Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley: A Victorian Diss-Track

By Ryan Ellis (MA ’19), Department of English, Kansas State University

Who could forget the infamous Nicki Minaj track, “Barbie,” that dissed Drake, DJ Khaled, and Meek Mills? Or the moment Taylor Swift dropped “Look What You Made Me Do” after Kim Kardashian leaked a private phone conversation between Swift and Kanye West detailing his plans for a conflict-inspired music video? Outside of music, we can see public digs at famous figures in literature, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, “To Wordsworth,” where Shelley states that his poetic prowess is superior to the old Romantic. Artistic expression allows a platform for artists to announce their innermost thoughts and feelings, but also to publicly criticize the shortcomings of their contemporaries. 

Then there is Charlotte Bronte, author of the heavily criticized 1847 novel, Jane Eyre. Bronte’s first novel, published under the male pseudonym, Currer Bell, was met with mixed reactions upon its release: people either loved it or hated it. The gender identity of Currer Bell was unknown and highly speculated, which resulted in some skewed results in the criticism of Jane Eyre. Rumors circulated that Currer Bell was a woman, which impacted some of the critics’ readings of the novel.

Elizabeth Rigby was perhaps Jane Eyre’s most outspoken critic. In her essay on Jane Eyre, published in The Quarterly Review, Rigby complained that Bronte’s novel was “stamped with a coarseness of language and a laxity of tone,” and filled with “gross inconsistencies and improbabilities” and characters who “violate the laws of both God and man.” 

Contemporary Victorian critics such as Rigby lambasted Bronte’s Jane Eyre because of its apparent departure from Victorian modes of fiction–and the fact that Bronte was a woman writing passionately about love, society, domestic life, and the social and economic position of women.

In response, Bronte’s second novel, Shirley, offered a direct challenge to Jane Eyre’s critics. Rigby’s criticisms are explicitly refuted through Mrs. Pryor’s direct quote of the review itself in chapter twenty-one: 

“It was my lot to enter a family of considerable pretensions to good birth and mental superiority, and the members of which also believed that ‘on them was perceptible’ and unusual endowment of the ‘Christian graces;’ that all their hearts were regenerate, and their spirits in a peculiar state of discipline. I was early given to understand that ‘as I was not their equal,’ so I could not expect ‘to have their sympathy.’” (281). 

But Shirley also confronted Jane Eyre’s critics through its use of an omniscient and outspoken narrative voice that has a lot to say about the politics of England during the early nineteenth century. The strong narrative construction of Shirley, with its omniscient narrator and gender-defying heroines, served as both a response to sexist criticism of Bronte’s work, but also as an act of artistic agency against the heavily regulated world of Victorian fiction. 

Told through a first-person narration, Jane Eyre was criticized for its shocking plot and careless use of language, which—for reviewers like Rigby–stepped outside of the proper Victorian model of fictional story-telling; Shirley, on the other hand, is told through a third-person omniscient narrator, who explicitly focuses on the apparent realism of the novel’s plot. Shirley’s tone is also more ironic: the outspoken narrator is distanced from the characters and the plot, and is less personal and intimate than Jane Eyre’s first-person narration.

Shirley even opens with a direct address to the audience to let them know that the desire of Jane Eyre’s most hostile critics has been fulfilled: “If you think, from this prelude, that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you never were more mistaken,” which is directly in contrast with what they had received when reading Jane Eyre(3). Bronte suggests from the opening of Shirley that everything about this new novelfrom the romance all the way down to the fundamental aspect of voice, will not  different. 

Once we realize that to some audiences, this author is now known to be Charlotte Bronte, the woman, not Currer Bell, the man, we can also recognize Bronte deliberately adopting a position of power and authority in Shirley. Bronte uses an omniscient authorial voice in order to further comment on modern fictional criticism as well as to exert her artistic agency. Bronte takes the sexist criticism and hoists herself up further: as an all-knowing God-like narrator who may enter the consciousness of any character at any time.

A Girl Reading, Charles Edward Perugini

At the novel’s end, Charlotte Bronte’s omniscient narration critiques the Victorian model of story-telling through the chapter titled “The Winding Up,” a self-conscious reference to the way in which Victorian novels are expected to conclude with a happy, perfectly summarized yet realistic ending in which nothing is left up to the reader’s imagination. However, this “Winding Up” leaves readers with many more questions to ponder, like what ultimately happens with the mill once the novel closes? Will Robert’s new sense of altruism really result in a more unified and content relationship between employer and employee? Will Shirley’s marriage to Louis be the one best-suited for her? All of these questions are unanswered, which, perhaps, was Charlotte’s goal in concluding the novel that directly challenges her critics. 

The novel closes with an address to an imagined male reader: “The story is told. I think I now see the judicious reader putting on his spectacles to look for the moral. It would be an insult to his sagacity to offer directions” (482). Ultimately, what Bronte sets the Victorian reader up for in the opening chapter is not what they receive by the novel’s conclusion. The reader does receive a romantic plot, and the reader does receive a political commentary from an omniscient woman narrator. Instead of the close, personal narration of Jane Eyre, Shirley’s male readership receives a distanced third-person narration that has mocked and criticized their society throughout the entirety of the reading. 

It is difficult to see this novel outside of the criticism of Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The ways in which the novel challenges contemporary criticisms of artistry in the fiction of women is easily on par with Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” after she claimed that Kanye West engaged in “character annihilation.” Shirley, then, is able to comment, criticize, and ultimately engage with a contemporary audience and challenge their views on women, fiction, and economics. 

Works Cited

Bronte, Charlotte. Shirley. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 1993. Print.

“The Realistic Novel in the Victorian Era.” British Literature Wiki. British Literature Wiki. https://sites.udel.edu/britlitwiki/the-realistic-novel-in-the-victorian-era/. Accessed: 2 April 2019.

Turner, Derek. “Classic QR – The Original 1848 Review of Jane Eyre.” The Quarterly Review. The Quarterly Review. 23 March 2012. http://www.quarterly-review.org/classic-qr-the-original-1848-review-of-jane-eyre/. Accessed: 2 April 2019. 

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