After I wrote the last entry I picked up the book again and read it more or less in one session.
All the character descriptions are brilliant. Some characters are summed up in one pithy sentence or one short paragraph, and you know exactly what kind of people they are, and yet none of the primary or secondary characters are stereotypes, because their words and actions then take over and show them to be more than mere cardboard cut-outs. This takes skill. The disapproving Mrs. Yorke, for example, is shown to hate youth and beauty, but is perfectly capable of changing her mind about said youth and beauty when it is suffering (e.g. Mr. Moore), when she turns out to be a mother hen type.
There are passages that seem to serve no particular purpose, or which at least could have been shorter, but taken altogether the story does not sag badly at any time. It sails on at its own pace and gets there in the end. I am certain there are readers who would have wished the ending to be a bit less tidy, especially as narrative convention almost demands the death of Caroline Helstone. In fact there have been speculations that the original intention was to kill her off, but Charlotte drew back from it because she lost all her siblings while she was writing the book. Be that as it may, since none of the primary characters dies, Shirley makes a satisfying romantic read.
But it isn't just a romance. There are also speculations on social issues, such as on the responsibility of mill owners for the livelihoods of thousands of mill workers that were being shattered by industrial changes, on justice and religion, and especially on the position of women in society. Although the narrator (and presumably author) is firmly of the opinion that marriage is the best place for women (witness the rather miserable position of the two spinsters and the experiences of Mrs. Pryor before she was employed as Shirley's companion), it is clear that this only applies to marriages where both parties love and esteem one another. The marriages of both Helstone brothers end badly for their wives, one in death, the other in divorce followed by drudgery, and it is implied that this happened because the love in those unions was one-sided.
These two unions of people unsuited to one another are contrasted with the upcoming marriages of the Moore brothers with Caroline and Shirley. One side of each couple has been in danger of contracting a union unfit for them - Robert wooing Shirley for her money and Shirley being wooed by a young man who, while both richer and of a higher social status, would never be able to give her what she needs in a marriage, i.e. a man who can help her control her excesses of temperament. Shirley firmly prevents both mistakes from being made, and love finds its way, with the implication of, if not happily ever after, than at least happier than they might have been.
So far, of the two Brontë Project books I have read (not counting the two I read many years ago), the ranking is as follows:
For story, narrative technique and reading enjoyment:
- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
For characters and quality of writing:
- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall