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Monday, March 28, 2016

Charlotte Bronte on Heartless Priests & Career Women

The Bronte family church,
St. Michael And All Angels,
in Haworth, England

After a long break, I'm diving into the Bronte sisters' novels again. This time, it's Shirley, by Charlotte Bronte. She paints a vivid portrait of Yorkshire, England in the early nineteenth century. Two aspects of life she especially concentrates on are the role of priests and women. 

In Shirley, Charlotte Bronte introduces us to a trio of Curets, who are ruled with an iron hand by Reverend Helstone. The Curets seem disinterested in practical matters, and spend much of their time drinking and arguing. Reverend Helstone led his wife to an early grave, and regards his niece Caroline as property. He sends her off each day to be educated by the sister of Robert Moore, the local mill owner, but refuses to have a real conversation with her. 

After he has a dispute with Robert Moore, Reverend Helstone cuts short her lessons and forbids her to meet or speak with either again. Not only does this leave Caroline with nothing to do each day, but Robert's sister was a friend, and she had fallen in love with Robert. She grows depressed in her alienation, begins to see her future as an old maid, and wastes away. When she tries to take command of her life, and give herself something to live for, he refuses to allow her to work as a governess. He decides instead that all her ills will be cured if he buys her a pretty dress.

This portrait of a hard, cold, woman-hater as a priest is an interesting factor in Shirley. I don't know much about Charlotte's upbringing, but her father was a priest in the Church of England, and she grew up in the parsonage. I can't help but wonder if her depiction of Reverend Helstone, and his assistant priests, is in some ways a reflection of him. Even the name she gave him, a combination of Hell and Stone, seems suggestive, not just of the roles and characters of English priests, but also the types of sermons they preached.

But again, Shirley reflects a society in which women's roles were rather limited. When she meets the title character, Caroline shares her desire to have a career. But in some ways, Caroline is glad she doesn't, as working women tend to get hard and masculine as a result of their careers.

I wonder what Charlotte Bronte would think of priests, and the increased number of professional, career women, in contemporary society.

Dragon Dave

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