- Charlotte Brontë's Shirley and the Consolations of Natural History
A language that is ever greenThat feelings unto all impart,As hawthorn blossoms, soon as seen,Give May to every heart.—John Clare, "Pastoral Poesy"
"If I ever do write another book," Charlotte Brontë wrote to George Henry Lewes in January 1848, "I think I will have nothing of what you call 'melodrame'" (Letters 2: 10). Stung by Lewes's critique of the romantic excesses of Jane Eyre (1847), Brontë resolved to avoid the trappings of melodrama and romance in her future work. Apropos, the opening chapter of Brontë's second novel, Shirley (1849), warns readers that they will not find "passion, and stimulus, and melodrama" in the pages that follow but "something real, cool, and solid; ... unromantic as Monday morning" (5). Set in the north of England during the final years of the Napoleonic Wars, Shirley incorporates a series of ominous events that unfolded in Yorkshire, including a machine-breaking incident, a Luddite riot, and an assassination attempt on a local mill owner. If these events were not enough to temper all hints of romance in Shirley, Brontë's emphasis on the unmarried women of the neighborhood would be. The novel illustrates how Caroline Helstone, the niece of a local parson, unexpectedly faces the prospect of spinsterhood, thus becoming one of many surplus bodies in an overstocked market. According to Sally Shuttleworth, the unmarried women and unemployed mill workers in Shirley are signs that healthy circulation within the matrimonial and labour markets has been blocked off and that ordinarily productive economies have closed down.1 But these surplus bodies are also signs that the novel holds no promise of romantic abundance and, perhaps, no promise of the aesthetic pleasures that often come with it in Brontë's writing.
Firmly anchored in frozen markets and frustrated desire and seeded with warnings about "passion" and "stimulus," the novel might seem an inhospitable place for aesthetic flourishes; yet, as I will argue, Shirley is replete with exuberant passages of natural description that sharply contrast with the "barren stagnation" of its stalled love and labour plots (184). Brontë brings the full strength of her poetic abilities to bear on the landscape and atmosphere [End Page 118] depicted in Shirley—"the green brow of the Common," "the deep valley robed in May raiment," "the distant hills," and the horizon "shaded and tinted like mother-of-pearl; silvery blues, soft purples, evanescent greens and rose-shades, all melting into fleeces of white cloud" (212). In these descriptions, Brontë produces a painterly aesthetic that avoids passion and stimulus, as one reviewer noted when comparing the novel to Jane Eyre: "Shirley, though less passionate, has 'lovely pictures of nature'" (qtd. in M. Smith 2: 375, n. 1372). Alongside this visual imagery, we find a flurry of references to specific flowers, trees, and other plants, including roses, snowdrops, lilies of the field, nosegays, hawthorns, daisies, lilacs, woodflowers, wild roses, bluebells, mignonettes, sweet briars, hedge flowers, moss roses, lilies, jessamine, purple heath-bloom, oak, birch, and beech trees, and laburnums. These vernacular botanical names, along with the distant landscapes and atmospheric descriptions woven into the novel, are overt signs that, in Shirley, we will find an aesthetic system invented by an amateur naturalist who studied and observed plants, birds, and other forms of organic life. As Brontë canvasses the living world of rural Yorkshire in Shirley, she draws on natural history to develop a green sensibility that has yet to receive serious critical attention.
Few scholars have examined Brontë's passionate interest in natural history or her experimentation with it in her fictional writing. Archival sources show that Brontë was an avid reader of natural history who drew botanical sketches and, as Barbara T. Gates notes, kept a book of pressed ferns (36). Her novels and private letters also reveal her preference for natural histories by Gilbert White, John Audubon, and others who observed organic life in situ and communicated those observations in an easily accessible, vernacular language. By illuminating key similarities between Charlotte Brontë and the poet-naturalist John Clare, I contend that these vernacular modes of natural history became generative aesthetic resources for...