Networked Manufacture in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley


This paper confronts many years of displacement-based readings of Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (1849) with a historicized “surface reading” that connects the manual labor of two very distinct constituencies in the novel: hardened Luddite machine breakers and dispossessed middle-class women. A surface-level line of inquiry into manufactured objects reveals an inverted network from the mill to the parlor; the redundancy of human hands caused by mechanization in the mill is concurrent with a surplus of female handiwork in the novel’s middle-class homes. I argue that this inversion makes sense if we situate the novel in its 1811–12 setting—the unique historical moment when the term “manufacture” began to accrue paradoxically opposed meanings. Brontë’s oscillation between mechanized and manual forms of manufacture in Shirley marks the early boundaries of what would eventually become the rigidly defined separate spheres of mid-century Victorian life.