History: This is the second novel published by Charlotte Bronte, in 1849. The novel's popularity led to Shirley becoming a woman's name. Before the publication of the novel, Shirley was an uncommon - but distinctly male - name and would have been an unusual name for a woman.
Plot: The novel opens with Robert waiting for machines to be delivered to his factory, machines that will let him employ even fewer people than earlier. Robert stays awake all night with company, but the machines are never delivered, smashed in the way by angry workers. Robert is a mill owner who is more ruthless about his workers than any other mill owner in town, but he needs to be so since he has inherited a business in debt, a factory that was already mortgaged and inefficiently run by his father. His elder brother became a private tutor and Robert took it upon himself to make the factory a profitable venture. Although he is determined to become successful in order to restore his family's honour and fortune, Robert's business difficulties continue, due in part to the continuing labor unrest, but even more so to the Napoleonic Wars and the accompanying Orders in Council which forbid British merchants from trading in American markets.
Robert is very close to Caroline Helstone, who comes to his house to learn French from his sister. Caroline worships Robert and he likes her too. Caroline’s father is dead and her mother had abandoned her, leaving her to be brought up by her uncle, the local priest Revd. Helstone. Caroline is penniless, and this leads Robert to keep his distance from her, since he cannot afford to marry for pleasure or love, he has to marry for money if he has to get his factory going again.
Caroline realizes that Robert is growing increasingly distant and withdraws into herself. Her uncle does not sympathise with her ‘fancies’ and because of her limited financial resources, she cannot leave the place, which is what she longs to do. She suggests taking up the job of a governess but her uncle dismisses it and assures her that she need not work.
Caroline cheers up a great deal, however, when she meets Shirley. Shirley is a landowner, an independent heiress whose parents are dead and who lives with Mrs. Pryor, an old governess. Shirley is lively, cheerful and full of ideas about how to use her money, how to help people and very interested in business concerns. Caroline and Shirley soon become very close friends; especially since they both dislike social hypocrisy and wish they could so something significant with their lives. As Caroline gets closer to Shirley, she notices that Shirley and Robert get along very well, which makes her think that they would end up marrying each other. Shirley likes Robert, is very interested in his work and concerned about him and about the threats that he keeps getting from his earlier employees, whom he laid off. The text shows both good and bad old employees, at times showing the real suffering of those who were honest workers and can no longer find good work, and at times showing how some people use losing work as an excuse to get drunk, fight with their previous owners and incite other people to violence. Shirley uses her money to help the poorest of the lot, but she is also motivated by the desire to prevent any attack on Robert, a motive that makes Caroline both happy and unhappy.
One night, Caroline and Shirley conclude from the behaviour of Robert and others that an attack is imminent, they go the mill together to warn Robert. They come too late and have to hide near the mill. But Robert is already prepared and he mounts a counter-attack. He successfully defeats the men and gets the ring leaders arrested, the whole encounter being witnessed by Shirley and Caroline from their hiding place.
After this incident, the whole neighbourhood is convinced that Robert and Shirley shall wed, the anticipation of which causes Caroline to fall sick. Mrs. Pryor comes to look after her, and realizes that Caroline is pining away. Every Tuesday, Caroline sits by the window sill, no matter how weak or tired, to catch a glimpse of Robert on his way to the market. Mrs. Pryor makes it a point to see what it is that Caroline looks out for, she now knows the cause of Caroline’s sorrow but is helpless; she continues her vigil in the sick room even as Caroline worsens daily.
In the meantime, Robert leaves for London without any concrete reason. Caroline thinks that even the glimpse that she got of him every Tuesday is taken away from her, and she feels that she has ‘nothing left to live for’ since there is no one who cares whether she lives or dies. Mrs. Pryor then reveals to Caroline what she has so far kept a secret – namely that she is her real mother, that she had abandoned her daughter because her daughter looked exactly like her husband – a husband who tortured her and made her life miserable. She did not have a lot of money and when her brother-in-law offered to bring up the child, she accepted it, took up her maiden name of Pryor and went off to become a governess. Caroline now has a reason to live – her ‘mamma’ and she begins to recover slowly, since she knows that she can go and live with her mother.
In the meantime, her uncle and aunt visit Shirley. They bring with them their son and his tutor. This tutor is Louis Moore, Robert’s elder brother – and he had taught Shirley when she was younger. Caroline is puzzled by Shirley’s behaviour towards Louis – the friendly girl who treats her servants as her own family is always haughty and formal with Louis and never seems to forget that he is a lowly tutor with no money of his own. Two people fall in love with Shirley and woo her, but she refuses both because she does not love them. Her uncle is surprised by this behaviour and wants her to marry someone respectable soon. The viscount of the area falls in love with Shirley and she likes him too, though she does not respect him and does not want to marry him. The neighbourhood, however, is certain that she will not refuse so favourable a match. The relationship between Shirley and Louis, meanwhile, continues to be ambivalent – there are days when Louis can, with the authority of an old teacher, ask Shirley to come to the schoolroom and recite the French pieces that she learnt earlier, and days when Shirley will completely ignore him through the day, not even speaking to him once even when they have breakfast, lunch and dinner at the same table. At the same time, when Shirley is upset, the only one she can confide in is Louis. When a supposed ‘mad dog’ bites Shirley and makes her think that she is likely to die early, no one can make her reveal what it is that makes her so sad. It is only Louis who insists and who gets the whole incident out of her, and Shirley makes him promise that if she is to be put to death because of rabies, it be his hand that delivers that final injection.
Robert returns one dark night, first stopping at the market and then returning to him home with a friend. The friend tells him that it is widely speculated that Shirley is to marry a rich man and asks him why he left when it seemed so sure that Shirley loved him and would have married him. Robert replies that he had assumed the same, and that he had proposed to Shirley before he left. But Shirley had at first laughed, thinking that he was not serious, and cried when she discovered that he was. She had told him that she knew that he did not love her, that he asked for her hand not for her but for her money and this decreased her respect for him. When Robert had argued that Shirley had shown concern for him, been open with him from the very beginning and discussed his business matters at length with him, she had said that she had esteem and affection for him, but not love and now even that esteem and affection were in danger. Robert walked away from that room filled with a sense of humiliation, even as he knew that she was right – that he had ignored his affection for Caroline and sought Shirley out primarily for her money. This self-disgust drove Robert away to London and he realized there that restoring the family name was not as important as self-respect and he had returned home, determined to close the mill if he had to, and go away to Canada and work hard and make his
fortune. Just as Robert finishes his narration, his friend hears a gunshot and Robert falls from his horse – the workers are finally avenged.
The friend takes Robert home and looks after him, and after a turn for the worse, Robert slowly gets better. A visit from Caroline revives him but she has to come secretly, hiding from her uncle and his friend and his family. Robert asks for Caroline’s forgiveness and tries to tell her what had happened with Shirley, but she stops him and tells him that she has forgiven him and that she got some idea from Shirley and does not need to know any more. She also predicts that Shirley is in love too, and that she is not ‘master of her own heart’. Robert soon moves back to his house and persuades his sister that the very thing the house needs to cheer it up is a visit by Caroline.
When Shirley refuses the viscount’s offer of marriage, her uncle is enraged and has a fight with her, after which he decides to leave the office. This mean that Louis will have to leave too, which emboldens him enough to make his declaration – he proposes to Shirley, despite the difference in their relative situations. Shirley agrees to marry him, though she has moments of indecision and panic at the thought of giving up her independence. The novel ends with Caroline and Shirley marrying the two brothers, Robert and Louis, respectively.
Opening Line: "Of late years, an abundant shower of curates has fallen upon the north of England."
Closing Line: "I only say, God Speed Him in the Quest."
Quotes: "At last, however, a pale light falls on the page from the window: she looks, the moon is up; she closes the volume, rises, and walks through the room. Her book has perhaps been a good one; it has refreshed, refilled, rewarmed her heart; it has set her brain astir, furnished her mind with pictures. The still parlour, the clean hearth, the window opening on the twilight sky, and showing its 'sweet regent', new throned and glorious, suffice to make earth an Eden, life a poem, for Shirley."