Nunnwood in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley: Fantasies of Femininity and Failing The Bechdel Test

By Vilune Sestokaite (MA ’20), Department of English, Kansas State University

During Britain’s “Hungry Forties,” Charlotte Brontë wrote Shirley (1849), a novel which tackles themes ranging from social problems to love and friendship. Brontë throws the reader into Hollow’s Mill, an industrial setting, saturated with male characters, where Luddite riots break out in response to the new equipment that local mill owner, Robert Moore, brings to the small English town. The novel also follows Shirley Keeldar, an independent heiress, and Caroline Helstone, the niece of a local priest. 

When you start the novel, you might think Where’s Shirley? Isn’t the novel named after her? Well, we don’t get Shirley until about one-third of the way through the novel. And when we do, despite Shirley and Caroline’s all-female day trip to Nunnely Common, masculinity never really goes away. So, I decided to put the novel to a test, The Bechdel Test.

What is The Bechdel Test?     

From Alison Bethel’s Dyke to Watch Out For (1985)

Inspired by Alison Bechdel’s comic strip ‘The Rule,’ the Bechdel test has become a way to highlight “how male-dominated cinema really is” (“About”).  It’s simple, really. To pass the Bechdel test, a movie must have the following:

  1. At least two female characters
  2. Both female characters must both have names
  3. They have to talk to each other about something other than a man 

What happens when Shirley, a canonized Victorian England novel, is put to this test? How hard could it be to pass? Actually, pretty tough considering in 2016, only half of the top 25 movies passed (“About: The Bechdel Test”). 

Let’s take a walk to Nunnely Commons and see what happens…

Illustration from nineteenth-century edition of Shirley

Male Motives and Male Centered Conversation 

Not only is it Mr. Helstone’s decision to introduce Shirley and Caroline, but when the women take a day trip to Nunnely Commons, away from the masculinity of Hollow’s Mill, their conversation still revolves around men. 

1. Mr Helstone’s Decision

Though Caroline wanted a change, meeting Shirley wasn’t what she requested from her uncle. Caroline isn’t doing well physically or mentally and demands permission from her uncle to go away from home and do something for herself. In response, Mr. Helstone accuses Caroline of being “incomprehensible,” suggesting that her reaction is unique to the female sex and remains “fantastical and whimsical.” Mr. Helstone, without asking what Caroline wants, decides that he will take her and introduce her to Shirley, who will hopefully teach Caroline to have some spirit (183-187). 

2. More of Moore

Here’s where criteria number three of the Bechdel Test comes in. Caroline and Shirley successfully reach Nunnely Commons and talk about Nature and what it means to be in Yorkshire, but the conversation quickly turns to—guess who? That’s right. Moore. The ladies were just talking about how happiness lies within themselves. C’mon girls, have some strength! 

There has to be some hope, right? Surely there’s some femininity here somewhere.

Nunnwood as Feminine Fantasy, Nunnely Commons as Masculine Reality

Nunnwood remains a distant fantasy in the women’s minds while they remain stuck in a masculine world. 

1. Unreachable Nunnwood 

Nunnwood remains a fantastical landscape with vibrant life off in the distance—somewhere the women daydream of, but don’t go. Caroline talks about all of the adventurous things the two could do in Nunnwood if they were to visit. The irony comes in, however, when Caroline describes Nunnwood as “an encampment of forest sons of Anak” with “still and firm” trunks where a nunnery lies in the bottom of a break, surrounded by “gnarly” oaks (201). The nunnery signifies that this was quite literally a female and holy space, but is now enclosed by masculine trees, much like the women surrounded by masculinity at Hollow’s Mill.

2. Robin Hood

As Eithne Henson suggests, Caroline and Shirley can only dominate the natural world by romanticizing the past (Henson 62).  A reference to Robin Hood is made when Shirley asks whether Nunnwood “Was … not one of the Robin Hood’s haunts?” (201). Caroline responds by explaining that to dig deep into Nunnwood “is to go far back into the dim days of eld” (201). As Caroline implies, to poke around in Nunnwood is to face the unrecorded past of women. 

Final Thoughts

The problem with male-centered plots and conversations isn’t just an issue for films, but for novels as well. According to “an analysis of more than 100,00 novels spanning more than 200 years” the number of female novelists and female characters has declined since the Victorian period (Flood). Knowing the trend, is The Bechdel Test fair? Is it time to come up with a stricter test? Does it reveal our culture’s low standards or just perpetuate them? What would happen if we were to conduct the Bechdel test on other canonized novels?

If you’re interested in knowing more about The Bechdel Test, listen to “The Bechdel Cast,” a podcast on Spotify or visit a review of over eight thousand movies. 

Works Cited

“About: The Bechdel Test Fest.” Bechdel Test Fest. Accessed 24 March 2019. 

Brontë, Charlotte. Shirley. Penguin Books, 2006.

Flood, Alison. “Women better represented in Victorian novels than modern, finds study.” The

 Guardian. 19 Feb. 2018. Accessed 25 March 2019. 

Henson, Eithne.Landscape and Gender in the Novels of Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot,

 and Thomas Hardy. Ashgate Publishing Limited.2011. 

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