“Shirley” takes place in rural Yorkshire during the regency period. Caroline is the pretty and quiet niece of the parish rector, stern Mr. Helstone. She spends much of her time with her distant cousins, Robert and Hortense Moore. Caroline is in love with Robert, but he is more worried about how bad the business affairs revolving around his mill are going. Enter Shirley: the young and charming mistress of Fieldhead, a local manor house. Shirley and Caroline become fast friends, their dissimilar natures complementing each other beautifully. But things are far from idyllic. Robert's cotton mill (which Shirley has shares in) is about to fail and Robert seems to be attracted to Shirley. The working class is getting more and more discontented, growing violent from lack of work (or simply a wish to stir up trouble) and some of the leaders will stop at nothing to get revenge.
To begin with, I really entered into the feelings of the characters. At one point for instance, Shirley and Caroline are spending a summer night together at the rectory and they are waiting for something to happen. I found myself getting all tight and tense as if I was sitting right beside them. The descriptions of the countryside and weather are beautiful.
As for the characters, they are very well crafted. Caroline is so sweet and just the sort of girl one would wish for a friend. She finds herself in a situation where she could easily become bitter toward two people, but instead she buries her feeling as far as she is able, and not allowing them to interfere with her friendships, she unselfishly devotes herself to working for others. Shirley is a harder person to define. At times I loved her and at others she made me furious! But then that is the way she affects people in the story. She even drives her best friends crazy at times with her odd freaks of temper (one of the only people she does not confuse is a certain man, but I won't tell you his name!). One thing I do admire about her is that she is not a flirt. At one point, when she finds out that she had unknowingly led someone astray concerning her feelings, she is shocked and takes all the responsibility (terribly embarrassed that she might lead someone to think she was trying to catch a husband). Mr. Moore reminded me of Mr. Thornton–actually it should be the other way round, since Shirley was written five years before N&S (Gaskell must have read “Shirley”)–anyway, they seemed similar in many points, not the least of which being that they are both stern men on the outside, but can be very gentle and tender with their womenfolk and both have difficulty connecting to their workers.
“Shirley” is high on my list of favorite classics. Miss Brontë's writing style and choice of words are refreshing to read. This is a classic that definitely deserves to be more well known!