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  • Pens, Pencils, and Realism
  • Elsie Michie (bio)

Keep reality distinctly before you, and paint it as accurately as you can.

george henry lewes, "Recent Novels"

It has been notoriously difficult for critics to give Charlotte Brontë's Shirley (1849) the kind of attention that has been paid to both Jane Eyre (1847) and Villette (1853). Negative reviews have dogged the novel since it first appeared, [End Page 269] and George Henry Lewes announced that "it cannot be received as a work of art" (qtd. in Allott 165). Such judgments have obscured the fact that the formal experimentation that Brontë undertook in that book produced a novel that played a key role in what Franklin Gary has described as "the most striking characteristic of English literary criticism in the middle of the century—the transition from one set of critical principles to another," from "a decided Romantic bias" to the "champion[ing] of 'realism'" (526). I read Shirley as a deliberate act of literary criticism. In its opening chapters, Brontë twice stops to define the nature of realistic writing. In the novel's second paragraph, she eschews the "romance" that she assumes readers of Jane Eyre will expect, offering instead "something real, cool, and solid" (3). In chapter 5, as she sets out to describe Robert Moore's cotton factory, she explains that "instead … of harrowing up my reader's soul, and delighting his organ of Wonder, with effective descriptions of stripes and scourgings" (59), she will provide nuanced pictures of industrial life. Both passages reject one form of representation, the melodramatic and wonder-inducing, in favour of another, more realistic one. Through these authorial interventions, Brontë identifies the first step in a formal shift that would redefine the nature of British fiction in the second half of the nineteenth century, moving it away from practices like those of the early Charles Dickens to practices like those of George Eliot.

Perhaps responding to Lewes's insistence that Jane Eyre included "too much melodrama and improbability, which smack of the circulating library" (692), Brontë wrote to him in January 1848 that "if I ever do write another book, I think I will have nothing to do with what you call 'melodrame': I think so, but I am not sure" (Letters 10). When she did write that book, Shirley, she opened it by asking her readers, "Do you anticipate sentiment, poetry, and reverie? Do you expect passion, stimulus, and melodrama?" and then announcing, "Calm your expectations, and reduce them to a lowly standard" (3). Returning to the question of melodramatic representations in the passages that lead up to the cotton factory, Brontë acknowledges that "rules, no doubt, are necessary in such cases, and coarse and cruel masters make coarse and cruel rules, which, at the time we treat of at least, they used to enforce tyrannically." However, she insists that in her novel, "neither the master nor overlooker spoke savagely; they were not savage men"; "child-torturers, slave masters and drivers, I consign to the hands of jailers" (59). Here, Brontë is thinking of the social problem novels of the 1830s and 1840s, works such as Dickens's Oliver Twist (1837) and Nicholas Nickleby (1838–39), which dwell on the brutality of the workhouse and the school, as well as Frances Trollope's The Life and Adventures of Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw; or Scenes on the Mississippi (1836) and The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy (1840), which dramatize the violence and tyranny of the slave plantation and the cotton factory. (Brontë had written to her publisher as she was working on Shirley to confess that "details—Situations 'which' I do not understand and cannot personally inspect, I would not for the world meddle with, lest I should make even a [End Page 270] more ridiculous mess of the matter than <even> Mrs. Trollope did in her 'Factory Boy'" [Letters 23].)

In Shirley, Brontë deliberately turns away from all such exaggeratedly melodramatic representations, announcing that "though I describe imperfect characters (every character in this book will be found to be more or less imperfect, my pen refusing to draw anything in the model line), I have not undertaken to handle...


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