The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 3. Shirley
But this was in the domain of the ideal. In Charlotte’s home itself—except for her own book, and even of this there had been coarse criticism—there was nothing of attainment. Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, the works of her sisters, had passed without recognition. Anne, in her child’s morality, was labouring at a task unsuited to her talent and fine observation, while Branwell, her text, was drugging himself to death upstairs. The opening chapters of Shirley, begun in the first excitement of success, with their hard and not very legitimate characterisation of neighbouring curates, were lying on Charlotte Brontë’s desk. Reality, with its harsh surroundings, was not, after all, to be escaped from, and “Ferndean,” with its conquering triumph, had been but a castle in Spain. It was, therefore, in a mood of disillusionment that, after the bravura of the first chapters, the new story was continued, and very soon, coming nearer, though with hesitating steps, to the past, it is subdued to the mood. A great artist speaks again, and for the last time exquisitely, in the beautiful story of Caroline Helstone’s unavailing affection. Who, then, was Caroline—Ellen Nussey or Anne or Charlotte—and who was Robert, as distinguished from Louis Moore? It does not matter; we are listening to a tale of feeling.
In September, Branwell died, and, before the end of the year, when the main story was nearly finished, Emily. By June of the next year, with the death of Anne, Charlotte was alone.
To understand Charlotte Brontë masterpieces, it should be remembered that they were only compulsorily three-volume books. Jane Eyre was eked out with the St. John Rivers addition, and, when, after Anne’s death, Charlotte took up her pen to write the third volume of Shirley, the interest is shifted. The second plot of Louis Moore and Shirley was not an afterthought, but it reads like one. More vivid, doubtless, than the earlier part, it is far less full of meaning. In short, the recurrent tutor and pupil story, a story that will insist on being told whether consonant or not, is, here, but an addition. There are other weaknesses in Shirley. Caroline’s affair ends happily—perhaps a necessity of mid-Victorian fiction—Mrs. Pryor, though useful to the heroine as a confidante and a fair copy of the life, is amateur’s work, beneath the colour of the other characters, and out of the picture; but Robert and Hortense in their little parlour and Caroline in the twilight have a grace d’outre mer.
Unlike Jane Eyre, Shirley is not easy to read. Beautiful as is Caroline’s love-story, it is of another order of art altogether from that of the easy masterpiece—possibly of an even rarer order. There is the distinction between what is of great beauty and what is great.