Completist author reading, Old School

7. Shirley – 2/10

This was the first novel of this project that I’ve had real trouble sticking with – I battled with myself through the first two thirds of the book to keep reading, and it was only a day stuck ill in bed that gave me the opportunity to finish it. I suppose the foreword gave me plenty of warning, claiming that the book is as “unromantic as a Monday morning”, but still. 

Shirley is set in the West Riding of Yorkshire in the early nineteenth century, in a collection of villages suffering religious division, economic hardship due to the Napoleonic War and the start of industrialisation of the traditional cloth-making trade. We follow the rector’s niece Caroline through a year of her life as she falls in love with her Belgian mill-owning cousin, deals with her uncle’s inattention, meets and befriends a newcomer to the neighbour (Shirley herself – she doesn’t feature until at least 1/3 of the way through the book, which left me wondering if I’d missed something for the first 100 pages or whether the book should actually be called Caroline), becomes gravely ill, discovers who her mother is, and eventually comes to a happy ending. No huge plot spoilers there, I think – I suspect one rather needs the outline in order to understand what’s going on!

This was everything that Jane Eyre managed to steer just clear of: unnecessarily verbose, with pathetic girls falling in love and pining to death’s door, and with a cast significantly larger than one could really track comfortably.

It gets a 2/10 rather than a 1/10 partly because the writing is still elegant, and partly because there is a relatively satisfactory conclusion to the whole charade and thus a pleasing arc in the storyline. Still – not worth the hours.


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