Shirley was published at the end of the “Hungry Forties,” a decade of profound social unrest. In the novel, Charlotte Brontë both refracted some of Carlyle’s concerns raised in “Signs of the Times” (text) and “Chartism” as well as Disraeli’s anxiety about the two nation divide and also blended them with the Woman Question. The novel has a complex plot: an unromantic tale with two interpolated social commentaries: on the history of the Luddite riots in the cloth-making district of Yorkshire, and on the struggle for female independence from male dominance in patriarchal society. At the outset, the narrator assures its readers that they will not find narrative a conventional romance.
If you think, from this prelude, that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you never were more mistaken. Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry, and reverie? Do you expect passion, and stimulus, and melodrama? Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool, and solid, lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake with the consciousness that they must rise and betake themselves thereto.
In other words, Shirley, which differs considerably from Jane Eyre, declares its affinity with Benjamin Disraeli’s Sibyl and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton and North and South. The novel contains an explicit social discourse about the Condition of England aimed at highlighting the class and gender divide and its possible social consequences.
In early 1812, Luddism spread to Yorkshire, where croppers, a small and highly skilled group of cloth finishers, turned their anger on the new shearing frame that they feared would put them out of work. Soon Parliament passed the Frame Breaking Act which made machine-breaking a capital offence. The following passage, in which Brontë proves to have a fine ear for the local dialect, suggests that the author sympathises with workers who are most concerned with the loss of employment. They do not want to destroy machines because of ignorance but because they believe that factory owners will constantly reduce the number of employees thanks to the introduction of labour-saving machinery.
“I’ve not much faith I’ Moses Barraclough,” said he; “and I would speak a word to you myseln, Mr. Moore. It’s out o’ no ill-will that I’m here, for my part; it’s just to mak’ a effort to get things straightened, for they’re sorely acrooked. Ye see we’re ill off, — varry ill off: wer families is poor and pined. We’re thrawn out o‘ work wi’ these frames: we can get nought to do: we can earn nought. What is to be done? Mun we say, wisht! and lig us down and dee? Nay: I’ve no grand words at my tongue’s end, Mr. Moore, but I feel that it wad be a low principle for a reasonable man to starve to death like a dumb cratur’: — I will n’t do’t. I’m not for shedding blood: I’d neither kill a man nor hurt a man; and I’m not for pulling down mills and breaking machines: for, as ye say, that way o” going on ’ll niver stop invention; but I’ll talk, — I’ll mak’ as big a din as ever I can. Invention may be all right, but I know it isn’t right for poor folks to starve. Them that governs mun find a way to help us: they mun mak’ fresh orderations. Ye’ll say that’s hard to do: — so mich louder mun we shout out then, for so mich slacker will t’ Parliament-men be to set on to a tough job""
Brontë did not witness the Luddite riots, although she had some first-hand accounts of them from her father, who sometimes acted on behalf of the authorities during the riots. Like Carlyle and Gaskell, Charlotte Brontë is concerned with the plight of the industrial workers. She is aware that the revolt against the unemployment caused by the introduction of machines during the early phase of the Industrial Revolution might lead to major social upheavals. However, what Brontë eventually offers is a simplified solution to remedy the antagonism between masters and workers. Her solution is based on an idealised co-operation and co-existence between benevolent masters and loyal workers. As Patricia Ingham points out in the conclusion of her analysis of Shirley “The novel speaks for the working class but still cannot let them speak for themselves. They remain what Carlyle in Chartism (1839) called ’that great dumb toiling class which cannot speak’”
The Woman Question — that is, issues regarding women’s legal status and their roles in both the public and private spheres — parallels the Condition-of-England Question in the novel. The eponymous character, Shirley Keeldar, is one of the first independent and strong-willed heroines in English literature, who anticipates the New Woman at the end of the Victorian era. Shirley’s foil, Caroline Helstone, represents a conventional Victorian female: she is shy, submissive and self-repressed. Both women struggle, each in their own way, to find happiness and fulfilment in life, but the epilogue of the novel demonstrates that options available to women were very limited. They both fail to find self-fulfilment outside conventional marriage.
As Rosemarie Bodenheimer has demonstrated, “paternalism is an assumption central to Charlotte Brontë’s imagination of human relations.” Brontë proposes in Shirley paternalism as a solution to both industrial disputes and the Woman Question. Paternalism seems to have been advocated by Victorian writers as an alternative to a number of social ills. Victorian paternalism was a consequence of the laissez-faire doctrine. It offered an alternative to free-market economy by defining the relationship between employers and employees based on humane principles. Paternalism propagated the vision of an industrial society as a big hierarchical family with benevolent employers and dependent employees who revived the old master-servant relationship.