste after taste, upheld with kindliest change.[1]


Shirley’s outburst underlines concepts with which the novel engages – the inherent frailty of woman and her subsequent confinement within the home. The Victorian era saw the gradual replacement of the Pauline conception of woman as positively pernicious by an image of gentle virtuousness, full of spirituality but bereft of agency, designed entirely to provide comfort and succor to all. Francoise Basch differentiates between the notions of woman as the ‘soul’ of the house and man as its ‘architect’.[2] The home was a protected space, specifically suited to woman’s natural aptitudes, as opposed to the troublesome, materialistic outdoors, where man was meant to exercise his strength and intellect. Contemporary best-selling advice-books and manuals of etiquette, such as Sarah Ellis’ The Women of England[3], described the role of the wife as being the centre of emotion and influence within the Victorian family.


Shirley’s critique of this ideology is not new. Harriet Martineau, George Eliot and others considered it preposterous to speak of woman’s narrow domestic sphere while depriving her of social and political rights. In fact, there was ample evidence of women financially supporting themselves and even entire families, turning this notion on its head. Shirley not only asserts the inadequacy of Milton’s ability to envision the first woman, but claims validity for her own interpretation of Eve. Men, in her opinion, are singularly incapable of understanding the nature of women, whether in fiction or in reality. ‘Their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend.’[4] Women are able to understand each other better, and consequently they influence each other’s identities in ways that either subvert or reinforce the existing paradigm of patriarchy. In this paper, I intend to investigate Shirley’s influence on her social circumstances and how it relates to the novel’s abrupt and much dissected end.


The Victorian period saw a rise in the readership of historical narratives. Historical writing and fiction negotiated between themselves the terrain of past events, contesting to claim the right of providing reassuring explanations of the course of human life in terms that the reading public of the Victorian age would comprehend and trust. Although the traditional historian had the support of authority, the fiction writer was often able to impress deeply upon the reader certain scenes, moments and feelings from the past that created a much more immediate impact than factual accounts. Since contemporary historiography prioritized the representation of wars, courts and kings over the experiences of domestic life among common people, the struggle between history and fiction for representational supremacy over important social and political events became a gendered one. History required training in classical language and history, disciplines traditionally denied to women, whereas fiction was linked with births and deaths of children, marriages, domestic conflicts and alliances between families and social classes, all of which was located in the interior. The popularity of these fictional interpretations of the past led to a revaluation of the role of women in shaping the course of human civilization, as central characters in the drama, rather than mere embellishments that rendered palatable the lives of men.


According to Rohan Amanda Maitzen, the predominance of male historiography was challenged in the Victorian period by the publication of innumerable biographies of women, whose authors contested the proposition that men were the sole determinants in the historical process and offered a revision of the biased narratives that had hitherto excluded the lives and efforts of women[5]. Through the representation of powerful and tremendously popular women-figures such as Queen Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots, the female historiography of the Victorian age attempted to reconstruct the traditional approach to gender and power in terms of the notion of ‘queenliness’[6], the property of certain egregious women who participated in the affairs of both the interior and the exterior space, combining the power of political action with the domestic virtues of kindness and generosity. Maitzen adds that Victorian women often considered aristocratic, ‘queenly’ women as idealized versions of themselves, and translated their relative independence into middle-class conceptions of virtue and femininity, thus creating a conflicted space where the possibility of political freedom of women was continuously subverted by the repressive stereotype of the ‘angel in the house’. But in Shirley the two female protagonists, whose friendship is the theme of the novel, are redeemed from falling into either of these stereotypes even though the men around them are much more true to their historical type.

Shirley is set during the Luddite riots of 1811-12; working-class unrest, combined with the widespread economic depression that followed the Napoleonic Wars, forms the anxious background of the novel. The deadly competition of the market percolates into the interior of the home, infecting the natural warmth of friendship and affection. The three curates of the opening scene continually drink, eat and chat in each other’s company, all the while insulting one and competing for the same women. Reverend Helstone is unwilling to partake of food at Hiram Yorke’s house, in case that implies cordiality, and Roger Moore pronounces the last word – the very mention of friendship irritates him.


The crisis of men is the absence of work, the complete stagnation of the means to exercise their agency; that of women is entirely different. Unable to do anything but grace the domestic hearth, the women in the novel face the same condition as the cloth that is uselessly stored in Moore’s warehouse and the hundreds of hands that are ‘famished and furious’ – they cannot find a buyer in the market. In fact, Brontë herself states the problem in these exact terms

The matrimonial market is overstocked.[7]

This statement not only begs a comparison between women and commodities, but also indicates a problem of women peculiar to Victorian society. The women who function as anything other than mothers and wives are considered defective goods, like Miss Ainley or Miss Mann, whose unattractive features or temper have rendered them undesirable to men. Hortense Moore, who remains outside the system, serves only to reinforce it in her attempts to model Caroline into someone ‘sufficiently girlish and submissive’[8].


Caroline, though generally timid and compliant, has a firm opinion about everything. She prefers Shakespeare to Corneille, reading to sewing and Robert’s intelligent conversation to Hortense’s gendered moralizing. Standing between the mystical realm of Elf-land and the harsh, yet inviting shores of Reality, she feels dissatisfied with her vocation as niece and housekeeper to her uncle, and wishes to enter a new life. Her briefly reciprocated attraction to Robert Moore affords her such a dream. The existing Victorian ideal of the companionate marriage allows Caroline to imagine for herself an exclusive identity – to be the sole partner of her beloved. Yet unfortunately, this identity is not available to her, since Robert is too absorbed in his ambition of bettering his financial position to entertain romantic thoughts. All her hopes of future dashed in an instant, Caroline realizes that she cannot inhabit the roles that society encourages her to imagine for herself.


Caroline cannot entirely bury her subjectivity, nor can she pretend to assimilate herself with all the young women around her, whose aggressively normative behavior alienates her completely. The Misses Sykes are models of provincial propriety – they castigate Caroline for not being sufficiently religious or knowledgeable in country gossip. The men around her, who demonstrate their good sense in practical and political matters, cherish such notions of the feminine that exclude an intelligent woman who questions, if not disobeys, accepted social codes. Reverend Helstone and Hiram Yorke, who are both affectionate towards her, prefer women to be silly and frivolous, or silent and pale, or even tyrannical and gloomy, but they cannot abide sense in women.


Susan Gubar states that Caroline finds no succour in her arid environment, and thus she slowly begins to wither. Undesired as her thoughts are, they exist nonetheless, and due to her restricted condition, they turn against her, converting the lonely interior into a space of dread[9]. Freud, in his essay ‘The Uncanny’, explores the mystery of things that are both familiar and terrifying to us[10]. The home, which is comfortable and safe, is paradoxically also the tomb where the woman is buried alive, and thus becomes the source of terror and apathy for its prisoners. The interiority of the hearth, which is traditionally the woman’s place, thus becomes the most threatening realm where she may be immolated in silence – without the knowledge of anyone in the outside world. Shirley explores that moment of terror when all connection between the domestic world and outside is severed, and thus the relationship of support and succor between the two ceases to exist. Lyn Pykett argues that in locating the supernatural experiences of heroines within middle-class English homes rather than faraway Italian castles like Udolpho, the Brontës create a powerful, psychological version of gothic fiction[11].


Charlotte Brontë explores the intertwining of this feeling of imprisonment with the impression of the supernatural in almost all her major works. Jane feels the presence of her uncle’s ghost when Mrs. Reed locks her in the Red Room, and Lucy Snowe conjures up a ghostly nun, buried alive in the medieval times, as her repressed double. In Shirley, we have the imaginary ghost of Mary Cave, an example of the Victorian ‘angel in the house’ who has been buried within the four walls by persistent indifference. In fact, Caroline, seeking an appropriate feminine role model, unconsciously toys with the idea of becoming a silent haunting presence, keeping vigil over Hollow’s Mill from afar, but never expressing her indescribable suffering.


The character of Shirley completely contrasts with the lives of the other women in novel. Armed with a good education, money and property of her own, and with no hindrance of a legal guardian, she creates formidable ripples in the societies of Whinbury, Briarfield and Nunnely. She flaunts her masculine position, delighting in the nickname of Captain Keeldar. Through her enterprise, Robert is able to improve his situation, and the poor of Yorkshire receive well-deserved financial aid. Instead of suffering in seclusion, Shirley enjoys traveling and she even prefers worshipping Nature outdoors than imprisoning herself in a claustrophobic church.  The narrative links her exceptional character to the unconventional nature of her upbringing. In the absence of a son, her parents gave her a man’s name and allowed her to hold a man’s social position. Once in possession of them, Shirley uses them not only to secure her own happiness, but others’ as well. Unlike Dorothea Casaubon, whose potential is continuously restricted by the norms and expectations of society, Shirley’s fortunate circumstance allows her to realize her potential of ‘queenliness’ in an unrestricted manner, like a Theresa or an Antigone of the past.

Shirley provides a brilliant infusion of imperious energy into the narrative. Achieving what men cannot, she refashions Caroline’s life and self in unexpected ways. Despite Caroline’s belief that it is not a woman’s place to force a man into anything, Shirley drags her along in a mad chase to demand a good-night from the forgetful Robert. Her imperious nature counteracts Caroline’s timidity and adjusts circumstances to grant her friend’s wishes. It is she who solves the mystery of Robert’s secretive behavior and takes Caroline to witness the attack of the rioters on Hollow’s Mill in the middle of the night. In her company, Caroline becomes an active, creative self- exploring, arguing, challenging and sharing woman – compared to her silent, haunting presence in the Rectory. Furthermore, Shirley is instrumental in reuniting Caroline with her mother, thus fulfilling her desire of a loving, maternal figure in her life.


Sarah Ellis considers female intimacy fundamental to a heteronormative social organization because it creates marriageable women by reinforcing the difference between the sexes[12]. Through extensive interaction with each other, women learn their difference from men, and are better equipped to deal with the hierarchical institution of marriage. Even though female intimacy in Shirley does facilitate the marriage plot, the interaction between the two friends opens up a space for free interaction for Caroline, which would clearly be impossible in her relationship with the much older and more authoritative Robert Moore.


In Between Women: Friendship, Desire and Marriage in Victorian England, Sharon Marcus writes about the intense and elastic homosocial relationships that, in the Victorian period, allowed women to take part in activities that were forbidden to them in heterosexual interaction. Apart from debating about their unorthodox beliefs or exploring their sexuality, women also engaged in competitive or aggressive behavior with their intimate companions, free from the control exercised by figures of authority. Marcus points out that the vast amount of written material that exists from the 19th Century onwards shows us that Victorian women were not like the submissive and idealized images that are thrust on us by many contemporary accounts of feminine behavior, but active and vigorous participants in the ‘masculine’ discourses of religion, politics and sexual enjoyment[13].

Marcus also examines the writings by women on matters of fashion, social behavior and the rearing of children, which render these topics the site of intense involvement and interest for the women of the time. Relationships between mothers and daughters, sisters, friends, governesses and students, which are considered by Ellis to be a way of reinforcing the divide between men and women as well as nurturing marriageable women, are often openly sexualized, revealing a realm of intimate activity within the home that defies any notion of simplistic confinement and deprivation. In Shirley, the change in the environment inhabited by the two women is not just due to Shirley’s efficient handling of her property, but also due to her deep involvement in Caroline’s life and her identification with a girl apparently so different from herself. Shirley helps Robert not only because he is her tenant, but because Caroline is deeply in love with him and troubled by his unhappiness. Their friendship fulfills another intimate relationship that had seemed impossible – the meeting of Caroline and her long-lost mother. In the narrative, then, it is the imperiled interior that is reclaimed as a site of enjoyment, solidarity and power – an exclusive space in which women can act together and implement their choice. This choice does not have consequences for them alone, but for the society as a whole.


The intimacy between women does not only further their ambitions and allow them the freedom to express themselves, but changes both of them fundamentally. While Caroline gains confidence in herself and her abilities through her proximity with Shirley’s independent nature, Shirley becomes more accustomed to the social behavior considered proper to a woman rather than that of a wealthy young squire. Men are not worth competing between the two friends; in fact, their intrusion is unwanted. Referring to Robert, Shirley says that she prefers Caroline’s company without the ‘six feet of puppyhood’. Instead of being a bone of contention, Robert is a topic of discussion that binds the two even closer by allowing Caroline to talk discreetly of her affections and Shirley to encourage her. Friendship, as well as pride, leads Shirley to reject Robert’s proposal. Though she disdains the idea of being courted for money, she equally despises the idea of being ‘a traitor to all my sisters’. Her refusal opens up the arena for Robert’s acknowledgement of the narrowness of his ambitions, and the eventual resolution of the Robert-Caroline marriage plot. Marcus draws our attention to the ‘reciprocity’ that is repeatedly foregrounded in the novel – the existence of Robert cements the friendship of the two women, just as the friendship acts as a catalyst in the romantic relationship[14].


The problems of industrial management that cripple the novel at the beginning are slowly resolved at the end, not only through the sudden, almost fairy tale ending of the Napoleonic wars, but also the change in Robert’s views about the welfare of his workers – a change that is possible only due to the tireless efforts of both Caroline and Shirley. The fictional narrative of the novel reveals to us the hidden spaces of everyday life that the masterful discourse of history ignores, spaces that are witness to the decisions that define an age. Shirley’s rejection of the depiction of Eve as a mere cook is important again in this context. She contends that masculine historiography has effaced the efforts of ‘queenly’ women in order to deny them their fair share in the historical process and depict them as pretty ornaments that play only a decorative role in social and political events. By linking the political fates of the mill-owners with their emotional relationships, and drawing attention to the way in which female friendships channeled the agency of women at a time when they were disallowed active participation in civic matters, Brontë emphasizes the role of fiction in exploring the intertwined lives of women, children and the poor which contemporary historical writings rarely paid attention to.

In this context, the problem that Shirley poses is that of its violent end, which the author self-consciously titles ‘The Winding-Up’. Most critics believe that the sudden arrival of Louis Moore, leading to the effacement of Shirley’s powerful, subversive voice from the tale and its replacement by Louis’ assumption of authority, as well as her final acknowledgement of him as her unquestionable superior – her lord and master, suggest that neither the novel, nor the society, can finally accommodate Shirley as she is. The author has to dispatch her off in a sudden and unceremonious manner. The idea that Shirley’s queenliness is repressed by a patriarchal narrative of history arises, to a certain extent, from the suggestion that Caroline and Shirley hope to maintain an exclusive friendship that rivals marriage, outside of those narrative constraints.


In her conclusion to Middlemarch, George Eliot differentiates between the heroines of the past and her protagonist, Dorothea Casaubon. Eliot writes that Dorothea cannot become like her predecessors mainly because her circumstances do not afford her the opportunity of expressing herself through grand acts of political or religious significance. The queenliness of Dorothea, finding no way of expressing itself untrammeled by society’s repressive rules and regulations, finally expends itself in providing a comfortable home for a man who rises high in political affairs. Shirley on the other hand has enjoyed too much freedom in her early life, and thus the effective transplantation of her independent persona from the sphere of public affairs into the home is not quite as smooth. The difficulty that she experiences in accepting the change in her role is evident in the fact that Brontë does not instantaneously convert Shirley into the compliant and submissive wife, but shows her depressed at her ‘vanquished and restricted’[15] state. By openly removing Shirley from her authoritative position in the narrative, the narrator returns our attention to acts of appropriation by patriarchal history, which the novelist attempt to reverse  through different strategies, up to the point of the protagonists’ marriage.







[1] Charlotte Brontë, Shirley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 270.


[2] Francoise Basch, Relative Creatures: Victorian Women in Society and the Novel (New York: Schocken
Books, 1974), p. 5.


[3] Sarah Ellis, The Women of England: Their Social Duties, and Domestic Habits (London: Fisher, Son & Co.,
1839), p.47.


[4]Brontë , Shirley, p. 296.


[5] Rohan Amanda Maitzen, Gender, Genre and Victorian Historical Writing (New York: Garland Pub., 1998), p.


[6] Maitzen, Gender, Genre and Victorian Historical Writing, p. 157.


[7]Brontë , Shirley, p. 329.


[8]Ibid., p. 58.


[9] Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth
Century Literary Imagination,
2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 376.


[10] Sigmund Freud, David McLintock and Hugh Haughton, The Uncanny (New York: Penguin, 2003).


[11] Lyn Pykett, ‘Sensation and the Fantastic in the Victorian Novel’, The Cambridge Companion to the
Victorian Novel
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 198.


[12] Ellis, The Women of England, p.75.


[13] Sharon Marcus, Between Women: Friendship, Desire and Marriage in Victorian England (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 26.


[14] Marcus, Between Women, p. 98.


[15]Brontë , Shirley, p. 534.

Oishani Sengupta is presently in the final year of her postgraduate degree at the Department of English, Jadavpur University. She has previously received her Bachelor’s degree from the same department.