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  • Fictional Territory and a Woman’s Place: Regional and Sexual Difference in Shirley
  • Tim Dolin

reader... if you be a southern... 1

Reviewing Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley in 1849, Eugène Forçade remarked that “as a picture of society, the novel could have been called Shirley, or the condition of women in the English middle-class “: not, it has been pointed out, the condition of workers in the West Riding. 2 In this novel the violent struggle of the dispossessed working classes is paralleled and finally overtaken by the silent struggle of a class of women outside of marriage. The domestic romance, it would seem, triumphs over the epic of political action. Yet Shirley Keeldar’s commanding position as property-owner and heiress, problematizing as it does the possibility and efficacy of a woman’s intervention in, or encroachment on, public affairs and socio-sexual reform (the “condition of England” and the “condition of women” debates), raises many questions about precisely this relationship between the private sphere and its imprisoned keepers, on the one hand, and the vast machinery of history on the other. Shirley’s final betrothal to Louis Moore, who too readily pilfers her narrative as well as her keys, suggests that such intervention is neither possible nor desirable. Indeed, as Rosemarie Bodenheimer argues, “active interventionist guidance is the missing keystone to stability in Shirley.3 Is it therefore in some way assumed of, or even conditional upon, women novelists that they withdraw, as Brontë is alleged to do, from the public plot? In such a case, how are we most profitably to read Shirley alongside the (after all very public) Victorian “woman question” ? Further, what happens, structurally, to novels that interleave a polemic about women and politics with a plot from “pernicious” romance (S, 379)?

Charlotte Brontë’s fiction may be said to install itself in the “woman question” debate on the strength of two related emphases that are sustained throughout her work: the questions of woman’s nature and a woman’s place. “Woman’s nature,” of course, was consistently implicated in deciding her proper place: where she was [End Page 197] answered what she was. Brontë’s heroines make this clear when they repeatedly ask, as Caroline Helstone does, “where is my place in the world?” (S, 174). This anxiety about social place generates a series of complex disputes over sexual territory in Victorian culture, the most notorious of which is the so-called ideology of separate spheres, in which woman’s domestic vocation is persistently expressed in terms of actual physical demarcation. In such a climate of territorial coercion, it is perhaps not surprising that Victorian novels about women are so often about the jurisdiction of spaces, and are so consistently set in places where social shifts are registered most deeply and painfully. One prominent subgenre of Victorian fiction in which problems of territoriality and gender are most explicitly worked through, and in which the finest dislocations of social order are calibrated, is the provincial novel. Shirley is such a novel: following Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (which, as Brontë realized, anticipated Shirley “both in subject and incident”), it unites the fiction of community-in-transition with middle-class polemical reform fiction. 4 In what follows, I will argue that Brontë uses this compound form — part regional novel, part industrial novel — to expand Jane Eyre ’s interrogation of female narrative and a woman’s place in Victorian society, and to contest openly the sexual demarcation of fictional territories. 5 In so doing, Shirley engages directly with and contributes substantially to a debate on provincialism that continued throughout the century. 6

The implication of the notion of territoriality in provincialism is more complex than might be suggested by the tone of condescension so frequently associated with the “provincial.” For it can be argued that, in the modern state, land “provides the territorial dimension of the political unit.” 7 Territorial jurisdiction, the staking out and policing of bounded space, in part defines the state: as one political scientist puts it, “Land mediates... between political power and individuals subject to it. For this reason, arrangements governing property in land, which aggregatively constitutes territory, have always been...

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pp. 197-215
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