“Shirley in context”: Nicholas Shrimpton at the Brussels Brontë group, 29th March 2014

As part of my visit to Brussels I attended the events organised by the Brussels Brontë group, who hold an annual Brontë weekend in March/April. This year the speaker was Dr Nicholas Shrimpton from the University of Oxford, and his subject was Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley (1849).

It’s fair to say that this is the least favourite of Charlotte Brontë’s novels, among readers and critics alike, and from the time of its publication to the present day has attracted far less interest than Jane Eyre and Villette. I’m in the minority who find the novel both enjoyable and of academic interest, and having taught Shirley a couple of times on The English Nineteenth-Century Novel I’ve definitely gained a much greater appreciation of it – it’s a pleasure to teach as there is simply so much to say, and the novel is rich with interesting scenes to analyse in light of gender and political debates (it’s also one of the few novels where I find myself wanting to really persuade students of how much they should love it, something I usually try to resist!).

But it has to be said that much of this interest, and indeed the novel’s scope for analysis, comes from its problematic nature in terms of thematic and structural integrity. It this that formed the basis of Nicholas Shrimpton’s talk, in which he assessed the case for and against Shirley, exploring in detail both the novel’s problems and its possibilities. Most interesting was that Shrimpton made the case for Shirley as a ‘panoramic’ novel on a par with Thackeray’s Vanity Fair: we know that Charlotte Brontë greatly admired Thackeray’s work, and Shirley, he argued, is her attempt at undertaking a novel of such scale and scope. Ultimately, it is hugely flawed, but it is also hugely ambitious. Shrimpton really captured that what makes the novel so exciting is the many fractures and disjunctures that occur throughout the text. The text’s handling of the “woman question”, and its eventual ‘failure’ at sustaining proto-feminist arguments, is an apt case in point: while on the one hand, the final marriages of Caroline and Shirley come as a disappointment after the novel’s earlier promise in questioning and challenging gender conventions, at the same time it is here that Brontë most usefully illustrates the strength of such conventions and the need for change – for both the women in the story, and for the woman writer, there simply is no other realistic option but to end with a marriage.

Shrimpton also highlighted other contextual issues that are illuminating on how we read it – he focused particularly on the Luddite/Chartist conflation (or not), and also spoke of Brontë’s worry that the text would be read as too similar to Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, published the year before. It was also interesting, in light of my literary geography excursion that weekend, to hear Shrimpton discuss the idea of ‘Shirley country’ (as distinct from ‘Brontë’ country’) as well as talking about the novel’s continental connections. The talk was an excellent reminder that Shirley deserves more attention as perhaps the most interesting, and certainly illuminating, of Charlotte Brontë’s works.

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