There is really no feeling, for me, quite like finishing a Charlotte Brontë novel. I leave the last page more intelligent, wiser, happier, and the world has a new look. She writes what she wants, and she doesn’t give a damn if you don’t want to read a five page digression on the emotions of the world’s first woman. In fact, I think she enjoys teasing you a bit by delaying the narrative. The last few pages of Shirley are taken up with a description of the “happily ever afters” of the miscellaneous characters that, from the first chapter, she had trained you to dislike. Her delight in delaying the resolution of the primary characters’ conflicts is palpable. It’s so easy to imagine a dark, quiet, little Charlotte Brontë laughing to herself as she writes four pages of silliness knowing how badly her reader will want to know the final events.
Like Villette and Jane Eyre, my copy of Shirley is thoroughly dog-eared because there are so many amazing passages, poignant lines, and piercing observations, that I couldn’t even begin to write them all down in my notebook. Charlotte Brontë’s novels are a drink of fresh water to anyone who delights in complex characters, playful and tricky narrators, and magnificent blasts of beautiful prose musings on poverty, the intelligence of women, the beauty of nature, the nature of beauty, a certain hymn or poem that has caught her attention, loneliness, depression, the sustaining grace of God, or the difference between ze French and the Northern English. And now (as Brontë would say), indulge me, dear reader, as I share some of my favorite lines from Shirley.
“Now, sir, do you being to be aware that is useless to scheme for me; that in doing so you but so the wind to reap the whirlwind? I sweep your cobweb projects from my path, that I may pass on unsullied. I am anchored on a resolve you cannot shake.”
“My consolation is, indeed, that God hears many a groan, and compassionates much grief which man stops his ears against, or frowns on with impotent contempt. I say impotent, for I observe that to such grievances as society cannot readily cure it usually forbids utterance, on pain of its scorn, this corn being only a sort of tinseled cloak to its deformed weakness. People hate to be reminded of ills they are unable or unwilling to remedy. Such reminder, in forcing on them a sense of their own incapacity, or a more painful sense of an obligation to make some unpleasant effort, troubles their ease and shakes their self-complacency.”
“At his heart he could not abide sense in women. He liked to see them as silly, as light-headed, as vain, as open to ridicule as possible, because they were then in reality what he held them to be, and wished them to be- inferior, toys to play with, to amuse a vacant hour, and to be thrown away.”
“Most people have had a period or periods in their lives when they have felt thus forsaken- when, having long hoped against hope, and still seen the day of fruition deferred, their hearts have truly sickened within them. This is a terrible hour, but it is often that darkest point which precedes the rise of day- that turn of the year when the icy January wind carries over the waste at once the dirge of departing winter and the prophecy of coming spring…Yet let whoever still grieves still cling fast to love and faith in God. God will never deceive, never finally desert him.”
“Cheerfulness, it would appear, is a matter which depends fully as much on the state of things within as on the state of things without and around us.”
And so you know that I am serious in my deep and abiding love for this little authoress, you should know that I do intend one day soon to have her brooding face tattooed on my body. And if I ever have a daughter, I will definitely name her Charlotte.