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Ailing Women in the Age of Cholera: Illness in Shirley Beth Torgerson Charlotte Bronte's novel, Shirley, is a novel of displacements. Even the novel's title is an indication of the novel's penchant for displacement since the tide character, Shirley Keeldar, does not appear until the end of volume one, long after readers' sympathies are attached to Caroline Helstone. Within the text, the displacements happen on three levels, two of which have already been explored by scholars. Terry Eagleton explores the first level of displacement in Myths of Power:A MarxistStudy of the Bronte's, showing how Brontë displaces the contemporary events of the 1848 Chartist Rebellion onto the earlier Luddite Rebellion of 1811-1812. Eagleton contends, "there can be no doubt that Chartism is the unspoken subject of Shirley* (45). In the second level of displacement, Shirley's overt concern with class conflict hides Bronte's primary concern with gender issues. Feminist critics, such as Susan Gubar andJuliet Barker, have explored how Shirley's class issues cover for Bronte's protest against conditions for women. Gubar notes, "this book about the 'woman question' uses the workers' wrath to enact the women's revenge against the lives of enforced emptiness, of starvation" (233). Barker agrees that "the whole story [Shirley] was an exploration of the "Woman Question'" in light of Bronte's omission of the "question of the rights and sufferings of mill workers" (603). In the third level of displacement, a level which has not previously been explored by Brontë scholars, cholera serves as yet another "unspoken subject" of Shirley, with women's health as the focus of Bronte's concern. Instead of Shirley being written to look at Victorian Review (2004) B. Torgerson issues of starvation, poor health, and conditions affecting the lower classes, Bronte's primary goal is to educate her male readers on how important female health is to the nation. She uses references to cholera to intensify her readers' response to her pleas for reforming female health. For example, Caroline Helstone's long soliloquy on the life of English women reads like an authorial address, serving to focus readers' attention on the core issues of Shirley, women's ailing health. Within this address, Bronte's choice of the "plague" metaphor ties into this final level of displacement in Shirley. This metaphor is not simply rhetorical. Rather, it indicates a hidden concern in Shirley. The "plague" metaphor gains both urgency and credibility in times when countries are dealing with plague epidemics. Significandy, Shirley was published in 1849, the year of the second nationwide epidemic of cholera in England. Throughout Caroline's impassioned soliloquy, Brontë makes explicit the connection between societal limitations for women and illness: Men of England! look at your poor girls, many of them fading around you, dropping off in consumption or decline; or, what is worse, degenerating to sour old maids, — envious, backbiting, wretched, because life is a desert to diem; or, what is worst of all, reduced to strive, by scarce modest coquetry and debasing artifice, to gain that position and consideration by marriage, which to celibacy is denied. Fathers! cannot you alter these things? . . . You would wish to be proud of your daughters and not to blush for them — then seek for them an interest and an occupation which shall raise them above the flirt, the manoeuvrer, the mischief-making tale-bearer. Keep your girls' minds narrow and fettered — mey will still be a plague and a care, sometimes a disgrace to you: cultivate them— give them scope and work—mey will be your gayest companions in health; your tenderest nurses in sickness; your most faithful prop in age. (392-393) By saying that "they willstillbe a plague" (my italics), Brontë implies that these daughters already are a plague. Brontë stresses that the lack of opportunities for middle-class women to lead fulfilling lives results volume 30 number 2 Ailing Women in the Age ofCholera in a lack of health, not just for individual women but for the nation. If women's desire for fulfillment is not taken seriously, consumption, decline—at another point in the novel, Brontë adds "slow fever" to this list-will be their futures (191...


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