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121 “Virgin Solitude”: Envisioning aTextual Space for Spinsters in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley A n na Lepin e • “I wonder we don’t all make up our minds to remain single.” —Caroline Helstone in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley1 The marriages that close Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (1849) provide a disconcerting reminder of how difficult it was for a nineteenth-century woman to aspire to a single life. Although the novel celebrates feminine mythology and female independence, its closure unsettlingly traps its two heroines inside the very romance plot conventions it has been contesting; like its eponymous heroine, the novel itself seems to be“conquered by love, and bound with a vow” (637). In Shirley, there is no question that marital vows restrict Shirley’s and Caroline’s freedom and independence.Yet Brontë inserted another, overlooked ending in Shirley, one which provides a contrast and an alternative to the traditional marital closure. In two strange proleptic moments, the narrator projects the fates of two minor characters, Rose and JessyYorke, two decades into the future, chronologically well beyond the confines of the marriage ending.2After summarily dispensing with the domestic Jessy by describing her early grave, Brontë’s narrator creates for the independent Rose a new textual space, a lush and fertile wooded“virgin solitude” (150).Throughout the novel, Brontë and her heroines express their awareness of the constraints a romance plot imposes on women’s characterization and destinies; yet, in the novel’s plot itself, aging spinsters are ridiculed and marriageable young heroines are tamed, leading to marriage as a seemingly inevitable conclusion. However, RoseYorke’s scene of virgin independence, if read as an alternate ending to Shirley, not only provides a hopeful answer to the novel’s questions about female independence and spinsterhood, but also highlights how women writers may subvert narrative form by writing outside the lines of theVictorian marriage plot. Brontë’s narrator hints at her subversion of the romance tradition from the second paragraph of Shirley when she corrects her reader’s potential reverie: “If you think, from this prelude, that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you never were more mistaken” (5).Yet because the novel’s final pages contain a double wedding, many scholars have viewed Brontë as capitulating to nineteenth-century novelistic conventions and failing to allow her victorian review • Volume 33 Number 1 122 female characters to fulfill their potential. Shirley Foster, for example, argues that in mid-Victorian fiction, although both authors and characters challenge the notion of “marriage as the supreme female fulfillment,”“sooner or later, romance triumphs” and the heroines marry (217). Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar also contend that Brontë was caught within theVictorian conventions she deplored. In The Madwoman in the Attic, they argue that despite arguments for female independence in the body of the novel, Brontë was “enmeshed in essentially the same male-dominated structures that imprison the characters in all her books” (373).The ending of Shirley, they claim, is Brontë’s attempt to explain“why the only‘happy ending’ for women in her society is marriage” (395).The projection of Rose’s future beyond the confines of the concluding weddings, however, suggests that Brontë, aware of the limitations of the genre, sought and developed an alternative “happy ending” for the spinster. Indeed, Brontë’s repeated allusions to and subversions of romance in the main plot as well as in inset stories told by Shirley contradict the notion that the novel’s ending is the place to look for answers. Sally Greene usefully points to Brontë’s “refusal to impose a meaning on the conclusion” (352). Rather than treat the plot’s resolution as a failure, Greene persuasively argues that “the novel’s repeated references to the process of interpretation … would have encouraged a nineteenth-century audience to look beyond the novel’s ending for its real message” (352).The burden of meaning is left with the reader, who must look past the narrative form for other interpretive clues.3 One way in which form can be subverted is through the use of a “narrative annex,” a term coined by Suzanne Keen in Victorian Renovations of the Novel. According to Keen, a variety...


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